Home Speech-Language Pathology Assessing Language Development in Internationally Adopted Children

Assessing Language Development in Internationally Adopted Children

by Deborah Hwa-Froelich

Photo by ClaTalpa

Being the proud grandmother of two bright and charming grandchildren, I can’t help but keep track of their development. My son often asks me to “assess” his children’s development. He, like many parents, hope that their children are like Lake Wobegone residents in that they are all above average. My grandson is like most toddlers, babbling and using CVs and CVCs with meaning but sometimes we adults have to fill in missing consonants and words to arrive at his intended communication. Still my son wants to know, is he developing typically?

Parents who have adopted children from abroad often ask me the same question, is my child developing like other children who have been adopted from abroad? Before children are adopted, they are born in different countries of origin and exposed to different birth languages ranging from African or Asian languages to Russian or other Slavic languages. When children have been exposed to different languages and are adopted by a family who does not speak the child’s birth language, the child stops listening to or expressing his or her birth language within 3 to 6 months (Nicoladis & Grabois, 2002). Regardless of the child’s birth language (Russian, Korean, or Chinese), research studies, clinical reports and case studies have provided evidence that children between the ages of 1 and 5 years old who are adopted from different countries demonstrate similar phonetic and phonological development with little first language interference (Glennen, 2007, 2009; Pollock, 2007). If a child demonstrates poor intelligibility or delayed articulation or phonological development, they should be referred for assessment by a speech-language pathologist familiar with research on internationally adopted children.


Glennen, S. (2007). Predicting language outcomes for internationally adopted children. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, 50, 529-548. doi:10.1044/1092-4388(2007/036)

Glennen, S. (2009). Speech and language guidelines for children adopted from abroad at older ages. Topics in Language Disorders, 29(1), 50-64. doi:10.1097/TLD.0b013e3181976df4

Nicoladis, E., & Grabois, H. (2002). Learning English and losing Chinese: A case study of a child adopted from China. The International Journal of Bilingualism, 6(4), 441-454. doi:10.1177/13670069020060040401

Pollock, K. E. (2007). Speech acquisition in second first language learners (Children who were adopted internationally). In S. McLeod International guide to speech acquisition (Pp. 107-112). New York: Thompson-Delmar Learning.

More abstracts of Karen Pollock’s research on speech-language development in children adopted internationally

Deborah Hwa-Froelich, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, is a Saint Louis University associate professor and International Adoption Clinic coordinator with interests in social effects on communication such as culture, poverty, parent-child interaction, maternal/child health, and international adoption.

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kimberly Knoch January 19, 2011 - 4:18 pm

Awesome article from Dr. Froelich! I am an internationally adoptive parent and always marvel at children’s linguistic ability to transition from one language to another.

Deborah Hwa-Froelich January 29, 2011 - 6:16 pm

Thanks for your comment Kimberly! I continue to be amazed at the resilience and developmental catch up of children who are adopted from abroad!

Megan Stephens April 15, 2011 - 3:18 pm

Thanks for the quick summary. The only time the issue gets tricky for me is when, soon after adoption, the child enters a dual immersion school focusing on his or her former L1. Suddenly analyzing transfer or interlanguage errors in the child’s two languages gets quite complicated! Any advice?

Deborah Hwa-Froelich April 17, 2011 - 6:07 pm

Hi Megan,
Thanks for your comment. If parents desire to continue their child’s learning in their birth language then the child’s language learning experience is more like a bilingual child. However, instead of communication continuing to be basic interpersonal conversation (BICS) in the child’s birth language, they are exposed to cognitive academic language (CALP) when learning language in an immersion school. Exposure to English at home becomes the child’s basic interpersonal communication as well as cognitive academic language at school. In other words, children adopted internationally who are exposed to their birth language in an immersion school and a second language at home and at school differ from other sequential bilingual learners who begin and continue learning their birth language at home and learn a second language at school. Given the interference you are observing, I would compare their interlanguage errors to published research on bilingual speakers.

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