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Language Development after Adoption

by Deborah Hwa-Froelich

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My husband and I met our children and our grandchildren at a restaurant the other day. I stayed with my grandchildren at the table while their parents were busy gathering the children’s and their food. As I was monitoring all the activity and sat down beside my granddaughter, she remarked, “You’re very quiet today!” Coming from a 4 year-old, it sounded quite hilarious and made me think that she must have heard and stored this adult-like statement to retrieve it for the appropriate moment. This is an example of the process of language acquisition. Children listen to, process, store, retrieve, and produce language in dynamic and flexible ways. It is, at times, an amazing process to document and observe.

For internationally adopted children, they begin listening to and producing their birth language. After adoption, they often stop listening to and expressing their birth language to focus on learning an adopted language. For some children, their adopted families are able to provide a nanny or teacher who continues to speak to their children in their birth language while the parents and community may speak the children’s adopted language. Several researchers have documented the rapid acquisition of the adopted language where adopted children score within normal range on most standardized general language and articulation tests in their adopted language by 2 or 3 years post-adoption (Glennen, 2007; Hwa-Froelich & Matsuo, 2010; Roberts et al., 2005). Yet other studies have documented that internationally adopted children use special services more often, may have problems with social communication (Glennen & Bright, 2005), and have poorer school achievement than same-aged peers (van IJzendoorn & Juffer, 2010).

Though rare, in some cases internationally adopted children appear to be developing the necessary prerequisite skills for academic and social success but later on begin to have learning difficulty. I have assessed children between 1 to 4 years after adoption and have had a few children demonstrate speech, language, and cognitive delays later as opposed to early in their post-adoption development. For some children, their developing relationship with their parents may not develop which may adversely affect the children’s communication or their inattentive and overactive behaviors begin to negatively affect their learning and development. For other children, their speech fails to mature and what were considered developmental articulation errors at 2 years of age, become delayed articulation or phonological problems at 6 years of age. Because of these cases, I recommend that families seek follow-up evaluations if their child continues to demonstrate speech or communication problems at older ages or if the child develops new and different speech or communication problems.


Glennen, S. (2007). Predicting language outcomes for internationally adopted children.
Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, 50, 529-548.

Glennen, S., & Bright, B. J. (2005). Five years later: Language in school-age
internationally adopted children. Seminars in Speech and Language, 26(1), 86-
101. Retrieved from https://www.thieme-connect.de/ejournals/toc/ssl

Hwa-Froelich, D. A., & Matsuo, H. (2010). Communication development and differences in children adopted from China and Eastern Europe. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 41, 1-18. doi:10.1044/0161-1461(2009/08-0085)

Roberts, J. A., Pollock, K. E., Krakow, R., Price, J., Fulmer, K. C., & Wang, P. P. (2005).
Language development in preschool-age children adopted from China. Journal of
Speech, Language, and Hearing Research
, 48(1), 93-107. doi:10.1044/1092-

van IJzendoorn, M. H., & Juffer, F. (2010). Adoption is a successful natural intervention enhancing adopted children’s IQ and school performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 326-330. doi:10.1111/).0963-7214.2005.0039.x

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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Lisa February 8, 2011 - 1:56 pm

great point of view! Thanks for sharing.

Deborah Hwa-Froelich February 8, 2011 - 7:05 pm

You are very welcome!

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