Language and the Older Adopted Child: Understanding Second Language Learning

Adoption Parenting: Creating a Toolbox, Building Connections

In this article, Dr. Sharon Glennen highlights language learning considerations for parents of older internationally adopted children.

This excerpt originally appeared in Adoption Parenting: Creating a Toolbox, Building Connections (EMK Press, 2007).

Language Considerations

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Older internationally adopted children undergo the same changes in language and culture as younger adopted infants and toddlers. The key difference is that younger children have several years to develop English before beginning school. In contrast, most older adopted children have to begin school soon after arriving home. They are presented with the complex task of learning academic skills in a language they don't initially speak or understand.


One issue that clouds the language learning process for older children is the notion of bilingualism. Internationally adopted children are often considered to be bilingual when in reality they are not. Bilingual language learners are learning to speak two languages. Some children are exposed to both languages from birth; others learn one language at home and are later exposed to a second language when they reach school-age. In both cases, proficiency in the first language is used as a scaffold to help learn the second language.

In contrast, internationally adopted children are not bilingual. Prior to adoption, they learn a first language, the birth language, which is prematurely stopped when the child is adopted because most adoptive parents do not speak the language. The child then begins learning a new adopted first language (or second first language). The process of prematurely halting language development in the birth language before it fully develops is known as 'arrested language development.'

Loss of the birth language occurs quickly after adoption even in older children. Dr. Boris Gindis noted that Russian children adopted at ages four to eight lost expressive use of their language within three to six months of adoption and all functional use of the language within a year. In summary, internationally adopted children are only bilingual for a very short window of time after adoption.

The loss of the first language before the new adopted language develops leaves the internationally adopted child in a linguistic and educational limbo. Unlike the bilingual child who has a strong first language to fall back on, the internationally adopted child has no language until English develops. This lack of a functional language is not an issue for younger children who have several years to develop English before starting school. It is a significant issue for older adopted children who need to begin school right away. Because the children are not proficient in English, cognitive and linguistic development is often negatively affected.

Consider these facts: the typical six year-old understands over 20,000 English words. A five-year-old child adopted from another country would need to learn an average of 54 new words every day in order to fully catch up in language comprehension abilities by age six. If the catch up timeframe is stretched out to two years, the adopted five year-old would still need to learn an average of 27 new words every day to fully catch up by age seven. However, while the adopted child has been playing catch-up, his six year-old friends have also added an average of 5,000 words to their vocabulary. By age seven, the typical child understands 25,000 words. In order to fully catch up within a two year window, the adopted five year old needs to learn an average of 34 words per day. In summary, expecting older adopted children to develop proficient English language skills within one or two years of adoption is unrealistic.

Language proficiency

Learning a new language to proficiency takes years. Although internationally adopted children are not bilingual, information about second language learning in bilingual children provides some insights into what to expect. Cummins studied second language learning in a large number of bilingual children. He determined that proficiency in the first language was the single best predictor of learning a second language to proficiency. It is important for parents to determine if the child had difficulty understanding or speaking the birth language. Children who spoke the birth language well should easily pick up English. In contrast, children who had difficulty speaking or understanding the birth language will likely need extra help to learn English. Cummins divided the development of language proficiency into two levels.

The first level is known as Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS). BICS proficiency is attained when bilingual children are fluent in a second language for day-to-day social interactions or interactions that have lots of contextual cues. This level of fluency is achieved quickly, typically within one to three years of exposure to a second language. BICS fluency often masks the fact that the child hasn't mastered full comprehension of the language.

The second level of proficiency is known as Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALPS). This level indicates the child has acquired all vocabulary and grammar concepts necessary to have full language proficiency in the academic setting, especially academic situations with reduced contextual cues. This level of proficiency takes anywhere from five to nine years to achieve.

The concept of swiss cheese is a good analogy for understanding the language abilities of a child who has BICS fluency without CALPS mastery. Although the overall size and structure of the cheese is there, it is riddled with holes placed in unpredictable places. The holes occur when:

  • The child doesn't know certain vocabulary words.
  • The child knows the words but hasn't learned all of their subtle shadings in meaning.
  • The child knows the words but lacks the correct context for understanding them.

One example is the older adopted boy who decided to make a picture of a dugout for his learning project on Native Americans. When he finished, he proudly showed his mother a picture that looked like a baseball stadium. Another child wanted to know why there was no 'fast hand' on a clock. When told that some clocks don't come with second hands, he replied: "No, it has a second hand, it's missing the third hand." The reality is that most children adopted at older ages will lack full proficiency in English for many years and may require extra tutoring or speech and language services to keep up academically. Because proficiency in spoken language is the basis for developing skills in written language, older internationally adopted children who have not achieved CALPS levels of language proficiency are at significant risk for having academic difficulty.

Speech and Language Services for Older Adopted Children

The older internationally adopted child is not truly bilingual and will not have proficiency in the new adopted language for several years. This creates a dilemma for the child who is having educational or language difficulties in school. The American educational system is set up to:

  1. Provide special education services for children with delayed language development or language learning disorders, through the federally mandated Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Part-B (IDEA).
  2. Provide bilingual education services for second language learners through ESL programs developed at the level of the local school district. The school-age internationally adopted child who hasn't developed full English language proficiency is like a square peg trying to fit into round program holes. Neither type of program fits exactly. Increasing the problem is the difficulty of validly assessing academic or language abilities in a child who is not proficient in any language.

When children adopted at older ages enter school, the typical first response of the school program is to offer bilingual education services. Parents need to realize that bilingual education programs are not mandated by the federal government. The extent and scope of services is left up to the local school district. The only exception is when state law, such as California's Proposition 227, mandates bilingual education policy across all districts within a state. Therefore bilingual education programs vary widely from state to state, and school district to school district. Common bilingual education models include the following:

English Classrooms with Support

  • All instruction is provided in English in regular classrooms
  • Individual tutoring provided as needed
  • English as a Second Language Pull-Out services>
  • Minimal teacher modification of instruction
  • Teaching is focused on academics

Bilingual Classrooms

  • Teaching occurs in English and the birth language
  • Teaching is focused first on academics and second on English language mastery
  • Transitional Bilingual Classrooms—shift from the first language to English quickly
  • Maintenance Bilingual Classrooms—shift from the first language to English gradually

Sheltered Immersion Programs

  • Teaching is in English with substantial modifications designed to increase student comprehension of the material (i.e., added pictures, shortened directions, simplified vocabulary, etc.)
  • Teaching is focused on academics and English language mastery

Most schools offer classroom support services for bilingual children. Schools with high numbers of culturally diverse children offer bilingual classroom programs, however the instructional language is usually Spanish. Sheltered immersion programs are offered by school districts that have many children speaking a number of different first languages. Children from various cultures are merged together into the same sheltered immersion classroom.

Although English as a Second Language (ESL) Programs are better than nothing, they do not fit the internationally adopted child because the child is not truly bilingual. As stated before, bilingual children have a first language that can be used for instruction if a concept isn't understood in English. In contrast, when internationally adopted children do not understand concepts in English, there is no other language to fall back on.

A better classification for newly adopted school-age children is to consider them as having Limited English Proficiency (LEP). The classification of LEP indicates that a child is not proficient in English to a level needed for academic achievement and the classification of LEP can be made regardless of the child's proficiency in the first language.

Special Needs

Children who need more than bilingual education services need to qualify for speech and language or other services under the federal IDEA-Part B act. The federal government wisely states in its regulations that all children needing services under IDEA should be assessed in their first language. These mandates were created so children who didn't speak English proficiently weren't unnecessarily pushed into the special education system. The problem for many internationally adopted children is that by the time someone identifies that special services might be needed, the child has lost the first language and is not yet proficient in English. The 'Catch 22' is that the child now has no language to use for valid testing, yet needs to have language skills tested in order to qualify for speech and language services.

Parents need to advocate for their children and remind professionals that the internationally adopted child's first language, and only language, is now English. If the child is not proficient in English, the child is not proficient in any language and therefore at significant academic risk. One way to resolve these issues is to provide better documentation of the child's language abilities prior to adoption. Parents adopting older children should try to obtain information on the child's language development in the native country. Ask the orphanage or school staff to put their language or academic concerns in a brief note that can be translated at a later date. If the child is known to have language delays prior to adoption, the documentation can be used to help qualify the child for immediate speech and language services upon entering school.

If orphanage or school staff feel the child is delayed, parents are urged to have the child's skills evaluated in the birth language within the first two to three months home. If the assessment takes place after three months home, the child's birth language will already have begun to disappear which will lower test scores. The assessment should focus on the child's language, cognitive, and academic abilities. These skills should preferably be evaluated by a speech language pathologist or psychologist who speaks the birth language. If a professional who speaks the language is unavailable, then a translator can assist. The American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA) maintains a registry of speech language pathologists who are proficient in other languages. ASHA can be contacted for referral information via their website,

Speech and language issues are an important concern for the older internationally adopted child. Parents and professionals who are actively dealing with language learning following adoption are urged to learn more about bilingual language learning, and educational law regarding bilingual language services and IDEA.

About the Author

Sharon Glennen, PhD, CCC-SLP is the Department Chair of Audiology, Speech Language Pathology & Deaf Studies at Towson University. Dr. Glennen is the parent of three children, the two youngest adopted as toddlers from Russia. Portions of this document were first published in Glennen, S. (in press). Language development following international adoption. In Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption (FRUA), Medical Issues Facing Our Children (2d Ed.). Merrifield, VA: FRUA Press.


Glennen, Sharon. (2007.) "Language and the Older Adopted Child: Understanding Second Language Learning." Adoption Parenting: Creating a Toolbox, Building Connections. Pgs. 106-109. Warren, NJ: EMK Press. Reprinted with permission.


For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.
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As an ESL teacher (and aunt to an older internationally adopted child), this article has been extremely helpful. This really addresses the unique linguistic situation these students find themselves in.

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