The Language Development of Younger Internationally Adopted Children

In this excerpt from One Child, Two Languages, Patton O. Tabors, Ed.D. shares an overview of the environmental, physical, social, and emotional circumstances before and after adoption that might affect the language development of young children.

Information about the language development of older adopted children is also available on Colorín Colorado.

Case Study

ELLs Who Are Adopted

Maya is not considered a bilingual child, as she has not been in a situation in which the Chinese she was exposed to as an infant could continue to be supported. However, she is an English-language learner (ELL). She is one of a growing group of internationally adopted children who are being introduced into early childhood programs in the United States. The number of international adoptions from all age groups has grown from 7,093 in 1990 to 20,679 in 2006; a total of 247,225 children were brought to the United States during that period. In 2006, the most common countries of origin of internationally adopted children were China (6,493), Guatemala (4,135), and Russia (3,706). Overall, internationally adopted children in the United States come from 21 foreign countries, none of which is English-speaking (U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, 2007).

It is therefore increasingly important that early childhood educators have relevant information about this population of English-language learners. Because of their different circumstances, there are some definite differences that should be highlighted about these children as well.

Important Background Information

When an internationally adopted child comes to an early childhood classroom, there will be important information to collect from parents that will go beyond what is acquired using a basic questionnaire. It might be particularly important, then, to arrange to have an interview with the parents. A discussion of the areas that an interview might involve, and the reasons why these areas are of interest, follows.

The child's circumstances before adoption

The two main types of care situations that are common for internationally adopted children are orphanage care, which accounts for more than 80% of children, and foster care.

  • Orphanges: Children from China, Russia, and certain eastern European countries are most likely to have been in care in orphanage situations.
  • Foster care: Children from South Korea, Guatemala, and some parts of Romania will most likely have been in foster care (Meese, 2005).

In many countries where orphanages have been the norm, however, efforts are being made to increase the availability of foster care as awareness increases of the importance of stimulation and contact for young children (J.M. De Temple, personal communication, March 20, 2007).

Of course, knowing which of these two types of care a child was exposed to does not guarantee information about what that experience was like for the child. However, a commonly accepted generalization is that a child in foster care has been in a family-type setting in which everyday language was used to communicate with and around the child, whereas in an orphanage, each caregiver was responsible for many children and the child received less language input.

Institutional care

When Sharon Glennen, Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Towson University, spent 8 days visiting an orphanage in Russia while waiting to adopt her daughter, she found that her daughter was in a group of 10 toddlers who had 2 caregivers. Her observations were as follows:

  • Children were segregated into groupings based on age and ability. They were rarely allowed to play or interact with older children who might have served as language models.
  • Older toddlers ate independently at small tables with no adult interaction during meals.
  • Younger children who needed help...were fed by caregivers. However, the caregivers rarely talked to the children and spent most of the time talking to the other caregivers.
  • When children were carried, they were often held facing out, away from the caregiver. This limited interactions between caregiver and child.
  • The children spent all of their time in the orphanage sleeping/play area, or outside in a small section of the playground...They were never taken outside of the orphanage compound.
  • When children were talked to, it was typically in the form of simple commands such as "come here," "sit down," "don't do that." Across the 8 days of visits, there were only 3 – 4 instances of interactions where caregivers described objects, actions, or provided other types of "teaching language" experiences. (Glennen, 2006)

As a result,

Two of the oldest children in the orphanage group produced a single expressive word; the other children were not talking. Of concern was the low frequency of any communicative vocalizations, including babbling…Except for occasional cries, the children were eerily silent during their interactions…When the assistant director of the orphanage was asked if any of the children in the group were speaking, her response was, "None of the children are talking; it is to be expected." (Glennen, 2002, p. 337)

Health and development

Other than this lack of language stimulation, other features of institutional care have been identified as being detrimental to the development of young children. These features include poor health care, inadequate nutrition, exposure to environmental toxins and infectious diseases, limited opportunities for cognitive stimulation, rotating shifts of caregivers who have little or no training, and regimented requirements for daily living (Johnson & Dole, 1999).

Furthermore, many children are given up for adoption because of their birth history (e.g., low birth weight, prematurity, exposure to alcohol in utero, physical or medical handicaps) and the difficulties that their parents would have in caring for them (Johnson & Dole, 1999). Even Chinese infants, however, who are often abandoned simply because they are girls, have been found to have been affected in the same way by institutional care. Miller and Hendrie (2000) "concluded that children adopted from China demonstrate patterns of developmental and growth delays, as well as medical difficulties, similar to children from Romania, Russia, and other eastern European countries" (Meese, 2005, p. 62).

In a survey of adoptive parents of children from Romania, "Groze and Ileana (1996) reported that delays in height, weight, fine and gross motor skills, and social and language skills related to the length of time spent in the institution" (Meese, 2005, p. 159).

Improving care at institutions

To mitigate these effects of institutionalization, some countries have launched intensive efforts to improve the quality of programs serving orphans. In China, for example, organizations such as the Half the Sky Foundation work closely with authorities to improve the physical surroundings in orphanages, as well as providing training for nannies, early childhood educators, and foster families. Consequently, the effects of institutionalization may be ameliorated for some children who have access to these programs.

Given this information, it is important for early childhood educators to inquire about the type and quality of care that an internationally adopted child received prior to adoption and the length of time that the child received that care. Adoptive parents will also have some information about the child's reported health history and will most likely have developed more information along those lines since the child's arrival.

Impacts on hearing and behavior

Special attention should be paid to the possibility of multiple ear infections and their effect on hearing. It should also be kept in mind that behavioral difficulties that are caused by institutionalization, such as attachment problems exhibited as indiscriminate friendliness, inattention, and overactivity, and quasi-autistic features (Meese, 2005) may also occur.

The child's circumstances since adoption

Most internationally adopted children will spend considerable time within the family context before being exposed to group settings such as an early childhood classroom. During that time these children will have an opportunity to adjust to an entirely new set of personal circumstances and begin the process of learning to communicate in an entirely new language.

Unlike bilingual children who are placed in settings in which English is used but return daily to a home in which their first language is spoken, internationally adopted children are most often adopted by parents who do not have proficiency in the child's first language. Therefore, these children are completely cut off from the language that they have heard since birth. Consequently, it is necessary for them to acquire a first language a second time.

What researchers have found is that internationally adopted children, for the most part, begin to lose proficiency in their first language rapidly. At the same time, however, they begin to acquire skills in English extremely rapidly, some as rapidly as 2 weeks after adoption (J. Snedeker, personal communication, November 17, 2006).

In fact, "the task and input of internationally adopted children appear to closely parallel those of infant learners. Like infants, adopted children get prolonged exposure to their new language in the context of meaningful social interactions" (Snedeker, Geren, & Shafto, 2007, p. 81) with family members and other important individuals all day long. Consequently, a prolonged silent period is not typical of these children.

Comparing how language develops

In Table 4, a comparison is made among infants acquiring English as a first language, young bilingual children learning English as a second language, and young internationally adopted children learning English as a second first language.

Table 4

Comparison of linguistic circumstances of:

  • Infants learning English as a first language (L1)
  • Young bilingual children learning English as a second language (L2)
  • Young internationally adopted children learning English as a second first language (2L1)


Infants: Birth – 30 months

Young bilingual children

Young internationally adopted children

Linguistic history

English = L1

Another language= L1

Another language = L1



English = L2

English = 2L1

Linguistic environment






Various amounts of L1 and L2




Various amounts of L1 and L2







 L1  acquisition  at expected  rate

 Maintenance,  but perhaps  lack of  increase in L1;  various rates  of development  of L2

 Rapid loss of  L1; rapid  development of  2L1


In the column related to infants, we can see that the consistency of their language input is total (English as first language — L1 — all the way down the column), and although we know that some children receive more input than others in their first language, on the whole, there is a lot of support for these children to acquire English.

Young bilingual children, in contrast, are learning two languages, the first or home language (L1) and English (L2). Life circumstances provide highly variable amounts of input in these two languages to these children. Decisions that parents make about which community to live in, which school situations their children are placed in, and which language is spoken at home all have an impact on how much these children maintain their first language and how rapidly they may acquire their second language.

Internationally adopted children, except in rare circumstances, will have heard a first language (L1) in their infancy but then will be exposed almost exclusively to English, their second first language (2L1), after adoption. For most of these children, this will mean a rapid loss of their first language and a rapid uptake of English. Unlike bilingual children, they do not need to spend time and cognitive effort moving back and forth between two languages. For the most part, they are also older than infants and therefore may move much more rapidly through the process of acquisition than infants.

Clearly, if this is not happening, as was the case with Maya, then it is important to consider the need for intervention.


The author wishes to acknowledge the help provided by Jeanne M. De Temple in the development of the material in this chapter, including providing references to research, revelations of personal experiences, and life-sustaining green muffins.


Selection of Chapter 11, "What to Expect, How to Help," (pp. 187-191) from One Child, Two Languages: A Guide for Early Childhood Educators of Children Learning English as a Second Language, Second Edition, by Patton O. Tabor. © 2008 by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc. Baltimore. Posted by permission of the publisher.


De Temple, J.M.  Personal communication. March 20, 2007.

Glennen, S.  (2002). Language development and delay in internationally adopted infants and toddlers: A review. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 11, 333-339.

Glennen, S. (2006). Orphanage care and language. Retrieved July 1, 2007, from

Groze, V., & Ileana, D.  ( 1996). A follow-up study of adopted children from Romania. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 13(6), 541-565.

Half the Sky Foundation. (n.d.) Home page. Retrieved July 3, 2007, from

Johnson, D., & Dole, K. (1999). International adoptions: Implications for early intervention. Infants and Children, 11(4), 34-35.

Meese, R.  (2005). A few new children: Postinstitutionalized children of intercountry adoption. Journal of Special Education, 39(3), 157-167.

Miller, L.C., & and Hendrie, N.W. (2000). Health of children adopted from China. Pediatrics, 105(6), 67.

Snedeker, J. Personal communication. November 17, 2006.

Snedeker, J., Geren, J., & Shafto, C. (2007). Starting over: International adoptions as a natural experiment in language development. Psychological Science, 18(1), 79-87.

U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs. (2007). Immigrant visas issued to orphans coming to the United States. Retrieved May 23, 2007, from


For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.