Monday, May 23, 2011

International Adoption and Language Part 2: What To Expect

In International Adoption and Language Part 1, I filled you in on emerging research being done by Dr. Sharon Glennen about the language development of children who were adopted internationally. I told you when to worry and--more importantly--when not to. I also listed specific indicators that can help you determine when it might be a good idea to seek out a speech and language evaluation during your little one's first year home with you. That's not all the information we have, though.  Dr. Glennen also has data on what to expect after one year home, a turning point at which most children who were adopted under the age of two have successfully made the language transition. Here's what she has to say:

If your little one arrived home before the age of 24 months, and has been home for one year:
  • Her receptive language (what she understands) should now be within normal limits for her current age,
  • Her articulation (how she produces speech sounds) should be within normal limits for her current age,
  • Her expressive language (the words she uses and how she puts them together into sentences), should be at least low average,
  • Her MLU (her average sentence length)  may be slightly behind average. This means that her sentences may be shorter than her peers' sentences, but not substantially so. This slight lag in her sentence length may last until the age of four. 
This information is important on two counts. First, it is truly astounding to realize that most infants and toddlers who lose their birth language and change over to a new language will have almost completely caught up within one year of being home; this certainly speaks to the amazing resiliency of children.  Second, it suggests that if a child was adopted internationally under the age of two and has been home for at least one year, significant delays in expressive communication, receptive language, and articulation should be considered true speech-language delays that require intervention.* Parents should not hesitate to advocate for their children if they have delays in speech or language after one year home, as long as their child was adopted before the age of 24 months. 

What, though, if a child arrives home after the age of 24 months? Unfortunately, these adoptions are less frequent and so our information is less complete, making our guidelines a bit fuzzier. What we do know, however, is this:

If your little one who was adopted internationally arrives home after the age of 24 months:
  • She will probably lose her birth language quickly, within about three months home.
  • You can expect a period of no language proficiency, where she is no longer fluent in her birth language but has not yet mastered her new language.  Both of you may experience frustration during this time. Prepare for this, expect this, and work through it. It will pass. 
  • She should start to develop a significant vocabulary in her new language within 3-6 months.
  • She will likely acquire what is called Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) within one year home. This means that she'll be able to use language to interact with others fairly well within one year home. 
  • Her Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP), however, will take longer to emerge.  CALP is the language she will need to succeed academically; it includes the more sophisticated vocabulary and language skills that allow her to work with written and spoken language to do things like compare, contrast, analyze, and infer. Depending on the age your child arrives home, it may take her up to 5-9 years to develop CALP.  This is an important point to remember because it suggests she may need extra support during her school years, even if it seems like she has mastered her new language during informal interactions with her family and her peers.
It can be hard to know just what to expect when it comes to language development in your child who was adopted internationally.  Even with all the data that is now emerging, it can still be confusing at times. Dr. Glennen's data, though, at least gives us a basic map for guidance as we help our children transition from one language to another.

*At one year home, children adopted prior to 24 months of age should receive a standard score of at least 80 on the Expressive Communication and Receptive Language sub-tests of the Preschool Language Scale and on the Goldman-Fristoe Test of Articulation.

Glennen, Sharon, (2009). Assessment and Intervention for Internationally Adopted Children: ASHA Self Study. Rockville, MD


  1. My kids were both adopted internationally. They have developed amazing language skills. My difficulty has been in trying to find ways to help them keep their birth language (or at least make it easier for them to learn when they are older)...

  2. Ah, yes...a very hard thing to do unless they are around those who are fluent in their birth language!

  3. Thanks for the information. My son came home at 10 months old from Ethiopia. He has now been home for 22 months (he will be 3 years old in October). He has been diagnosed with a severe receptive delay and moderate expressive delay. He has been accepted to a preschool program that offers extra support for special needs, but I honestly wonder if he does not need more specialized support from a speech therapist. The problem is that none of the speech therapists in our area will take on children less than 3 years old. Any suggestions or ideas for us? If you prefer to email me, I can be reached at shelley @ sundancemoondance . com