By Robin Hilborn, Family Helper editor

When children arrive from a foreign land, speaking a foreign language, how does having to learn a new language affect them in school?

The issue of language development in adoptees is very important, especially for children who've spent time in the impoverished environment of an orphanage and speak their native tongue poorly.

Perhaps you are asking questions such as:

• Which grade should my child start in?

• Should she spend an extra year in kindergarten?

• Does a newly-arrived four-year-old need ESL (English as a Second Language) support?

• Should I put her in French Immersion?

An authoritative article has been written by Boris Gindis of BGCenter (see References, below): "Language-related Issues for International Adoptees and Adoptive Families".

You can read the article at BGCenter's web site, but it's long and complex, so I've summarized it here.

How language grows

Language plays a key role in psychological competencies such as perception, memory, cognition and goal-oriented behaviour. It is used in three domains: communication, self-regulation and thinking [Vygotsky, 1986], and children are competent in all three by ages 3 to 5.

Language follows a "schedule of development". Proper development of language (and related capacities) depends on optimal input during a critical period of neurological growth. The sensitive period for language development is not from age 3 to 5 as was once thought, but the first two years of a child's life [Locke, 1993]. The rate of early learning—in the first months and years—determines the child's level of functioning for years to come.

Children of any culture tend to develop language at about the same rate. They first develop receptive language abilities, long before they express themselves by speaking. Babies at 9 to 12 months should already understand a large receptive vocabulary of "motherese" (baby talk) and words for food, diaper activities, play and bath time. Children who do not develop this receptive language before they speak are likely to have language problems which persist into early school age.

A child's expressive language starts slowly: at her first birthday she speaks just a few words; six months later her expressive vocabulary increases at least ten times; by 2 she is routinely stringing words into simple sentences; and at 3 she may have a repertoire of 1,000 words. If a child at 3 speaks only about three dozen words that only her mother can understand, and grunts and points to get what she wants, then that child has a language problem.

Delays in orphanage children

But for orphanage children, the common picture at 3 is incomprehensible speech with only a few phrases used, very limited vocabulary, poor understanding of what was said, and slowness in learning new words. At 4 the same problems persist, with attempts to use somewhat longer sentences, usually with faulty grammar.

Russian psychologists found that about 60% of all 2-1/2-year-olds in an orphanage for pre-schoolers had no expressive language at all [Dubrovina, 1991]. One cause, they think, is a severe lack of enough quality and quantity of verbal interaction between child and adult during the so-called "critical periods of development" (ages 1 to 5). But the main cause is the very context of communication: orphanage babies seek physical contact and attention from an adult and do not need language to achieve this—eye contact suffices.

As neuroscience is showing us, early stimulation guides the process by which neurons interconnect in an infant's brain. What is the effect of an impoverished early environment? Child psychologist Dr. Bruce D. Perry (in The Advisor, Spring 1993) gives the impact on language: children raised with little or no exposure to verbal language never develop the neural apparatus needed for optimal speech or language development.

Consequently, speech and language disorders are common among institutionally-raised infants who have suffered early deprivation. Even very young children from institutions tend to have language problems. In the worst case, children may have not learned to communicate because nobody spoke to them. Moreover the longer a child stays in an orphanage, the greater the chance of language problems (and other problems, too).

Problems in learning English

Speaking English (or French) is the most crucial skill to be learned in an adopted child's first year in a new family, because the whole process of adjusting to a new life (new social situation, new culture, new school) is mediated by language.

The rule seems to be: children with well-developed first language skills can learn a second language easily. The reverse is true also … it seems that most children from institutions are weak in their mother tongue and therefore more challenged at learning their new language, English.

Apparently it's children between 4 and 8 who are most challenged in acquiring a new language. Those adopted before 4 have at least several years of their new language to help in their development, before they start school. Those adopted after 8 have learned to read and write in their native language and can transfer their cognitive language skills into their new language. Also, language problems in children over 8 are relatively easy to identify and rectify. Adopted children from 4 to 8 really fall into the cracks. Their language problems are hard to pinpoint, being disguised by the dynamic of acquiring a second language. When their problems become apparent, remediation may be quite difficult.

True, all adopted children will learn to speak English sooner or later. How fast they do so doesn't directly reflect their intelligence, which is only one factor affecting language acquisition. Also, practically all adopted children will learn to speak without an accent. The dividing line is puberty: those who pick up a language before puberty tend to lose their accent; after puberty they tend to keep it. And finally, a language not in use disappears—a child may arrive speaking Russian only, but without reinforcement she will lose her Russian and speak English only.

Which grade is appropriate?

How well your child has learned English is going to affect school placement. Trying to place an adopted child in school according to age may not work. There are some teachers who are going to think that a 7-year-old who arrived three months ago is "delayed" or "slow" because of her poor English. Yet that child may perform well academically in her native language.

In choosing a grade you should consider many factors, not just knowledge of English. The age-appropriate grade may impose an academic pressure which could lead to tremendous frustration for both child and parents. You don't want to combine academic pressure with culture shock, language problems and possible health and neurological problems. Placing a child in too high a grade is usually a more serious mistake than placing too low.

French Immersion?

As for adding another language … French Immersion may be a good choice for an adoptee when the parents are confident that her early beginnings have provided a solid foundation for English. However if your adopted child spent time in an orphanage and her language development didn't seem as easy, clear or competent as her peers, think twice about French Immersion. Reinforcing her English might be more beneficial than teaching her another language.

If your child is at high risk for learning disabilities you might also need to understand that verbal fluency gained in kindergarten and grade 1 French Immersion does not necessarily mean reading and writing French will follow easily. Verbal fluency is not the same skill as cognitive language mastery (see below).

Missing the basics in learning to read and write in English might be a big problem, too, if she starts to have difficulty in grades 2, 3 or 4 of French Immersion and then needs to be switched back to English, having missed getting those English reading and writing skills.

The two domains of language use

You may identify with the following experience described by Boris Gindis:

"A child was adopted well before her school age. Her Russian disappeared and her English is practically indistinguishable from native speakers. There was no apparent need for English as a Second Language instruction or for language therapy. No obvious problems with her academic work surfaced until second grade, when her reading and overall academic functioning started falling behind her classmates. Her teacher began reporting that she seemed not to understand the more complex reading stories, and she failed to follow multi-sequential instructions or to comprehend hypothetical questions. Finally she failed screening reading tests and her teacher is now worried how she will do during the upcoming school testing. Tensions may escalate to the point that "learning disability" may be heard. Unfortunately, it is not often that school personnel suggest that the child's conversational proficiency in English was not enough to ensure her academic success."

There are two aspects of language acquisition: CLF or Communicative Language Fluency, and CLM or Cognitive Language Mastery. Verbal fluency seems not to require any schooling: it is the basic language skills of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. CLF refers mainly to the spoken language needed for social interaction. With the help of a rich context—intonation, gestures—it is easy to understand the meaning of a linguistic message.

Consider that children adopted from abroad have been moved from their familiar smells, tastes, textures, emotional attachments and basic verbal communications to a strange place and a strange language. Even if they don't know the meaning of the words, they get clues from the context and learn to associate certain phrases with regularly occurring events.

In contrast, Cognitive Language Mastery refers to language as a tool of reasoning and a means to literacy. You get it through formal schooling and through developing literacy skills. In CLM you must understand the meaning of a text given few exterior clues, and this calls for specific conceptual and semantic knowledge of the language itself [Vygotsky, 1986].

In the growing child CLF forms first. Good fluency depends on the quality and quantity of the early communicative experience. Native speakers acquire vocabulary and grammar osmotically, through the parents' constant repetition, and these are the foundation for later Cognitive Language Mastery. The early language experience of native speakers predisposes them to do well at CLM. Children deprived of this early input will not do so well.

Perhaps you should suggest to your child's teacher that your child probably needs help in a particular aspect of language acquisition—conversational proficiency is not enough.

Remediation / Getting services

Our children from orphanages are behind in language because of environmental deprivation affecting their development. Combine this with other risk factors—attachment, sensory dysfunction, post-traumatic stress syndrome and behavioural issues—and you will appreciate the need to get quick and competent speech and language assessment and intervention for your child.

Sometimes children with delayed language skills catch up with no extra help or therapy. The problem with adopted children is that the neurological base of their development appears to be weaker than their peers'. Their chances for recovery on their own seem slimmer than in the general population and a wait-and-see approach may be inappropriate—you need to start remediation early and invoke the right therapy. Families tend to wait until their child learns some English before trying an assessment, but this just delays services to the child.

What is the right therapy? You start with evaluations (medical, psychoeducational and speech/language), done at the right time by the right professionals.

Unfortunately, one problem is that our doctors and teachers do not yet understand the types of problems common to institutionalized kids. Delayed language development is just one in a list of problems … attachment disorder, behavioural problems and so on. Your child needs an assessment, but most therapists and doctors do not have the ability to do a culturally appropriate and linguistically competent developmental and language assessment.


When your child is given a speech and language evaluation, ask specifically about Central Auditory Processing Disorder. CAPD refers to limitations in processing—filtering, sorting and combining—information in audible signals. A child may score well on picture vocabulary tests yet find it hard to respond to multiple commands, sequencing and answering questions. This may be misdiagnosed as conduct disorder because children do not follow verbal commands. Difficulty in reading comprehension or math skills may be apparent.

School services

Schools offer two language-related services: English as a Second Language (ESL) and Speech and Language Therapy. If ESL is available at your school, it is an extra help and support which you should take advantage of. If Speech and Language Therapy is available, your problem is proving your child is eligible.

In the opinion of Boris Gindis, many children from Russian orphanages aged 4 and up do need language remediation and sometimes they need speech therapy due to poor articulation. Language therapy should go on in parallel with ESL.

Home programming

To help your child at home (by yourself or with a tutor) you need time, motivation, skills, patience and—very important—correct methodology. There are lots of books and programs on this but the main thing is to have a structured, formal program of remediation in cognitive and language areas.

Boris Gindis uses a program called "Bright Start" [Haywood, 1992], aimed at pre-schoolers but appropriate for adopted children from 4 to 9 who because of early childhood deprivation are at high risk of learning failure in the primary grades. It is well equipped to handle them: it focusses on language for precognitive, cognitive and metacognitive operations which are prerequisites for learning in the primary grades.

Bright Start co-ordinates teacher and parent interventions: you ask the teacher to include Bright Start elements in the classroom; then you do a follow-up at home. It has seven units, taught for 30 to 40 minutes each day: self-regulation; number concepts; comparison; role-taking; classification; sequence and pattern; and letter-shape concepts.

Dr. Gindis believes that with proper use and hard work the Bright Start program can make a difference in your child's readiness for school.

There is a window of opportunity when you can effectively treat the damage done by environmental deprivation. Do not believe that your child's problems will disappear with time. Early evaluation and therapy is imperative.


Dubrovina, I., et al. Psychological Development of Children in Orphanages. Moscow, Prosveschenie Press. 1991.

Gindis, B. "Language-related Issues for International Adoptees and Adoptive Families," in T. Tepper, L. Hannon, & D. Sandstrom (eds.), International Adoption: Challenges and Opportunities. PNPIC, Meadow Lands PA. 1999.

Haywood, H.C., Bright Start: Cognitive Curriculum For Young Children. Charlesbridge Publ., MA. 1992.

Locke, J., The Child's Path To Spoken Language. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA. 1993.

Vygotsky, L., Thought and Language. MIT Press, MA. 1986 (originally published in 1934).


Adoption Medical Clinics. Doctors doing pre- and post-adoption assessments.

Adoption Resource Central - Institutional Care. Web sites, articles, books.

BGCenter - Center for Cognitive-Developmental Assessment, Rehabilitation and Training, 13 South Van Dyke Ave., Suffern NY 10901, 845-357-2512. Boris Gindis, director. Russian/English psychological services for children adopted from Eastern Europe and Russia. Pre-adoption document review; psycho-educational evaluation.

Parent Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child. Medical, developmental, emotional and educational needs of children adopted from hospitals, orphanages and institutions throughout the world. Lois Hannon, PNPIC, Meadow Lands PA.



The challenge of school for the adoptee
School issues your child will face
Help your child deal with racism
When birds don't flock together
Should you tell the teacher?
You can give an adoption talk
Language development is key

Learning disabilities

What are learning disabilities?
Detect learning disabilities early
Cope with your child's LD
Brodzinsky on learning disabilities
Do adoptees need special ed classes?
Are LDs inherited?

Special needs

Accept your child's special needs
FAS: Friendly school environments
Helping students with FAS
ADHD and the school system
Manage your ADHD child in school
Strategy for the parent advocate
You may reproduce this item with the credit:
"From Family Helper," ________________________________________
First published in Family Helper No. 45, "Adoption Goes To School", ISBN 0-9733470-4-X. Adapted in part from Post-adoption Helper No. 7, "Adoptive Parents' Guide to Your Child in Primary School", edited by Jennifer Smart.