International Adoption and Language Development

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Delays in speech and language development are the most common delays presented in internationally adopted children. Actually, they are the most predominant type of delay in the general population of children, regardless of whether a child is born into or adopted into their family. The good news is that for the majority of children adopted internationally these delays are remediable.

The most important thing to know about the speech and language delays that internationally adopted children have is this: their delays are not merely due to the transition from one language to another. Their delays are delays in their native language compounded by the transition from one sound/language system to another. It is critical that anyone who is in the position of evaluating your child - pediatrician, speech pathologist, educator - be aware of this fact. Too many professionals still assume that no intervention is needed because the delay is transitional in nature.

Children growing up in an orphanage miss what we call the precursors to language as well as the consistent and constant modeling, reciprocal language, and positive feedback children require to develop language in their native tongue.

Time alone is not sufficient to remedy this type of delay. Intervention by a speech pathologist for a period of time is necessary. It may only be six months it may be longer, but intensive, focused, professional time is needed to help parents know how to work in this area with their child.

An evaluation by a licensed speech pathologist is an invaluable tool for the parents of an internationally adopted child. This can be obtained for free through Early Intervention if your child is under three, and through your local school district if your child is older. You may have to press the issue with your school district because most professionals are unfamiliar with the effects of institutionalization on development since we abolished congregate care for children under ten in America in the 1970s.

It is often more productive for older children who are adopted from another country to be placed in ESL (English as a Second Language) - not bilingual - classes if they will be living in a monolingual home. They need to learn a working language to communicate at home and in school.

Questions & Answers

Question: Should all children who are adopted internationally be evaluated? Or does it depend on their age (or some other factor)?
Rita: It is my belief that all children adopted internationally should be evaluated because they are at high risk for delays, like preemies. There may be no problems but you want to make sure because of their history. Even kids from foster homes can have speech delays or motor delays.

Question: My daughter came home at 19 months not speaking in her native tongue. I had her tested immediately, but EI did not feel she needed help until she turned 2. Then they agreed with me that she needed help. She has had therapy now for almost a year, but is still way below her age level in speech. Since she will be ageing out of the system soon, her therapist and I have started talking about the school system.
Rita: 15-20% of the population in general have some type of developmental delay. That is why I recommend an evaluator who is familiar with adoption issues. Many of them just think it is transitional. If she had no words at 19 months, she should have had services right away. What is she advocating for?
Reply: She is advocating a setting where my daughter will be in a preschool with other children with similar speech delays. They will focus on speech.
Rita: Good plan. Other children are a great motivator and model for speech. Is your district cooperative?
Reply: Don't know yet. We will start the process in January or March depending on whether it turns out we have to go into the school system right away. At the moment, she is eligible for EI until she's 3 1/2. My understanding is that if we evaluate her in Jan. and she is eligible through the school system, she must switch immediately. I don't know if her present situation is better than a group setting, or VS.
Rita: I would go by what your speech therapist recommmends - she knows how your daughter is progressing and whether she is at the point she would benefit from a group setting more than individual work.

Question: I don't know if her present situation - meaning one-on-one with a speech therapist 3 times a week - is better than a group setting where she will share the therapist with other children.
Rita: My experience is that children pick up faster in a group setting than in individual work. The preschool class will be language-based with probably a teacher and a speech therapist, yes?
Reply: Yes, that's what her present therapist is saying.

Question: Can you recommend book(s) about speech delay in multilingual homes?
Rita: I can get back to you on that one - I have some articles at the office. Email me at I am not familiar with any book but I'll check that out.
Reply: Well, maybe when my daughter gets through this, the famous quote will apply: If there's a book you really want to read, but hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.

Question: Rita, what is your recommendation as far as the parents encouraging the children to keep up their native language while learning English? Do you feel that this can be more beneficial for them rather than a hindrance?
Rita: I feel it depends on the sage of the child. If the child is young... under two, I would let them learn English first and then have them pick up their country of origins language around 6 years of age. If the child lives in a monolingual home, they need to learn that language first. If they are in a bilingual home, as long a the parents are consistent in the language they talk to the child in it is fine, i.e., Mom speaks Spanish all the time to the child, Dad speaks English all the time - consistency is important.
Reply: We are a bilingual home but we both speak both languages to our children.
Rita: Speech pathologists say that can be confusing so it takes them a little longer to get the languages down pat, but not critical enough to cause long term delays. How are your children doing with the both languages?
Reply: With our first daughter (age 4.5) we had her as an infant and spoke both English and Spanish to her from the start (and lived in a Spanish speaking country). She still is fluent in her English after we have been away for 2 years, and she does not get much practice with her English. My 7 yo son (special needs) and 6 yo daughter are now both fluent after 1 year of being with us ... they were fluent in English first and then came into our home.
Rita: I think it helps that they were fluent in one language before picking up the second.

Question: What about families that adopt older children (like 10 and up) ... I have one family here that is insistent that their new daughter totally give up her Spanish. How can I gently encourage them?
Rita: If a child is 10 you can't ask her to give up her language. Maybe you can point out that in this world we live in, it is a great benefit to be bilingual, and it will help her feel connected to her roots - a new home at 10 is a difficult transition. The poor girl probably feels she is having everything she cherished away from her - they should try to learn some Spanish. I am just afraid that if they keep forcing the issues they will continue to see acting out and all sorts of behavior problems.
Reply: I'm afraid they will disrupt her soon at this rate, and she's not a *bad* child, even though there's a lot of acting out right now.
Rita: Exactly. That is where it sounds like it is heading and that doesn't have to be. Of course she is acting out - she is in pain and grieving and not being heard. They need some post adoption counseling work.

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