Developing Language Skills in the Internationally Adopted Child

Developing Language Skills in the Internationally Adopted Child

Part 1:  Language and the child adopted from abroad (a 3 part series)

Medical experts with a special interest in intercountry adoption (ICA) tell us that in terms of our children's development, around one month's loss is experienced by our children for every three they are institutionalized or placed in non-optimal 1:1 care. And so when we receive our children, we should expect that at least initially, in terms of language development, they will be behind' children who have never been institutionalized and who remain in the language environment of their birth and pre-birth. Experts call this developmental language delay .

All other developmental skills, from the physical to the social, may also lag. It's our job to ensure that we have our children assessed for language delays and language disorders as soon as we can. Experts advise speech and hearing tests' should form part of the battery of tests run to evaluate the health of our children on arrival to our country and into our homes. It is only by learning how we may mitigate language losses that we can be fully empowered to create communicative gains.

In looking at our children's language skills (and which of these require assistance), we need also to look at their communicative needs and skills. Children who have been institutionalized, perhaps with less than optimal nutrition, physical care and attention, may be affected both in terms of cognitive and social development:

  • A child raised with poor nutrition, doesn't have the energy or material to develop the neurology of communication and speech because the brain has not developed as it should.
  • A child raised with no special caregiver attending to physical and social needs gives up trying to be heard.
  • A child raised with the trauma of separation from birthmother locked within, lacks the capacity to communicate because fear is the key to this child's existence, not communication.

In assessing our children's needs we have to face their history:

1. Environmental factors (e.g. factory emissions, lead levels) in the sending country also affect physical and cognitive development and have a possible effect on speech and cognitive capacity. Standard of care can affect health; a child doesn't thrive with environmentally-linked illnesses such as gut and respiratory problems, and a child who doesn't thrive physically most likely doesn't thrive across the whole spectrum of development.

2. An orphanage is a place where learning either to speak age appropriately or to communicate (social interactive skills) is not likely. Noise levels in the corridors may be loud, and paradoxically staff may speak rarely to the children, more amongst themselves. The children are in a world of their own'. Their speech and communicative skills are not comparable with children in their birthcountry who are living outside orphanages.

Doctors and researchers specializing in ICA and speech/communicative development are beginning to see that communication skills, gestures, knowing how to play are a significant predictor of catch-up in speech for our ICA children, and also predict how quickly our children will learn our language after whatever start they had in the language environment of their birth and care pre-adoption. It seems critical that as responsible parents we address both the speech and communicative environment of our children. We need to talk and sing and read to them, yes, but we also need to ensure that we are communicating with all the senses of touch, hearing, taste, smell, and sight. These underpin social communication and are the basis of rich communicative gains. For most children, development in the broader domain of communication skills, activity, movement and social roles has gains in language skills predicated upon it. And for those children for whom language skills can never be assisted back to a normal' age appropriate expectation, the teaching of the communicative skills helps them navigate our social world.

Stanley Greenspan, in his book Building Healthy Minds , reminds us that parents don't pay enough attention to the skills that teach children how to relate, communicate and think. These include acceptance of sensory sensation, an ability to fall in love with parents, being a two way communicator, and being an interactive problem solver and creator of ideas, with the ability to connect between ideas and relationships. Greenspan holds that these are the essential building blocks of higher-level skill.

There is no use in addressing any one of our children's issues; we need an umbrella approach, covering and supporting all. Communication is more than just' speech or language. It is fundamental interaction with our environment and the people in it. And communication ability which moves outward from the mother/child interaction and the secure bond that forms there is the gateway to the world. Essentially, the ability to communicate is the fundament of building love.

To view Part 2 and Part 3 of this series, visit Sheena Macrae's profile and article list on Voices of Adoption

© Sheena Macrae 2005; first printed in EMK Press Adoption Parenting: Creating a Toolbox, Building Connections 2006. All Rights Reserved.

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