For the first few months May was in our home, she continued to speak Mandarin and attempted very little English. This was so unlike any other child I’d heard of – most internationally adopted children lose their first language within a few months – that I wondered if she was ever going to speak English. We communicated sitting side by side at the computer running words through a translator. When she did begin to talk to us in English, it was in complete sentences. She is a bit of a perfectionist, and I suspect that she didn’t want to speak English until she was sure she could do so without error.
She remained quite fluent in Mandarin for several years. It helped that she continued to hear Mandarin on her DVDs and CDs, spoke with Mandarin-speaking children at school, and attended weekly language classes. But even she eventually lost her fluency. Now, almost five years on, she is familiar with Mandarin but not fluent. She understands it when it is spoken to her, she recognizes written characters, and she knows when a tone or pronunciation is wrong. But she is reluctant to carry on a conversation in Mandarin – though, again, I think that may be because she isn’t sure she can do so without error and doesn’t want to embarrass herself.
Language acquisition is a complicated process. Most of the studies on how children learn a language have involved young children learning their first language and kids from immigrant families learning a second language. Dr. Boris Gindis, a developmental psychologist, is one of the few researchers studying cognitive development in post-institutionalized children, working primarily with Russian adoptees. His website is a terrific resource for adoptive parents.
He explains that the reason most adopted children learn their new language very rapidly, while forgetting their first, is that they acquire language by a process known as subtractive learning. Completely immersed in the new language, they must learn to speak well enough to have their needs met by their new families. Because their original language no longer serves a purpose, it is soon forgotten. Children in immigrant families, who hear and use English at school and their native language at home, are able to add a second language and may become truly bilingual; but adopted children, who hear and use English almost exclusively, will not.
Many parents who adopt older children vow that their children will retain mastery of their first language, but I have never heard of anyone succeeding. A child must hear – and use – a language for significant portions of each day in order to stay fluent. In fact, Dr. Gindis believes that it may impede a child’s development to attempt to retain the first language while learning the second.
Because adopted children tend to go from being monolingual in one language to being monolingual in a different language, ELL (English Language Learner) programs, which are geared toward bilingual children of immigrants, are not especially well suited to them. We didn’t find ELL programs to be particularly helpful for May. The first year she was here, she spent an hour or so each day with the ELL instructor, plowing through English workbooks. The second year, she received in-class help once a week or so, and the third year, she didn’t see the ELL instructor at all.
The chief advantage of ELL for her was that it entitled her to certain accommodations; she was excused from the state standardized test the first year, she could do her workbooks while her classmates did more advanced reading, and she got easier lists of spelling words than most of her classmates. But she clearly did not learn English through ELL; she learned it listening to and speaking with us. Her ELL classification simply gave her a bit of breathing room in which to catch up.
It can be hard to understand how some adopted children can carry on conversations with family and friends, make jokes and complain and express affection, and yet have difficulty with schoolwork years after arriving home. There are in fact two aspects to language learning: communicative or social mastery, and cognitive or academic mastery.
Immigrant children in ELL programs typically attain communicative mastery in 2 years and cognitive mastery in 5 to 7 years. Internationally adopted children achieve communicative mastery more quickly, usually within 6 to 12 months, and cognitive mastery several years later – if they achieve it at all, since some children will continue to have difficulties as a result of early deprivation and unresolved developmental delays.
This makes me appreciate even more that May had a variety of experiences in her birth family, orphanage, and foster home that helped her develop the capacity to learn. Even if her experiences were not always happy ones, she had opportunities to explore her world and meet different people, which prepared her well for the many changes she has been through.
An interesting side note: Studies have shown that children who learn a second language before puberty will speak it without an accent, while those learning a language after puberty will always have some accent. I think May has a slight accent, though most people think she speaks perfect English. She first learned the Western alphabet so that she could read pinyin, and her pronunciation reflects that. For example, the Chinese y is a weak consonant, so that “yi” (“one”) sounds very much like “ee”; May, who is currently interested in baking, continually confuses me by pronouncing “yeast” as “east.” But I am learning to understand.