Public Release: 

Research explores why some internationally adopted children excel while others struggle

Temple University

Over the past decade, U.S. citizens have adopted more foreign born children (150,000) than the citizens of any other country. Prominent among the developmental issues faced by these children is language delay, which can be compounded by medical problems, according to a panel of experts who will present their findings today at the American Speech, Language and Hearing Association meeting in Philadelphia. The panel, led by Rena Krakow, Ph.D., associate professor and assistant chair of Communication Sciences at Temple University's College of Health Professions, is composed of experts in linguistics, speech/language pathology, and pediatrics, some of whom also have a personal interest in the topic as family members of internationally adopted (IA) children.

"Because most adoptive parents do not speak the language of their child's home country, IA children typically experience an abrupt change in their language environment. This coupled with a history of non-optimal care (most reside in orphanages prior to adoption) can increase the risk of language delays or disorders," said Krakow. The level of risk depends on such factors as age at adoption, which usually correlates with time spent in an orphanage, quality of pre-adoption care, and health status.

Krakow's most recent study compared children adopted as infants with children adopted as toddlers, from a single orphanage in China. The toddlers had both an advantage and a disadvantage in acquiring English. They learned faster than the younger children, but had more to learn to become age-appropriate. In general, the younger the child is when adopted, and the shorter the time spent in an orphanage, the sooner the child is likely to become age-appropriate in English.

Although there was no evidence in Krakow's study to suggest that the language switch from Chinese to English was a formidable obstacle for either the infants or toddlers, some of the children in the study, as in others, did indeed experience problems. "An important aspect of our work is identifying those factors that lead to a range of performance by IA children in acquiring English, such that some excel relative to their native-born peers, whereas others struggle and need appropriate intervention," said Krakow. Krakow's daughter inspired her interest in the language development of children from China.

"My daughter, who is now five, was adopted at 8 months so she was very young when she came to the U.S. Still, she heard only Chinese for most of the first year of her life. The rapidity with which she acquired English amazed me. When we assessed her as a toddler, she was advanced for her age. We also tested her at preschool age (4) on a formal battery of language tests. Again, her English language skills were excellent for her age," said Krakow. "I was surprised by her success and speed in learning English and that prompted me to see how typical or atypical she was."

Another panel member, Stephen C. Aronoff, M.D. professor and chair of pediatrics at Temple University School of Medicine, specializes in infectious diseases and sees many internationally adopted children at Temple University Children's Medical Center.

"Some of the medical issues facing internationally adopted children clearly have implications for language learning, primarily tuberculosis and hepatitis. Early intervention and a multidisciplinary approach are required," said Aronoff.

In addition to the Temple members, other panel members include Jenny Roberts, Hofstra University, Karen Pollock, University of Alberta, Edmonton, and Sharon Glennen, Towson University.

Most of the previously reported studies on this topic have looked at children as infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. This panel will also discuss new data concerning the performance of school-age children both from China (J. Roberts) and Eastern Europe (S. Glennen). The panel will aim to inform clinicians at the conference about the range of performance found with internationally adopted children, the factors that contribute to variation in this group, and how to determine which children should receive services to assist in English language development.


The session "Internationally-Adopted Children: Triumph and Challenge" will be held on Friday, November 19 at 11 a.m. - 1 p.m. in the Pennsylvania Convention Center. It is one of more than 1,500 sessions on communication problems affecting people across the life span that will be addressed at ASHA's annual convention. More than 12,000 audiologists, speech-language pathologists, and researchers will convene to present new research and discuss treatment of communication disorders.

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