Monday, May 28, 2012

Learning - Older Adopted Children - Part 3

"Language is inextricably entwined with our mental life - our perceiving, our remembering, our attending, our comprehending, our thinking - in short, all of our attempts to make sense of our experience in the world."
J.W. Lindfors, "Children's Language and Learning (2nd ed).

I will preface this third part of my mini-series on the learning of older adopted children by saying that I am now sure that a Part 4 (and likely others) will be required as a follow-up to today's post.  Today's post was intended to be a summary of some of the research I've been doing of late, and so it shall be.  But even as my mind spins with all that I have been reading, I know there is much more research to come.

Also, crucially, I need to figure out where to from here.  I am very much in the scratching-at-the-surface stage of thinking through what needs to happen in order to help Seth move along the continuum towards reaching his full potential.  I have a feeling that a large chunk of my private moments this summer will be oriented towards further research and towards developing a plan for Seth.  I hope to share this journey with you, in large part to help other parents that I know are as interested in this as we are.  So hang on with me, folks, 'cause there's going to be more to talk about in coming weeks and months.

But for now, let me continue with Part 3 in my mini-series: specifically about some of the research beginnings that I've been diving into.

In the past week or two, as I've been thinking about Seth's learning challenges and the possibility that they are more language related and not entirely malnutrition related, I've been using most of my spare moments (and many others while I should have been sleeping) researching language issues, particularly as it relates to older children who have been adopted internationally.  At first it felt a little like looking for a needle in a haystack, but I've found some very interesting (at least to me) research in recent days...with both encouraging and discouraging news.  I have referenced at the bottom of this post some of the articles I have been reading, and have beens sure to include links to those sources from which I have quoted, either directly or indirectly.

There are a few terms that seem very relevant to this conversation...things that I've never heard of until now.

The first term is "additive bilingualism."  Picture, for example, a Spanish-speaking family moving from Mexico to an English-speaking part of Canada.  The family continues to speak their first language within their home while learning their new language outside of the home...thus, the kids continue to maintain/build their Spanish language skills while acquiring English-speaking skills.  They have added a language to their repertoire.

By contrast, there is another term called "subtractive bilingualism."  The most common (and extreme) example of this is a child who is adopted internationally, where s/he is taken from one language and moved abruptly to a place where another language is spoken.  The differences in this scenario are: first, that there is no ability to continue to maintain/build the child's first language; second, the child completely loses their first language within mere months of being immersed in the new language.  The child has lost a language; the second language has replaced (rather than supplemented) the first language.

One of the (many) implications of this difference can best be described by using an example.  In the first scenario (additive bilingualism), the child learns the names and meanings of many new words, while maintaining their first language within the family home.  So, for example, they would already have learned the name and meaning attached to a word such as 'honesty.'  When learning English, because they already understand the meaning of the word 'honesty,' the child merely has to learn the name of the word honesty and will be able to transfer immediately the meaning of the word from their first language.  (Ie. the child is able to simply transfer their knowledge of the word from the first to the new language.)  By contrast, when a child loses his/her first language so rapidly under the principal of subtractive bilingualism, s/he must learn both the meaning and the name of the word 'honesty' before being able to use it effectively; they simply don't have a connection between first and second language to be able to make the leap easily.  It is easy to see why this would be a hurdle to overcome when trying to remember/know which word to apply in the appropriate situation.

Having lost two languages in the first five years of his life, and having lost his earlier languages prior to acquiring the English language, Seth is clearly in a circumstance of being a subtractive bilingual.  He had no ability to transfer knowledge from his earlier languages to his newer acquisition of English and he lost his earlier languages with startling rapidity.

At least four observations are helpful for me in understanding his language loss:

1.  When the kids met with their birth father prior to leaving Ethiopia for Canada, they were unable to communicate with him.  It was very clear that they did not understand him, and they said not a single word to him that I can recall.  They had been separated from him for less than ten months at that point.

2.  Geoff and I noticed, pretty much from the first day with the younger kids, that Seth and Lizzie really did not communicate with each other very much.  They were clearly extremely close and very protective of each other, but it was rare that they would actually talk with each other.  I didn't think about the 'why' of this until the past month or two, but now I know that they were simply unable to speak with each sad is that.

3.  In the first weeks that we were in Canada with Seth and Lizzie, we took the kids to an Ethiopian restaurant several times.  The Ethiopian-born owner of that restaurant tried to speak with him on each occasion, but he withdrew in apparent shyness.  On one occasion she appeared to insist that he speak with her and the result was that she couldn't understand what he was saying.  She said that his few words were very broken bits of incomplete words, and they were a mixture of languages - she said she got a word or two of Amharic (the language of the orphanage they were in), a few words of another language that, to her, sounded like an Ethiopian language but not one that she understood (likely the language of their birth), and a word or two of English.  She stopped insisting that he talk with her in large part because she realized that he wasn't understanding her either.

4.  Within four or five weeks of being home, I noticed that Seth and Lizzie were communicating with each other more than we'd noticed it in the first days.  The shocking thing to me was that their 'conversations' were in English!  They would look at each other and say a word or two or three in English and then use a whole lot of gestures to make their meaning clear.  It makes me terribly sad to realize now that they were simply unable to communicate with each other (their only source of comfort and security and familiarity in the orphanage) for so many months prior to learning bits of English.

It was startling to see how quickly Seth lost his old languages.  Last summer, I posted here a 'wondering' that I had - I had observed how quickly they had lost their earlier languages and that they hadn't yet acquired English, and I wondered how they could possibly think.  I would watch Seth in the rear view mirror of the van and he would sit there quietly and stare out the window and I wanted to badly to be inside of his head to know how he could possibly think about anything.  Little did I know how true that observation was.

He really and truly is that baby starting from the very beginning.

According to the first bits of research I've done, it takes approximately/at least two years for a child in Seth's age range to communicate well at an interpersonal level - even though the fluency and language acquisition seem to be very impressive within the first year of replacing the old language(s) with the new.  Had Seth come to Canada at the age of 9 or older, he would have had such a firm grasp of his first language(s) that he would have been coming with "additive language" because he would have fully acquired that first language in order to make connections to the new language.

And get this:  What I've read is that it takes a minimum of 5-7 years for children to be on par with their peers from an academic perspective.

Another thing I've been reading is a little scarier:  For children experiencing subtractive bilingualism, such as Seth, they may also suffer permanent cognitive effects resulting from the loss of the first language.

Here is a snippet from an article "Acquiring English as a Second Language - What's 'Normal,' What's Not," by Celeste Roseberry-McKibbin and Alejandro Brice:

"There are different timelines for learning social and academic language.  Under ideal conditions, it takes the average second-language learning two years to acquire Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS).  BICS involves the context-embedded, everyday language that occurs between conversational partners.  On the other hand, Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP), or the context-reduced language of academics, takes five to seven years under ideal conditions to develop to a level commensurate with that of native speakers.

"Many ELL students are thus in a catch-22 situation. They may develop conversational English that appears fluent and adequate for everyday communication. However, they still struggle with CALP and have difficulty in areas such as reading, writing, spelling, science, social studies, and other subject areas where there is little context to support the language being heard or read.  This BICS-CALP gap leads professionals to falsely assume that the children have language-learning disabilities."

I find this very sobering.  Five or seven or more years?  Possible permanent cognitive effects? Becasue he lost his first language??  Wow.

This is an appropriate time to introduce another term with which I am fast becoming familiar:  Cumulative Cognitive Deficit (CCD).  Perhaps the best way to introduce CCD is by quoting (rather extensively) from an article called "Cumulative Cognitive Deficit in International Adoptees: its Origins, Indicators and Means of Remediation," written by Dr. Boris Gindis in 2006.  Gindis is a child psychologist specializing in psycho-educational issues of older internationally adopted children. (see the full article here)

"Many parents of school age internationally adopted children have concerns about their children's slower-than-expected progress in school.  After the initial phase of seemingly fast new language acquisition and adjustment, some of these children show significant difficulty in their academic work, which, in turn, often brings behavioural and emotional problems.  Their learning dififcuties persist and even worsen well beyond the time when academic problems can be attributed to language learning and school adjustment. As they progress through the developmental stages and school grades they fall farther and farther behind in academic tasks; their overall dynamic of cognitive/language development and academic performance fails to match the comprehensive and relentless efforts of the adoptive parents and educational professionals.

"These children may experience what is know in cognitive psychology and remedial education as 'Cumulative Cognitive Disorder' (CCD).  CCD is a downward trend in measured intelligence and scholastic achievement of culturally and socially disadvantages children relative to age-appropriate societal norms and expectations.  The current understanding of CCD is that children who are deprived of enriching cognitive experiences during their early years are less able to profit from a new and enriched environmental situation becasue of a mismatch between their cognitive maturity and the requirements for this new, more advanced learning situation.

"...When a child misses certain stages of normal cognitive development and never learns generric concepts necssary for successful schooling, the education matter this child is taught simply does not have any structural support upon which to be understood, remembered and used."

The part that's most scary for me in this quote is about how kids seem to start out seemingly quickly in their language acquisition and adjustment but how they gradually fall farther and farther behind to the point of downward trends in the measurement of their intelligence.  I'm betting that this is ringing bells for quite a few adoptive parents out there who have brought home intelligent, older children who seem to adjust so well before sliding a downwards trend.

Gindis goes on to note several characteristics of CCD, including lack of age-appropriate cognitive skills, inability to transfer knowledge and skills from one situation to another, limited ability to learn how to study by mastering learning strategies; cognitive language deficiency, poor concentration, limited attention span, etc, and chronic mismatch between the child's learning capacity and academic placement.  He further notes that the situation is complicated by the fact that CCD can easily go undetected in the early stages of a child's educational journey, primarily because it takes time for the cognitive deficit to become cumulative.

Another point of interest in this same article talks about how in international adoptees with CCD, "there is a high likelihood of some neurological weaknesses, mostly related to premature birth...malnutrition, and many subtle neurological impairments...observable in immature self-regulation of emotions and behaviour, inability to concentrate and be attentive...nervous tension, and decreased memory capacity..."

He also notes that when language is learned in the 'subtractive' bilingual model, where English quickly replaces the first language, "this type of language acquisition contributes to CCD, and it is very likely that CCD is reinforced when the first language is lost for all practical purposes while the second language is barely functional commuicatively and not in existency cognitively."

The context that Seth comes from matches perfectly some/many of the conditions that are typically present in the development of CCD, including (1) having been deprived of enriching cognitive experiences during his early years, (2) having suffered from (severe) malnutrition, and (3) being a subtractive bilingual.  And he appears to manifest already some of the early symptoms of something that could be CCD.  I need to be on top of this.


For better and/or for worse, I know a bit more now about what we might be dealing with when it comes to Seth's unique learning issues.  I don't feel as if I know the whole story yet, but it's a start.  It seems more and more obvious that Seth's learning issues are not exclusively malnutrition-related and weighted more towards language acquisition and application issues...and to this notion of subtractive bilingualism.  Where the balance is between theses various factors, and how many additional factors need to be added to the pile, I don't know.

I'm not completely sure where to go from here.  It's a little overwhelming.  For sure I have more research to do - what you're hearing from me these days is only the very beginnings of it.  And at some point in the next month or two, I know my thoughts are going to turn more to asking a different kind of question:  what now?   I know myself well enough to know that I'm going to need a plan so that I can be assured that we're doing everything we can for Seth.

And there's one other thing that I need to keep in mind as we work through these issues:  my goal, ultimately, is not to have my children (any of them) be the same as every other kid out there.  I don't need for them to be the smartest, the brightest, or the best...though I tend to think that they are all of those things (a mother's prerogative, I suppose).  Though I've always been a quick learner and fairly academically oriented, how academically oriented they are or are not is not about me - their lives are not my lives.  My job and my goal and my desire as a parent is to help them develop all of themselves as holistically as possible, in order to maximize their giftedness and potential.  That is my prayer.

The First of the Research Links:

First- and Second-Language Acquisition in Early Childhood

Language Acquisition And Subtractive Bilingualism

Bilingualism and Internationally Adopted Children

Berkley Medical Journal: Two Voices are Better than One (see article on page 6 in particular)

Second Language Acquisition

First- and Second-Language Acquisition, particularly pages 185-186.

Language Acquisition in Children: Talk Your Child Clever.

Mike's Web Log: Subtractive Bilingualism

Acquiring English as a Second Language - What's 'Normal' and What's Not.

Developmental Delays in Internationally Adopted Children

Cognitive Language and Educational Issues of Children Adopted from Overseas Orphanages - Part-II

Cognitive Language and Educational Issues of Children Adopted from Overseas Orphanages - Part-III

Cumulative Cognitive Deficit in international adoptees and Means of Remediation

Cumulative Cognitive Disorder

Asha Publications article


  1. Very sobering research. One thing I wonder is how much of it is based in traditional school models, where a child's learning is supposed to progress at the same pace as the class' in general, vs. homeschooling, which is by definition intended to be unique to each child. Perhaps the cumulative effect of CCD can be mitigated with homeschooling?!!

    I am also a staunch optimist when it comes to the brain. So much of the new research is indicating that new neural pathways can continue to be developed as long as we live (this is not an easy or quick process, but still is optimistic). I know people who foster 2 children with FASD, one from age 2 and the other from birth. Their brain damage is definitely organic and for a long time they might have been considered "hopeless." With incredible consistency, secure attachment, understanding and additional helps, they are making progress beyond what was expected or hoped for (they are 5 and 3 now). This is not to say that there aren't still problems with learning, recall, emotional regulation, etc.

    Perhaps Seth will always carry some cognitive scars of his difficult early life. Nonetheless, he will think important and meaningful thoughts, he will connect deeply emotionally, and he will know how to be in a healthy relationship/be a contributing citizen. He is already flourishing and will continue to do so.

  2. So, so interesting. I, like you, am now really wondering, what now?! How can we help these precious, little people? I'm all in. :)

  3. Hi Ruth,
    Some of these articles are no longer available. Do you know where else I could find them? Thanks!

    1. Andrea...I don't know. That's really too bad...I spent a lot of time researching those!

      I'm hoping enough might still be available to give you an idea of the basics...enough to perhaps launch additional research. If I ever have time, I'd be happy to go back and try to find some of these again...but I'm not sure when that's going to be. that's really too bad.