Studies find adopted Chinese children learn English as well or better than native-born peers

December 01, 2003

It must be difficult to face an abrupt shift in language when one is just learning to speak--so thought Rena Krakow, the mother of an adopted Chinese girl, and Jenny Roberts, the aunt of an adopted Chinese girl. As speech language experts at Temple University, Krakow and Roberts decided to combine their professional and personal interests to study how adopted Chinese children acquire English. Their findings appear in a series of studies in the November issue of the Journal of Multilingual Communication Disorders.

"Surprisingly, the majority of the toddlers and preschoolers we studied showed no evidence of delay in their English language development as compared with their U.S.-born age-mates. Indeed, many of the adopted children had language skills that would be considered excellent for children born here," said Krakow, associate professor of communications sciences in Temple's College of Health Professions.

In the U.S., international adoptions have increased dramatically in recent years. Last year, the biggest proportion--over 5,000--came from China. Despite this swell, little is known about the children's English language development.

Children generally begin talking between ages 18 months to two years old. However, as early as six months, babies begin to recognize speech and build the foundation that will enable them to talk later. "At seven to eight months, babies begin to babble and soon the babbling takes on characteristics of the native language," said Roberts, assistant professor of communication sciences.

The researchers used a variety of methods, including parent-report questionnaires and standardized tests, to study language development at various ages. In one study, "Acquisition of English Vocabulary by Young Chinese Adoptees," children adopted between seven and 11 months old were tested to determine their ability to build English vocabulary.

"By age two to two-and-a-half, the majority of the children (60 percent) showed no evidence of delay in their acquisition of expressive English vocabulary with some having larger vocabularies than is typical for their native-born English-speaking peers," said Krakow. Another study, "Language Outcomes for Preschool Children Adopted from China as Infants and Toddlers," examined language development in preschool children who had been exposed to English for at least two years and found the majority (85 percent) scored at or above the mean for children born here.

"Our results contrast sharply to previous studies that suggested such children were likely to have a variety of problems, including difficulties with language," said Roberts. She noted that only a few studies, focused mainly on children adopted from Eastern European countries, have addressed these issues. The only published study on language development in Chinese adopted children tested them shortly after arrival in the U.S., an insufficient period of exposure.

In analyzing study results, it is important to consider contributing factors. "Their young age at adoption, their generally good health, the relatively short time spent in an orphanage, the enriching environments into which they are adopted, and the malleability of the language system in children so young are all part of the mix," said Krakow.

"Following the adopted Chinese children as they continue through school will likely add to our understanding of language development," said Roberts. Currently, the researchers are following the study participants whose language performance was below average to determine their progress. "We hope that they will simply take a little longer to catch up."

The researchers collaborated with colleagues at the University of Memphis in Tennessee.
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Temple University

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