Speech-Language Development in Children Adopted Internationally
Karen E. Pollock, Ph.D., CCC-SLP
University of Alberta
Recently Completed Projects
Two Longitudinal Case Studies (or “A Tale of Two Tigers”)
Karen Pollock1, Johanna Price2, & Kathy Fulmer (University of Memphis)
1now at University of Alberta; 2now at Oklahoma State University
This is the study that launched me (KP) into this line of research. I had been tracking my own daughter’s acquisition of English from the time of her adoption (at 13½ months), mostly out of curiosity, but also because I expected her to have some delays as she made the transition from Chinese to English. From the first day we met, she babbled constantly and was very interactive and communicative. But two months later she still had only three recognizable words – bye-bye, uh-oh, and hi. She didn’t seem to have any idea that words could be used to represent things – she had no nouns. At that time, there was no normative data available on language development in internationally adopted children, so I didn’t know if her development was typical or not. At the same time, a friend who had adopted another child at the same time was also expressing her concerns to me about her daughter’s language development, which she thought was slow. She agreed to let me track her daughter’s development as well. We called this study “A Tale of Two Tigers,” because both of our girls were born in the Year of the Tiger.
During the first nine months after their arrival in the US, we (the mothers) completed the MacArthur Communicative Development Inventory (MCDI), a parent report measure of vocabulary and other early communication skills, approximately every month for my daughter and every 3 months for the other child. We also made video-recordings of the children’s speech periodically so that we could transcribe the sounds they made and have a record of how they pronounced words.
One child (MX) showed a more rapid rate of vocabulary growth, reaching 50 words at 6 months post-adoption and 200 words by 9 months post-adoption. The other child (GY) was slower to acquire words, reaching the 50-word mark at 9½ months post-adoption and the 200-word mark at 13½ months post-adoption). The girls’ acquisition of speech sounds and their use of word combinations followed a similar pattern, with the number of different sounds produced and the length of their sentences closely related to their vocabulary size.
A year and a half later (at 27 months post-adoption), both children participated in another study (the Preschool Outcomes Study described below). As part of this study, each child underwent a comprehensive evaluation of their speech, language, cognitive, and preliteracy skills. Because we had earlier data on these two children, we thought it would be interesting to compare the early acquisition to their later performance on these evaluations. The majority of test scores for both girls were in the normal range. Only one score (GY’s score on a test of expressive vocabulary) fell below the normal range. However, on all measures, MX’s scores were higher than GY’s. On some subtests, MX’s scores were exceptionally high (well above the average range for children her age). Thus, although both girls were doing well two years post-adoption, there continued to be a difference in their speech-language skills. A question to be addressed in the future is how they will perform academically, as they are faced with more complex demands such as reading in elementary school. We hope to be able to continue to monitor their development over the next few years.
The obvious question is why the difference in rate of acquisition? No conclusions can be drawn from a study involving only two children (which is why the other studies, described below, were initiated). Age at time of adoption (and correspondingly less time spent in an institution), quality and quantity of prelinguistic vocalizations (babbling), and general cognitive abilities are possible factors contributing to observed differences in rate of early English acquisition and later language skills in preschool. These factors are being further explored in other studies.
Presentations/Publications resulting from this study:
Pollock, K.E., & Price, J.R. (2002). Speech-language acquisition in children adopted from China: a longitudinal investigation of two children. Poster presented at the 9th meeting of the International Clinical Phonetics & Linguistics Association, May, Hong Kong.
Pollock, K.E., Price, J.R., & Fulmer, K.C. (2003). Speech-language acquisition in children adopted from China: a longitudinal investigation of two children. Journal of Multilingual Communication Disorders, 1, 184-193. (Click here to view abstract) (*e-print of full article available on request by emailing Karen.email@example.com)
Preschool Outcomes of Children Adopted from China (standardized language test results)
Jenny Roberts & Rena Krakow (Temple University)
Karen Pollock (University of Alberta)
Johanna Price & Kathy Fulmer (University of Memphis)
Paul Wang (Pfizer Global Research & Development)
Together with colleagues in Philadelphia (Drs. Jenny Roberts and Rena Krakow at Temple University and Dr. Paul Wang, formerly at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, now with Pfizer Global Research and Development in New London, CT), we assessed the speech and language skills of 55 children (54 girls, 1 boy) adopted from China between 6 and 25 months of age. They ranged in age from 33 to 77 months of age at time of testing, and had been home for at least two years. Knowing that internationally adopted children may be at risk for delayed language development (due to effects of institutionalization and/or the abrupt switch in language environment), we were interested in the extent to which any delays might persist beyond the first two years, after they had received a reasonable amount of exposure to English. A battery of commonly used speech-language tests was administered, including measures of speech sound production, vocabulary knowledge, and receptive and expressive language abilities. We found that 52 (95%) of the children performed within or above the normal range compared to the normative samples on which the tests were standardized (monolingual US-born English speakers). Only 3 (<6%) scored below normal limits on two or more tests, and to our surprise, 15 (27%) scored above average on two or more tests. Age at time of adoption and number of months in the permanent home were most predictive of performance, that is, the younger the child at time of adoption and the longer he/she had been home, the better the performance. These positive outcomes are no doubt related to a variety of factors, including the general health of children adopted from China, the stimulating environments of their new families, and the robustness of the language learning capacity. Gender may also play a role, as research shows that language delays are more prevalent in boys than in girls. Overall, the results of this study suggest that, at two or more years post-adoption, most children from China are performing on par with US-born peers, and more than a few are actually excelling in English language skills.
Publications/Presentations resulting from this study:
Roberts, J., Krakow, R., & Pollock, K. (2002). Language outcomes for preschool children adopted from China before age two. Poster presented at the 9th meeting of the International Clinical Phonetics and Linguistics Association, May, Hong Kong.
Roberts, J.A., Pollock, K., Price, J., & Krakow, R. (2002). Language Development in Preschool Aged Children Adopted from China. Symposium on Research in Child Language Disorders (SRCLD), University of Wisconsin, Madison, July 16, 2002.
Roberts, J., Krakow, R., & Pollock, K. (2003). Language outcomes for preschool children adopted from China as infants and toddlers. Journal of Multilingual Communication Disorders, 1, 177-183. (click here to view abstract) (*e-print of full article available on request by emailing Karen.firstname.lastname@example.org)
Roberts, J., Pollock, K., Krakow, R., Price, J., Fulmer, K., & Wang, P. (2005). Language development in preschool-aged children adopted from China. Journal of Speech-Language-Hearing Research, 48, 93-107. (click here to view abstract) (copy of full article available on request by emailing email@example.com )
Longitudinal Survey of Speech-Language Acquisition in Children Adopted from China
Karen Pollock (University of Alberta)
The preschool study results showed us that the outcome for speech and language development in the preschool years, two or more years post-adoption, was quite good. However, a remaining concern was how to identify at an earlier point in time those children who would most likely “catch up” on their own and those who would need intervention. Speech-language pathologists had no normative data for interpreting the performance of our children on speech-language tests, especially during the early years post-placement. Instead, they were left to compare their performance to that of US-born monolingual English-speaking children (obviously an unfair comparison) or to make subjective judgments based on past experience or anecdotal evidence. In an attempt to fill this urgent need for normative data, a longitudinal survey of language development in children adopted from China was initiated in 2001.
The survey was modeled after one used by Sharon Glennen and Gay Masters at Towson University for studying language in children adopted from Eastern Europe. Parents were asked to complete questionnaires every three months until their child reached approximately 3 years of age. Over 150 children from across the US and Canada (plus a few internationally) participated in this study. They ranged in age from 7 to 36 months of age at time of adoption. Most began the study within 6 months post-placement. Their parents completed anywhere from one to 11 surveys, with an average of 6 surveys per child, and a total of over 1,000 surveys.
Preliminary analyses of spoken vocabulary and sentence length showed that, although there was considerable variation in performance, on average children adopted before 12 months of age had vocabularies and sentence lengths comparable to those of monolingual US-born English-speaking peers. Children adopted between 13 and 18 months of age also did well, with scores reaching into the low average range for US-born peers by 6 months post-adoption. Rate of vocabulary growth was similar across children, with most reaching 50 words by 9 months post-adoption and 500 words by 21 months post-adoption. On average, they were producing 2-word utterances by 9 months post-adoption and 5-6 word utterances by 18 months post-adoption.
Final analyses are now being completed and results prepared for publication. Developmental charts for receptive and expressive vocabulary and utterance length will also be made accessible through this website. [Coming Soon!]
Publications/Presentations resulting from this study:
Pollock, K. (2005). Early language growth in children adopted from China: Issues and preliminary normative data. Seminars in Speech and Language, 26, 22-32. (full article available on request by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org )
click here to view abstract
Krakow, R., Aronoff, S., Glennen, S., Pollock, K., & Roberts, J. (2004). Internationally adopted children: Triumph and challenge. Invited seminar presented at the annual convention of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), Philadelphia, November.
Speech and Language Development in Children Adopted from China: Longitudinal Study of Six Children
Johanna Price1 (doctoral dissertation, University of Memphis, 2003)
Co-Directors: Karen E. Pollock and D. Kimbrough Oller
1now at Oklahoma State University
The purpose of this study was to provide detailed descriptions of the speech and language development of a small group of children adopted from China as infants and toddlers and to examine the relationship between their early speech and language behaviors (at six months post-adoption) and their English proficiency at age 3. Six children, ranging in age from 9 to 17 months at time of adoption, participated in the study. Every three months, the parents completed the MacArthur Communicative Development Inventory (MCDI), a parent report instrument measuring vocabulary and other early communication behaviors. In addition, the Reynell Developmental Language Scales III (RDLS-III) , a standardized test of receptive and expressive language abilities, was administered and a 30 minute communication sample recorded.
Three patterns of vocabulary growth were observed. Two children experienced rapid vocabulary growth immediately after adoption. Two demonstrated vocabulary spurts about one year after adoption. The remaining two children showed relatively stable vocabulary growth rates throughout the study.
At age 3, speech, language, and preliteracy skills were assessed using a variety of standardized and non-standardized measures. Five of the six children exhibited speech and language abilities at or above average. The other child scored below average on all measures. Interestingly, this child had also displayed the slowest rate of vocabulary growth over the course of the study.
We were also interested in whether or not early communicative behaviors (such as rate of vocalizations, type of babbling, number of different sounds produced, etc.) would be related to the children’s language abilities at age 3. Detailed analyses of the communication samples from the 6-month post-adoption visit showed that although there was wide variation in performance, all of the children exhibited behaviors within the normal range. In addition, none of the behaviors measured at 6 months post-adoption predicted the outcomes on assessments conducted at age 3. Further research with a larger sample of children is needed to address these questions.
Findings indicated that vocabulary levels reached 50 words by one year post-adoption and 400 words by two years post-adoption for the five children who scored within or above normal limits at age 3. Level of language development in Chinese prior to adoption, as well as parental concern regarding their child’s language development may be sensitive indicators of English language development. The findings also support the notion of resiliency of children’s language learning capacity in the context of early change in language environment.
Presentations/publications resulting from this study:
Price, J.R. (2003). Speech and language development in children adopted from China. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The University of Memphis. (click here to view abstract)
Price, J.R., & Pollock, K.E. (2003). Language development in six children adopted from China. Paper presented at the annual convention of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), Chicago, November. (click here to view abstract)
Price, J.R., Pollock, K.E., & Oller, D.K. (2004). Infraphonological and phonological development in six children adopted from China. Poster presented at the annual convention of the American Speech-Langauge-Hearing Association (ASHA), Philadelphia, November. (click here to view abstract)
Language and Academic Skills of Children Adopted from China as Infants
Kathleen Urichuk, B.Ed., MScSLP Thesis Student, with Karen E. Pollock, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Thesis Supervisor (University of Alberta)
Recent research has shown that the majority of children adopted from China as infants or toddlers “catch up” quickly and show language skills comparable to those of non-adopted peers during the preschool years. However, little research exists concerning the long-term outcomes for these children as they enter school and begin to use language for learning.
This study was developed in response to questions about the language and academic skills of children who were adopted from China as infants or toddlers. The study is similar to one recently published by Glennen & Bright (2005), which included children adopted from Eastern Europe. The purpose of the study is to determine whether children adopted from China have language and academic skills comparable to non-adopted peers during the elementary school years. The study has been approved by the Health Research Ethics Board at the University of Alberta.
Update February 2007: Surveys have been completed by 75 participants, and analyses are underway. A summary of results will be posted when available.
Speech and Language Development in Children Adopted from Haiti
Karen Pollock, Katherine G. Chattaway, Sharon Fast, Madeleine Reay, & Caroline Zmijewski (University of Alberta)
Most research on speech and language development in internationally adopted children has focused on children adopted from Eastern Europe and China, who represent the largest groups of internationally adopted children in North America. It is not known whether the results of these studies are generalizable to children adopted from other countries. In Canada, adoptions from China predominate, representing over 50% of all international adoptions in 2003. However, in Alberta, the number of adoptions from Haiti has been roughly equivalent to the number of adoptions from China since 2001 (statistics by province were not available prior to 2001). However, there has been no research on children adopted from Haiti. Like children from China and Eastern Europe, most children adopted from Haiti lived in orphanages prior to adoption and experience an abrupt switch in language environment at time of adoption. But differences in quality of orphanage care, language of birth country (French or French Creole) and health status of children from Haiti might influence their English language development differently.
This study was designed to examine the English speech and language skills in young (2 1/2 to 8 yr old) children who were adopted from Haiti as infants or toddlers. The method was similar to that used in Roberts et al. (2005) study of preschoolers adopted from China. Specifically, we wanted to know, “How do preschool-aged children adopted from Haiti as infants/toddlers perform on common measures of English speech and language development after one or more years of exposure to English in their permanent homes?”
Seventeen children 10 boys, 7 girls) between 2 1/2 and 7 years of age (avg age = 4 1/2 yrs) participated. They had been in their permanent homes in Canada for 1 to 5 years. Children were assessed using a battery of commonly used tests speech-language development. In addition, each child was given a hearing screening and a recording of their spontaneous speech during a play session was recorded. Information on adoption history, health, and general development was obtained via parent questionnaires. Data collection is now complete, and the analysis of test results is underway. According to the standardized test results, only 3 (18%) of the children scored below average on 2 or more tests. Interestingly, 5 (29%) of the children scored above average on 2 or more tests. Gender, age at time of adoption, and length of time in the permanent home were not strongly correlated with total language test scores. The low-scoring children appeared to have more difficulty with grammatical skills than with vocabulary skills, and on the whole articulation (speech sound production) skills were a strength. Additional analyses are currently underway, and will be reported here when available.