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Most children raised in orphanages will have language delays prior to adoption.  The causes of these delays are outlined in the Orphanage Care section of this web site.  The best medicine for these delays is adoption into a family that provides good nutritional and physical care, within an enriching, nurturing language learning environment.  

After adoption, the internationally adopted child gains a new family, a new culture and a new language.  Because adoptive families are rarely able to maintain the birth language, development in that language stops suddenly, or in linguistic terms becomes "arrested."   There are many developmental and linguistic issues that emerge when language development is prematurely arrested.  These issues are reviewed in depth in Glennen (2002) and will not be addressed here.  Suffice it to say that arrested language development is not an ideal situation and results in slowing the language learning  process.  

Toddler in a Russian Baby Home

After adoption children have to begin learning in a new language.  Most parents expect initial delays in English language skills but also wonder how much delay is normal, and when (if ever) to expect the child to catch up.  I had the same questions after adopting my 17 month old son from Russia, and was concerned when his English language skills emerged more slowly than expected.  At the time, there wasn't much information available about language.  Much of the information was anecdotal, based on a small number of children who truly had severe problems.  Other information was based on testing internationally adopted children in English then comparing them to English-language norms. These tests resulted  in a high number of children being labeled with delayed language.  There was no information regarding typical language learning milestones for internationally adopted children.  

In researching the problem of typical language learning, other parents and professionals had the same unanswered questions.  During discussions, three scenarios began to emerge.  The first was the family who expected normal English language skills immediately after adoption and sought early intervention services if the child wasn't fully caught up within a few months home.  The second scenario was the family who felt it would take the child a long time to learn English. Those families didn't seek intervention services even when the child was way behind a year or two after coming home.  A third scenario was described by families who sought early intervention services and despite the child's obvious delays were given the "your child hasn't been home long enough to learn English" justification to deny services.  In summary, there was no consensus regarding what was 'normal' for internationally adopted children.

Language Development Survey Project

In order to develop a profile of normal language development in internationally adopted children, a parent survey project was developed (Glennen & Masters, 2002).  Parents of children adopted from Eastern Europe were contacted and asked to provide information about their child's vocabulary development, to complete checklists of language abilities, and to provide examples of the child's longest sentences.  Over 130 parents responded and completed the initial surveys.  Parents were then sent additional surveys every 3-6 months until the children reached age 40 months.  Because language development varies depending on the child's adoption age, children were divided into four age of adoption groups.  The first group consisted of children adopted at age 12 months and younger.  The second group was children adopted between 13-18 months.  The third group was children adopted between 19-24 months, and the final group was children adopted between 25-30 months.  This web site provides a brief review of the findings from the parent survey project.  Additional information regarding survey methods, data analysis, and complete results are available in Glennen and Masters (2002).  

The survey collected information about vocabulary, sentence length, grammar, and overall language development skills.  The first part of the survey asked parents to track vocabulary development.  A 300-word checklist developed by Rescorla (1989) was used to collect this information.  Parents simply checked each English word  the child could say.  The second part of the survey asked parents to write out the child's 3 longest sentences.  These were analyzed by counting the number of 'Morphemes' in each sentence.  A morpheme is a unit of meaning.  It can be a word, such as "dog" or a grammatical marker such as  "plural s."  For example "dog" equals 1 morpheme, "dogs" equals 2 morphemes.  A sentence such as "The dogs are chasing cars" has 8 morphemes (1 for each word plus 3 for the plurals and the ing verb ending).  The average number of morphemes in the child's 3 longest sentences was calculated as a measure of sentence complexity.  Parents were also asked to check if their child was using plurals, possessive 's markers, "ing" verb endings, or regular past tense "ed" verb endings.  In addition the child's sentences were reviewed to see if these grammar markers appeared.  Use of grammatical markers was then scored from 0 to 4 depending on how many of the grammatical endings the child used.  Finally parents were given a checklist of language development skills modified from Rosetti (1990).  If 75% of the items at a given age level were checked by the parent, the child was considered to have mastered skills at that age. 

The pages linked below contain results from the surveys and provide information regarding normal language development in internationally adopted children learning English.  Each page has a table that indicates the child's current age along the vertical axis.  The horizontal axis indicates the average (mean) score for each age, the first standard deviation scores for each age, and the range of scores for each age.  First standard deviation numbers provide cutoffs for determining if a child is above or below average when compared to other internationally adopted children.  Any child whose language skills fall near or below the first standard deviation cutoff score should be referred for early intervention services.  If a child's scores are above the first standard deviation cutoff, the child is above average when compared to other internationally adopted children.  Children whose scores are between the numbers are developing normally.  The range lists the lowest and highest recorded scores from the survey.  Although this data is based on children adopted from Eastern European orphanages, it is likely that children adopted out of orphanages from other countries will learn similarly.  Roberts, Krakow and Pollack (2002) are conducting a parent survey study of children adopted from China and finding similar results.  Parents and professionals are encouraged to use these tables to determine if a child is developing normally or is in need of early intervention services.  Beneath each table is a summary with a review of what to expect and when to get concerned.

 

Language Development Charts for Children Adopted Between 0-12 Months

Language Development Charts for Children Adopted Between 13-18 Months

Language Development Charts for Children Adopted Between 19-24 Months

Language Development Charts for Children Adopted Between 25-30 Months

 

Vocabulary Development in Internationally Adopted Infants and Toddlers

Charts based on Glennen and Masters (2002) were developed to quickly compare similar information across the adoption age groups.  The first chart outlines vocabulary growth over time.  Low, mid and high scores are based on the average scores and first standard deviation cutoffs for each age level.  The highest possible number at any age level is 310.  Children whose scores fall near or below the low score should be referred for early intervention services. 

 

 

 

Vocabulary Development by Age of Adoption

Current

0-12 Months

13-18 Months

19-24 Months

25-30 Months

Age

Low

Mid

High

Low

Mid

High

Low

Mid

High

Low

Mid

High

12 mos

    0

    2

    7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

15 mos

    0

    7

  17

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

18 mos

    0

  34

  74

    0

  16

  38

 

 

 

 

 

 

24 mos

  40

116

191

    8

  67

126

     0

  20

  41

 

 

 

30 mos

124

214

304

  45

175

110

   51

132

243

    6

  42

  78

36 mos

221

272

310*

157

229

301

 122

209

295

111

181

251

40 mos

 

 

 

151

263

310*

 184

251

310*

173

237

302

 What the numbers clearly show is the rapid pace of vocabulary growth after adoption.  By 40 months, children adopted at older ages were close to catching up to those adopted at younger ages.  Internationally adopted children who are not making fast progress in learning English vocabulary should be referred for early intervention services.  Refer to the charts listed above for further details about what to expect at each age level and when to get concerned.

Sentence Length in Internationally Adopted Children

Similar charts were developed to compare sentence length across children adopted at different ages (Glennen & Masters, 2000).  As outlined previously, each child's three longest sentences were counted in morphemes and averaged together.  Low, mid and high scores are based on the average scores and first standard deviation cutoffs for each age level.  Children whose longest sentences fall near or below the low score should be referred for early intervention services. 

 

 

Longest Sentence Length by Age of Adoption

Current

0-12 Months

13-18 Months

19-24 Months

25-30 Months

Age

Low

Mid

High

Low

Mid

High

Low

Mid

High

Low

Mid

High

12 mos

      0

    .5

  1.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

15 mos

      0

    .5

  1.5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

18 mos

     .2

  1.1

  2.0

    .1

    .6

   1.1

 

 

 

 

 

 

24 mos

     .9

  2.6

  4.3

    .7

  1.6

   2.4

   .2

   .7

 1.2

 

 

 

30 mos

   2.3

  5.9

  9.4

  1.0

  2.8

   4.6

 1.0

 2.1

 3.3

   .0

 1.7

 3.4

36 mos

   6.1

  9.5

12.9

  3.5

  4.8

   6.2

 5.3

 5.5

 5.6

 1.8

 3.8

 5.8

40 mos

 

 

 

  6.3

  9.5

 12.7

 5.1

 5.9

 6.6

 3.9

 5.9

 7.9

 Unlike vocabulary development, sentence length does not catch up as easily.  There are significant differences in sentence length based on the child's age of adoption.  By age 40 months, children adopted before 18 months of age were averaging 9-10 morphemes in their longest sentences, children adopted after 19 months of age were only producing sentences with 5-6 morphemes.  The differences in sentence length are due to leaving grammar elements out of the sentences.  For example, a child adopted at a younger age might say "He's jumping over the blue chairs" (9 morphemes) while a child adopted at older ages might say "He jumping over blue chairs" (7 morphemes).  The content vocabulary of the sentences is similar, but several grammar elements are left out of the older child's sentences.  Refer to the charts listed above for further details about what to expect at each age level and when to get concerned.

What to do if a Language Delay is Suspected

Children under age 36 months with suspected speech, language, or any other type of developmental delay are eligible for early intervention services under the federal IDEA act PL 105-17 (Moore-Brown & Montgomery, 2001; Paul, 2001).  Children born into "high risk" categories automatically qualify for services.  Many internationally adopted infants and toddlers have high risk factors in their pre-adoption histories that may qualify them for services.  Children also qualify if they are more than 25% delayed in any one developmental area.  Early intervention services are usually operated through the local school district although some states and regions have opted to set up other agencies to handle these services.  Families can get information on early intervention services in their area by contacting their local neighborhood public school or state Child Find service.

Early intervention services typically begin with an in-home assessment of the child.  One issue that emerges with internationally adopted children is how to assess the extent of language delay when the child is in the process of learning a new language.  While some professionals will have experience with internationally adopted children, most will not.  Parents should be ready to provide professionals with the information contained in this web site if necessary.

If the early intervention team determines that the child has a language or other developmental delay, then treatment services are arranged and an Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) is developed.  The IFSP is a legal document that states the services to be provided and treatment goals for the child and family.  For very young children treatment is usually held in the home setting and the primary focus should be training the parent to help the child.  As the child ages, small group treatment is sometimes offered at a nearby school.  

Children older than 36 months are seen through the IDEA Part-B program. IDEA Part-B applies to any child age 3 through 21 who requires a free, appropriate public education (FAPE).   Parents can contact their local public school to get information on services for preschool children.  If a child has been seen for early intervention services, the early intervention team will assist the family in making the transfer from one program to the other.  Services for 3-5 year old children range from individual or small group therapy sessions, to preschool classroom programs.  Services may be held in the neighborhood public school, or may be held at another school in the district.  The intervention team will develop an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that outlines appropriate services and treatment goals for the child.  Most school districts have developed policies outlining who qualifies for services under IDEA Part-B.  These policies are usually more strict than those used to qualify for early intervention services.  

In addition to services provided through the public schools, parents can also get speech and language services through private agencies, hospitals, and clinics.  The American Speech Language Hearing Association web site has a comprehensive listing of certified professionals that can be searched by geographic area.    

Back to Top          Language Development Charts

Towson University

Sharon Glennen, Ph.D., CCC-SLP
Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders
Towson University
Towson, MD 21252
Last Modified 7/22/02