LINGUIST List 5.1330

Sun 20 Nov 1994

Qs: ESL in children cut off from their native language

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  1. Logical Language Group, ESL in children cut off from their native language - Any insights?

Message 1: ESL in children cut off from their native language - Any insights?

Date: Thu, 17 Nov 1994 02:56:32 ESL in children cut off from their native language - Any insights?
From: Logical Language Group <>
Subject: ESL in children cut off from their native language - Any insights?

2 years ago, my wife and I adopted two kids from Russia, at the time
aged 6.5 and 5. At the time, I informally asked around and got the
impression that there was unlikely to be anything particularly
interesting linguistically about their experiences in learning English,
and was referred to several books on ESL/2nd language learning among
immigrants. Unfortunately, due to the joys of parenting, I never read
most of the references I was given (I spent the time trying to learn
Russian instead).

I recently read something in another adoptive parent's posted experience
that made me again wonder about my kids' experiences in learning
English, which so far have apparently been a little unusual for adoptive
kids (I'll skip the details at this point in my inquiry). I am starting
to wonder if there is indeed something important in the language
experiences of kids adopted into a foreign language environment after

The key difference between international adoptions and other ESL
situations is that the older adopted kids suddenly are cut off from
input in their native language with a certain level of vocabulary and
mastery of that language, and thrown into an ESL/2nd language situation
where they learn a new language usually with no support in their native
language. Learning the new language takes a considerable amount of time
- my kids could communicate only minimally in English for about a year,
but for most adoptive kids, use of the 1st language seems to stop within
1-3 months since the kids seem to realize that it no longer serves any
useful communicative function.

After 2 years, my kids speak what to most people sounds like fluent
idiomatic English. However, their vocabulary seems greatly restricted
compared to native English kids their age - and their passive vocabulary
(words they understand that they don't use themselves) seems to be
especially restricted. They also have some peculiarities in grammar and
usage - perhaps those typical of second language speakers, but ignored
in the adoptive kids since they speak with no trace of an accent. These
problems seem to be especially persistent, probably because they pass
unnoticed most of the time (they do show up in the kids' writing now)
and they are resistent to correction.

My readings in linguistics have thus far all seemed to generalize about
a critical period lasting past my kids' age, where they are supposed to
learn languages like a sponge. The other adoptive parent, however,
posted that in talking with ESL experts, she found out that "ESL
learners generally cannot do phonics in the second language, nor can
they follow along in group oral reading. It takes 7 to 11 years in the
second language to develop the ability to manipulate written English,
particularly abstract cognitive academic material."

That poster also said that children completely removed from their native
language "before mastering all of its principles" have especial problems
in learning the new language. She also said that many of the normal ESL
procedures break down in such kids, that there are no good tests for
diagnosing language and learning problems in such kids, and that the
situation is enough unlike the normal ESL situation that trained ESL
teachers may not recognize problems or know how to solve them. She gave
several references, but mostly on the pragmatic "how to help your kid"

But putting on my linguist hat, and reading between the lines, I came up
with some questions that I put to the linguistic community:

1. Is anyone reading this doing any research relating to language
acquisition in kids cut off from their native tongue in the formative

2. Can anyone provide me references to such work?

3. Whether I get answers to #1 or #2, what years are the "formative
years" in which cutting off the child from the native language will have
an effect on 2nd language learning?

4. Does this age range have any relation to the "critical period" of
language learning? Might there be a correlation that would tell us
something about how and why kids learn languages differently and more
easily than adults?

5. What are the different effects of cutting off a child from his native
language at different ages/stages in language formation? It seems
pretty obvious that at the earliest years, "2nd language" learning would
asymptotically approach identity with the learning of the first

6. When 1st and 2nd languages have contrasting features, it would seem
that these kids would provide especial insight into UG models with
parameters, in addition providing some clue as to when and how the
parameters are set. Has anyone looked at this?

7. What is the long-term language prognosis for such kids? 7 to 11 years
of language difficulty, when the difficulty often goes unnoticed (or at
least the fact that the difficulty is due to language problems - the
adoptive parent who posted gave a detailed chronicle of her daughter's
varying problems from adoption at age 4 until 5th grade when the parent
finally came to find out why her daughter was having problems even
though she spoke English fluently) - this seems likely to have severe
long-term effects.

8. My kids and all others I know of have completely lost the native
language except for word isolates. Do such kids relearn their native
language any easier when they get older? Again, looking at contrasting
features that such kids have difficulty relearning might tell us a lot
about "parameter setting" especially when the difficulties do not match
those of others acquiring the language as a 2nd langusge with no prior
experience in the language. Kids cut off from the native language would
seem more likely to give clear data on this.

9. Are the effects of being cut-off from one's native language different
in kids like mine? My kids were cut off from the native language only
incompletely - they still had each other to talk to, in addition to my
wife and my rudimentary self-teaching - but all of this continued
exposure to the native language was impoverished both in vocabulary and
grammar.) Russian remained the language of our household for most of
the kids' first year here, and I quickly came to understand the
differences in language at differing ages. I could understand and
communicate with my kids quite well (and fluently) in Russian after
about a month, but still cannot understand even a slow talking Russian
adult. The types of errors kids tolerate (and make - my kids often had
the 'wrong' declensional ending on irregular words) seem quite different
from what adults accept.

10. Are there any English language discussions about child language
acquisition in Russian kids? (I'm sure there are Russian language
sources, but I would never get through them.) I would like to know what
the typical Russian child at the age my kids were adopted would
typically have mastered in features like declensions, numbers,
perfective/imperfective distinctions, and proper use of cases - things
that I haven't mastered well enough to be able to extract from
relistening to tapes thaty I made while they still spoke Russian

Bob LeChevalier, President, The Logical Language Group, Inc.
2904 Beau Lane, Fairfax VA 22031-1303 USA 703-385-0273
 For the artificial language Loglan/Lojban, see /pub/lojban
 or see Lojban WWW Server: href="";
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