Physician: Language Development in the Older Child

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How important is it to maintain the child’s original language, especially if the adopted child is older when he arrives home?

Language competency is very important to communicate ones want, needs, and desires with the child’s adoptive parents. Unfortunately, many orphan children are already speech delayed in their native language when they arrive to their new home. This delay in speech can make learning English that much more difficult to master. The decision of whether to try to maintain the child’s birth language basically comes down to whether it is worth keeping and how old the child is when arriving to the United States.

School aged children will be able to keep their native language, but a few factors need to exist for this to occur. There must be a need to speak the language. Usually, older sibling groups will continue to speak their original language between themselves. They sometimes consider this their secret way of communicating with each other that their parents do not understand. If the child lives in a community where other children or people speak the native language, then it may be of benefit to try to keep the language. If the child speaks a certain dialect of the Hindi language and lives in Alaska where no one else speaks it, then the language is not that important, and will self extinguish from lack of practice.

The case of older child, the decision on what to do is an easy one, but what about the preschool child who is 3-5 years of age and already has some formal language development?

Many parents fear that if they keep the child’s original language they will have difficulty with the English language because of confusion. Other parents are at the other extreme where they hire nannies, tutors, and go to great lengths to arrange play dates with other children that have the same language. In my personal opinion, both of these responses are correct. So if there is a use for the language then by all means try to salvage it.

Children are very smart, and are capable to doing things that we as adults are not. Both of my children were raised in our Romanian-speaking household. Since their grandparents did not speak English, the primary means of communications was strictly Romanian. At the tender age of three, my eldest son Peter went to pre-school, not knowing a word of English. It was amazing to see how after only 1-2 months he developed the English language with little to no difficulty. He is now 9 years old and speaks both Romanian and English fluently. Obviously, his English speaking skills are far more advanced than the Romanian because he is not using it as much because he speaks only English with his younger brother, classmates, and now his parents.

Our other son Teddy, who is now 6 years old, also went to pre-school at 3 years of age not knowing much of the English language. He did however know more than Peter did at this age because his older brother taught him during play activities. After 1-2 months he too obtained skills in the English language with little to no difficulty. A very interesting Phenomenon occurred with my second son Teddy. He can still speak Romanian, but he is nowhere near as fluent as his 9-year-old brother Peter. This has occurred because between themselves they speak only English, and never in Romanian. Children are interesting creatures because they know who to speak with in what language. In order to try to maintain their Romanian language skills, we try to speak with them in Romanian as much as possible, but sometimes they answer back in English. In order to continue to keep their language, we as a family must exercise their skills. If we do not, it will disappear on its own.

Knowing a second language is always an asset to ones resume and overall general fund of knowledge. In order to keep a language, it must be exercised.

by George Rogu, M.D.

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The information and advice provided is intended to be general information, NOT as advice on how to deal with a particular child's situation and or problem. If your child has a specific problem you need to ask your pediatrician about it - only after a careful history and physical exam can a medical diagnosis and/or treatment plan be made. This Web site does not constitute a physician-patient relationship.

This material has been provided by, an innovative adoption medicine private practice and educational service, dedicated to helping parents and adoption agencies with the complex pre-adoption medical issues of internationally adopted children. All medical interactions are performed via, e-mail, express mail, telephone, and fax. There is no need to make a live appointment or travel outside of your hometown. For more information, visit or call 631-499-4114.

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