Expect that a child who has spent any amount of time in an orphanage or institution will experience speech delays at least initially. Many factors contribute to just how extensive the delay may be, including the age of the child, living conditions, and health issues. And while you may hear from others who know someone who knows someone who adopted whose child picked up the language easily, that is not typical. Still, with a little support from parents as well as speech therapy, success rates for speech delay are high and should not impact a child’s long-term development.
1. Age matters.
Speech delay is less likely with infant adoption for obvious reasons. Our oldest daughter was just a few months old when we adopted her. She experienced no speech and language difficulties and met the standard language milestones. In contrast, our youngest daughter was toddler-aged and not yet speaking in her native tongue. Despite well-meaning people assuring us she would pick up the English language quickly since she was still so young, that was not the case.
The toddler years are the formative years, when kiddos are exploring the world around them and developing a wide range of skills. As they perfect one skill, it’s common for them to ignore another. Add onto that the change from one language to another and the transition associated with international adoption and you’ve got yourself a lot going on at once.
Older adopted children may actually have an advantage in having a good grasp on their native language and communication skills overall. Their background this will help them engage and learn the English language with direction. However, they are more likely to struggle with pronunciation and grammar rules.
2. Give me shelter.
Your child’s first home will play a huge role in his or her speech development. Children who have spent time in institutions lacking basic care, or where neglect or abuse may have taken place, will most certainly experience speech delays. Even under the best of circumstances, where the child has been raised by a proactive caregiver, chances are your child was one of many children and most likely did not receive much of the one-on-one interaction necessary for early language skill development.
Because you may know little about your child’s early living conditions and may not have access to complete family/medical history, it may behoove you to pay extra attention to delayed speech and language development. Friends and doctors may assure you that many native English speakers experience delayed speech without long-term effects, and that it is just a matter of time before your child catches up as well. This may be true, but just as often, the child may need a little extra helping catching up and/or addressing an underlying issue.
3. Healthy beginnings.
Children born with medical issues, great or small, may experience speech delays, no matter the conditions of their first home. Chronic ear infections, respiratory issues, special needs issues, even quick-spreading colds and other minor ailments common to orphanages can put a hamper on speech development. Speak to staff members at the orphanage and ask for your child’s medical records to determine if there was a period of time due to prolonged sickness or injury that may have affected his or her speech growth.
4. Advocate for your child.
When I broached the subject of a possible speech delay with our daughter’s pediatrician, he initially brushed it off but offered a couple numbers in case I wanted to pursue the matter on my own. Do your own research and don’t assume that anybody will understand your unique case. If possible, seek out a pediatrician and/or specialists who are familiar with international adoption.
It was clear to us that our daughter was struggling with not being able to communicate her wants and needs. She wanted to speak but didn’t know where to begin, and this left her (and us) feeling frustrated. We sought early intervention speech therapy and it was determined that she did in fact have a severe delay. While it felt snail-slow sometimes (be patient), she had a dedicated speech therapist who was good at working with an active and sometimes uninterested toddler. For all of us, each new sound and each new word was exciting. Work with your child’s speech therapist and be present at the sessions if possible so that you can observe and reinforce lessons. Educate close family and friends so they know the do’s and don’ts.
5. Go beyond therapy.
In addition to therapy, if warranted, read to your child every day, play hands-on games requiring communication (less screen time and more face time), and use everyday situations like mealtimes, chores, or going to the store to encourage your child to express himself verbally when possible.
As parents, we look forward to hearing our child’s first words just as much as they enjoy speaking them, but be patient. You want to push, but don’t be too pushy. Children adopted internationally can and do eventually catch up.