Acquisition of English grammatical morphology by internationally adopted children from China

JCL CoverBlog post written by Lara Pierce based on an article published in Journal of Child Language

Internationally adopted (IA) children face a unique language learning situation in that they are exposed to one language from birth, but this language is discontinued at the point of adoption in favour of the language spoken by their adoptive family. IA children share similarities in their language environment with monolingual first language (L1) learners in that they receive the majority of their input in only one language. They functionally lose any abilities they had in their birth language quickly (within the first year or less) and typically become monolingual speakers of their adoptive language. However, their language experience also shares similarities with child second language (L2) learners, as they experience both a delay in acquisition onset of their adoptive language (typically ranging from about 6 months to 2 years), as well as exposure to another language. IA children are thus interesting from a linguistic perspective in that they provide a unique natural experiment to address issues relating to early language delay, as well as early exposure to two languages. Much of the previous work examining IA children’s language acquisition comes from a clinical perspective, using standardized tests and general measures of language ability to show that the majority of IA children “catch-up” to their age-mates relatively quickly following adoption (although for some aspects they appear to show delays, even into the school years). The aim of the present study was instead to examine acquisition of specific linguistic elements in IA children’s language with the goal of comparing them to typical L1- and child L2-acquisition patterns. In this way it was possible to address some interesting theoretical questions about the early period of language acquisition.

Thus, we longitudinally examined the acquisition of grammatical morphology for IA children (adopted from China at 10-13 months of age) in a way that allowed them to be compared to the typical acquisition patterns of L1 and child-L2 learners. While both of these groups share some similarities in the way they acquire this morphology, they also display notable differences. Specifically, child-L2 learners: 1) acquire the morpheme “BE” early, along with non-tense rather than tense-marking morphemes, and 2) show elevated rates of commission errors (i.e., replacing one grammatical morpheme with another) as opposed to omission errors. We could thus examine the patterns observed in the IA children’s acquisition over time to determine whether their development mapped onto either pattern. Our data showed that, during 5 sessions ranging from 9 to 34 months post adoption, IA children acquired grammatical morphemes in a manner similar to L1-learners, and this was evident in both spontaneous and elicited speech. Specifically, they 1) acquired “BE” within the same timeframe and along the same trajectory as other tense-marking morphemes, which was slower and less accurate than non-tense marking morphemes, and 2) showed a high percentage of omission and a low percentage of commission errors, consistent with the pattern observed for L1-learners. Thus, despite early delay in exposure to French, they appeared to acquire their “second first language” in a manner similar to typical monolingual language learners.

Read the entire article ‘Acquisition of English grammatical morphology by internationally adopted children from China’ written by Lara J. Pierce, Fred Genesee and Johanne Paradis here

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