Building Bridges - The Effects of First Language Attrition on Second Language Acquisition in International Adoptees
Committee Members: Thomas Nowacki, Dr. Joyce Kessler, Elizabeth Halasz, Harold Lewis, Dr. Monica Gordon-Pershey
International adoption within the U.S. hasn’t been studied for very long because it is a fairly new process, the earliest starting in Korea about 50 years ago. Now that international adoption has expanded to include other countries all over the world, such as China, Guatemala, and Russia, within the last 25 years, “international adoptions are becoming increasingly more common worldwide, with the United States leading in the number of children adopted from outside the country each year.”  As a result, more and more of these individuals are now becoming adults and their search for identity begins. The purpose of this prospectus is to identify trends and patterns in research on the cognitive-developmental skills of international adoptees from evidence dating back to the last 15 years, and propose a solution to the lack of information that is available to the growing demand of said information from international adoptees who are now becoming adults.
When it comes to internationally adopted (IA) children, there are many different factors that contribute to their individuality and upbringing within a new environment - where they’re from, their age at the time of their adoption, their biological background, etc. Despite these endless factors of differences, there is one thing they have in common - the necessity to learn a new language. Assimilating to western culture forces international adoptees to learn western language: English. As a result, IA children who were adopted at an early age tend to lose their native language within the first 3 months of cultural assimilation to adapt to their new mono-linguistic families who speak only english. Even if the family works hard to help the child retain his or her native language though heritage programs and language classes, the combination of low level first language skills that the child had before being adopted and being in a family environment that exclusively speaks english causes rapid linguistic loss of the child’s native language.  In most cases, this language attrition isn’t a problem in the beginning. But as the adoptee gets older and becomes more interested in learning about their birth culture, more often than not, the first thing he or she considers is taking up lessons in their native language in hopes to reconnect with their lost culture. What recent articles and research have provided is evidence showing that the early exposure to an individual’s native language leaves permanent traces in the brain, long after a second language has replaced the first. How does this effect international adoptees’ cognitive - developmental skills when assimilating to another culture? Does this make it easier for international adoptees with a second language acquisition to re-learn their lost first language? In order to further explain this phenomenon and answer these questions, let’s first go over the aspect of the human body that is responsible for language acquisition and how language is processed and stored: the brain.
The brain is divided into 2 hemispheres - the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere. This is known as lateralization. Lateralization refers to the dominant brain function in one of the hemispheres, for example, the left hemisphere is dominant in intellectual skills, such as organization, analyzing, calculation, and language, whereas the right hemisphere is more dominant in creativity and emotional expression.  Lateralization must not be confused with localization of the brain. Localization refers to a specific cognitive function in a certain part of the brain within a hemisphere, such as the ability to read in the angular gyrus. 
In regards to localization, the fundamental structures of the human brain responsible for language processing and the ability to relay sounds that produce language are the Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Paul Pierre Broca (1824-1880) was a French medical practitioner and anthropologist specializing in neurology. He is best known for his discovery on the small portion of the brain responsible for producing sounds to formulate speech. “This area can be found in the lower back portion of the frontal lobe in the left hemisphere of the brain.”  Damage to the Broca’s area is called Broca’s aphasia and results in the loss of the ability to formulate speech, however, the ability to comprehend language is usually still in tact.  Likewise, Carl Wernicke (1848-1905) was a German medical practitioner and neuropathologist known for his discovery on the portion of the brain responsible for comprehension of speech. “This area can be found in the upper back portion of the temporal lobe.”  Damage to this part of the brain is called Wernicke’s aphasia and results in the inability to comprehend speech, however, the ability to formulate sentences is usually still in tact.  The Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas are located in two different lobes of the brain and are connected through a bundle of nerves called the arcuate fascilicus. These structures begin to develop during the 3rd trimester (30 weeks) of a mother’s gestational period, meaning babies first begin to register language in utero. Because first language registration begins so early in this time frame, the essential language learning period in an infant is the first 6 months after birth.
Bilingualism vs. Language Acquisition
Now let’s focus on the two types of language acquisition in the form of bilingualism. One type is known as simultaneous bilingualism in which two languages are being learned at the same time. In contrast, sequential bilingualism refers to learning one language and then another. The assimilation of international adoptees allows for sequential bilingualism to take place, however, the process is closely associated with language attrition of the first language. As a result, they go from being bilingual (speaking two languages at one) to monolingual (only being able to speak one language) because their new western culture only speaks English. When AI children start to acquire a new language, their brain allows them to comprehend before they are able to produce the proper language within their new culture. 
Cognitive Development Patterns
While language acquisition may be an easy concept to understand, there are so many factors that contribute to the actual process, many of which can have its problems. One of the most common issues regarding cognitive development among international adoptees is lack of phonemic awareness. “Developmentally, communicative language emerges first and much earlier than cognitive language.”  Communicative language refers to the ability to make sounds used for speaking, such as a baby says “goo-goo, ga-ga” whereas cognitive language refers to the ability to understand language and formulate actual words. “Thus the quality and quantity of a child's early communicative experience is crucial for forming the foundation of cognitive/academic language.”  Because IA children are abruptly assimilated into a new environment, the need for language acquisition throws their communicative development off course. As a result, “toddlers experience an abrupt and profound loss of their first language and an interruption in their language development.”  “Because phoneme recognition and other phonological processes required for reading are just developing and depend on repetition and reinforcement, it is clear why these skills are the first to vanish. Expressive language disappears next and attrition is evident by three months post adoption.”  With this in mind, evidence shows that one of the most common developmental issues seems to be dyslexia. “Recent research suggests that age at time of adoption and length of exposure to English are significant contributors to language learning progress for IA children..the earlier a child is adopted into his or her monolingual English-speaking family, the earlier the child’s language performance will match his or her same age peers.”  The older someone is, the harder it is for them to learn a new language because the brain must make a new space to store the language. In her TEDtalk about language acquisition in babies, co-director of the Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences at the University of Washington, Patricia Kuhl, states that babies can “discriminate all the sounds of all languages no matter what country they’re from or what language they’re using, whereas adults can’t do that due to being “culture- bound listeners.” She goes on to explain that, as adults, we can “distinguish sounds of our own language, but not those of foreign languages.”  This is because, by the age of 8, there is a rapid decline in language learning in multiple languages. Learning a new language after that becomes much harder because, after the age of 8, children start to rely on one language to use for the rest of their lives in their mono-linguistic society. In other words, depending an individual’s age, language can be stored in different places throughout the brain. The older someone is, the harder it is for them to learn a new language because the brain must make a new space to store the language.
Language Storage in the Brain and Savings Paradigm
“Aspects of language ability are distributed all over the brain,” according to Dr. Hirsch, head of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital's functional M.R.I. Laboratory, in a New York Times Article.  “There are some high-level, executive regions that are usually localized in a certain neighborhood on the left side of the brain, but are sometimes found in the same neighborhood on the right side, or on both sides” - Wernicke’s and Broca’s regions. “The regions are identified by observing brain function.”  Studies have shown that the brain uses different strategies for learning languages, depending on age.  “A baby learns to talk using all faculties -- hearing, vision, touch and movement -- which may feed into hardwired circuits like Broca's area. Once cells in this region become tuned to one or more languages, they become fixed. If two languages are acquired at this time of infancy, they become intermingled. But people who learn a second language in high school have to acquire new skills for generating the complex speech sounds of the new tongue, which may explain why a second language is harder to learn. Broca's area is already dedicated to the native tongue and so an ancillary Broca's region is created. But Wernicke's area, which handles the simpler semantic aspects of language, can overlap.”  In other words, the age of the individual determines where new language is stored in the brain.!
! The memory research done on language storage in the brain is known as the “savings paradigm.” “The savings paradigm has not typically been used to test the acquisition and subsequent retention of vocabulary in foreign languages. Rather, it has been used as a memory test, involving number-word pairs that are basically meaning- less and learnt in isolation. Naturalistic learning of words is obviously much richer, due to its essentially semantic and conceptual nature, and accordingly strategies to relate translation equivalents are manifold and possibly not reducible to just a single type of memorization. However, in order to test residual, possibly subthreshold memory, the savings paradigm seems an ideal method. In this sense, we expanded the use of this memory test and tested whether and how it could be used for research in language loss or also foreign language acquisition.”  By studying the savings paradigm, scientists can determine how a first lost language can still be stored in the brain and whether or not it can be easily relearned.
Now that international adoptees are becoming adults, there is an increasing demand from these individuals for them to learn about their birth culture, however, there aren’t many resources that cater to the adoptees themselves. My goal is to create a website heavily based in animation to help further education on the cognitive - developmental skills of international adoptees, a small piece of information that contributes to the ongoing search of identity within these individuals. By creating this website, I believe that the information I present on the anatomy and physiology of the human brain, and its correlation to first language attrition will be beneficial to the adoption community in ways that will make being internationally adopted a more positive and understanding experience for, not only the adoptees themselves, but for the general public as well.
Biomedical Art is the combination of art and science in which the purpose is to educate audiences on scientific topics, ranging from medical and biological, to zoological, botanical, and other social sciences, through artistic multimedia. My goal, in relation to how my project is biomedical art, resides in the fact that the scientific topic I chose contains a social implication that is illustrative and educational, which is the most essential aspect of biomedical art. With that in mind, I would like to bring attention to the international adoption community and the neurological science within it.
The choice to create a website with heavy animation seems to be the best media to deliver information. “When you tell a good story, you must first be able to speak in a language the audience can understand, relate to their knowledge, and engage with them...Understanding that information is coloured by the culture as much as it informs culture means we are all going to have to spend a lot more time getting to grips with global brand control with a localised palate. In trying to achieve our common goal of reaching out and communicating with this global audience we have to recognize there are boundaries with our audience and also in our own understanding. It is the people who are willing to take risks and break a few rules and still convey powerful new messages across that can truly call themselves transformers.”  For this website to make the transformative impact on the adoption community, the best way to communicate my research is through animation. “Animation, in its simplest definition, is change over time. Anything that we see on TV, games, or film that is not capture from video is considered animation. The distinction between video and animation is that video and film are “captured” images from relief, while animation images are “generated” either by hand or by a computer...One great thing about working with computers is the scalability of your work.”  So the animation itself, will start off showing a basic overview of the anatomy of the human brain and then will expand further on neurological science behind language ability. With little to no information about the research topic out there on the interweb, there isn’t anything like this project. Creating a website with heavy animation will provide clear, and user friendly information that can be accessed across the country as well as globally in English-speaking countries.
Process and Preproduction
With all the gathered information on the research topic, I can start the pre- production phase. The color palette for the website has already been chosen, with yellows and browns that mimic that of old scrolls to signify the preservation of language in the brain. The animation will be 3D animated using Autodesk products - Maya and Mudbox. A survey will be conducted within 2 different groups - international adoptees and international students who are bilingual. The purpose of this survey will be to gather data on the differences of language acquisition among bilinguals and monolinguals who experienced first language attrition. Project presentation will be held in the 5’x8’ space that is given at the end of the year. The reason to showcase in this space, and not in a theatre, is to create an environment that mimics the circumstances in which the animation will be viewed, i.e. at home or in an office, using a personal computer. Ideally, the form of presentation will be an animation embedded within the website, however, due to limited knowledge in coding, realistically, the website will have a hyperlink to the animation. Story boarding for the animation will include the general anatomy of the human brain, as well as comparisons of how language attrition affects the brain in different ages. The animation will have little to no interactivity, with a play/pause button for the viewer, as well as a time scroll.
The product of this project is based off of preliminary research on first language attrition in international adoptees. Questions that are raised from this study include how does first language attrition effect international adoptees’ cognitive - developmental skills when assimilating to another culture? Does this make it easier for international adoptees with a second language acquisition to re-learn their lost first language? Further research needs to be done to be able to fully answer these questions.
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