• We compare English acquisition in internationally-adopted preschoolers and infants.
• Like infants, preschoolers use one word utterances until they learn about 200 words.
• Changes in vocabulary composition are similar in preschoolers and infants.
• Preschoolers initially learn words much faster than infants.
• Preschoolers show precocious acquisition of abstract adjectives and time words.
Early language development is characterized by predictable changes in the words children produce and the complexity of their utterances. In infants, these changes could reflect increasing linguistic expertise or cognitive maturation and development. To disentangle these factors, we compared the acquisition of English in internationally-adopted preschoolers and internationally-adopted infants. Parental reports and speech samples were collected for 1 year. Both groups showed the qualitative shifts that characterize first-language acquisition. Initially, they produced single-word utterances consisting mostly of nouns and social words. The appearance of verbs, adjectives and multiword utterances was predicted by vocabulary size in both groups. Preschoolers did learn some words at an earlier stage than infants, specifically words referring to the past or future and adjectives describing behavior and internal states. These findings suggest that cognitive development plays little role in the shift from referential terms to predicates but may constrain children’s ability to learn some abstract words.