The capacity for using language articulately is, according to a study by Hart and Risley (2003), strongly influenced by sufficient conversational immersion during the first three years of life. After that period it appears to be more difficult to develop that fluency if the conversational groundwork has not been laid out in the preceding years. With humans being inherently dispositional, and coupled with the fact that children absorb so much at that period of their lives, there would seem to be some truth to this.* What interested me the most in the Irish Times article (click link above) was the reference to the following finding:
US researchers have estimated that, by the age of three, children in disadvantaged families may have heard up to 30 million fewer words than their more privileged counterparts.
The US researchers referred to are Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley who for 2.5 years recorded “’everything’” taking place in the homes of 42 families for one hour every month. This was every piece of empirical data that they could capture, which revolved around the language learning experiences of infants (starting at 7-9 months). They not only produced reasonable averages for the amount of words that infants heard but also captured the quality of the words, whether the words were affirmative or prohibitive: the welfare families speaking more prohibitively and the professional classes being more affirmative. The differences between the classes in the study proved stark on all accounts and additionally these differences appeared to still be influencing school language performance by the time the children had reached the ages of 9 and 10.
The study is very thorough and well worth reading although the sample is too small to be representative of the entire US population. However, it offers a very valuable illustration of how disadvantages are subtly reproduced and makes for another addition to the role of disadvantage in parenting and childhood development as referred to in a previous post here.
Interestingly the piece in the Irish Times, although providing some useful advice for parents seems to locate the blame on the parents and their parenting practices. Their advice on choosing caregivers overlooks the unequal access that parents from disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to have in making that decision. Of course fault no doubt lies in parenting practices. However, as I stated in the previous post “being part of a less privileged social class, with less education (and I would argue more socially distant [à la Bourdieu] from the world of research-based expertise) means these parents are often excluded from the latest parental findings and advice”. Also what vast differences in vocabulary exist between parents from the law society and parents who are early school-leavers from lower socio-economic communities? And if lower class parents are using more prohibitive language towards their children does it not echo a sense of frustration and the dis-empowerment of their social conditions? In contrast does the more affirmative conversing of the professional classes reflect the ‘bright’ legitimate ‘future’ that they see for their children?
The potential for this verbal chasm in the classes, (the study by Hart and Risley is not titled The Early Catastrophe for nothing) amounts to another example of the head start in life that belongs to the privileged classes. It is an advantage all too easily glossed over by a sense of innate talent, which an easier stroll through the education system reinforces. Education thus remains that great thresher of the classes, anointing through meritocracy the achievers while condemning the drop-outs.
* Although it is not clear how the study cited reaches the conclusion that poor language skills performance in school at the age of 9-10 is a result of this and not the continuation of conditions that are not supportive of recognised verbal proficiency.