Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The 30 Million Word Gap

I have discussed this topic on occasion, but will revisit it today. The topic is: the word gap between rich and poor children. It turns out that the children of wealthier parents are exposed to far more words than are the children of poor parents. Thus, the state of Georgia has initiated a program to encourage poor women to speak to their babies more often and in more depth.

The Atlantic reports:

Re­search sug­gests that poor chil­dren hear about 600 words per hour, while af­flu­ent chil­dren hear 2,000. By age 4, a poor child has a listen­ing vocab­u­lary of about 3,000 words, while a wealth­i­er child wields a 20,000-word listen­ing vocab­u­lary. So it’s no sur­prise that poor chil­dren tend to enter kinder­garten already be­hind their wealth­i­er peers. But it’s not just the poverty that holds them back—it’s the lack of words. In fact, the single-best pre­dict­or of a child’s aca­dem­ic suc­cess is not par­ent­al edu­ca­tion or so­cioeco­nom­ic status, but rather the qual­ity and quantity of the words that a baby hears dur­ing his or her first three years.

The human brain develops better when exposed to more words earlier. The most important stages of development occur are before the age of 3:

Those early years are crit­ic­al. By age three, 85 per­cent of neur­al con­nec­tions are formed, mean­ing it’s dif­fi­cult for a child who has heard few words to catch up to his peers once he enters the school sys­tem.

This produces a 30 million word gap, separating the children of the wealthy from the children of the poor. The state of Georgia is trying to reduce it:

Called simply “Talk With Me Baby,” the pro­gram is a mul­ti­faceted at­tempt to fill the massive 30 mil­lion-word gap between chil­dren from lower- and up­per-income fam­il­ies by mak­ing sure that ba­bies from all backgrounds hear lots of words.

The woman in charge of the program in Georgia explains:

“This is pure bio­logy,” Brenda Fitzger­ald, Geor­gia’s Health Com­mis­sion­er and the wo­man in charge of state pub­lic-health pro­grams, said dur­ing an in­ter­view at her At­lanta of­fice. “Which is why it’s a pub­lic-health ini­ti­at­ive.”

Chil­dren with more words do bet­ter in school. Adults who were good stu­dents and earned a col­lege de­gree have longer life ex­pect­an­cies. They are at a lower risk for hy­per­ten­sion, de­pres­sion, and sleep prob­lems. They are less likely to be smokers and to be obese.

“There is no way we can sep­ar­ate health and edu­ca­tion,” said Jen­nifer Stapel-Wax, dir­ect­or of in­fant and tod­dler clin­ic­al re­search op­er­a­tions at the Mar­cus Aut­ism Cen­ter in At­lanta, and the self-de­scribed “chief cheer­lead­er” for the effort.

It is also likely that women from more affluent homes are more intelligent and more verbal. Thus, that the correlation relates to educational achievement as much as it does to disparate incomes.

We do not know, from the information provided in the article, how many of the parents of poor children are married, single or divorced. We do not know how many children live in their homes and what help they have with childcare. And we do not know anything about whether some children are born with higher or lower IQs… as a matter of genetic inheritance.

And yet, it is surely a good idea for the government to spend some time and money trying to teach poor women to speak to their children more. On the other hand, if these women have more limited vocabularies, then clearly their children will still lag by some measures. A child’s listening vocabulary will necessarily be smaller if his mother has a smaller vocabulary.

Finally, no one is discussing an issue that I brought up on this blog. Namely, that when an intelligent, well-educated woman spends more time outside of the home on her job, thereby delegating child care to a woman who is less intelligent and who is less garrulous, how does that affect her children? If she delegates child care to her husband, and if, as very often happens, her husband is less talkative than she is, what does that do to the child’s development? Does the theory of the word gap tell us that these women are depriving their children of something that only they can provide?

Here, quality time does not make up for the loss of quantity time, for missing out on a quantity of words. But surely the quality of the speech also matters. Experiments have shown that television and the radio are not adequate substitutes for conversational speech or for reading to a child. One assumes that a mother who holds an intelligent conversation with a baby does better than does a mother who might speak a lot of words but has a more limited vocabulary and does not have very much to say.


Leo G said...

Interesting. I would like to see some data on children from larger families, say 3 or more. I am the youngest of 7 within 10 years. I was reading and writing by 4.

Could it be that not only having a stay at home mother, but the interaction with my siblings helped to move me forward quicker?

I also remember distinctly feeling that if my siblings could read and write then I should be able to do it also. Competition.

Anonymous said...

Men often find women to be too talkative yet this confirms my intuition regarding the survival advantage of children raised in tribes of talkative women and men who go out together to extract resources from nature. Children are listening from a very early age. College is just another mode of communication so there is no surprise to recognize that it appeals to women more than men if we men are somewhat "wired" to communicate in ways that are less academic and more task oriented.

There is also a dark side to the fact that children are listening to adults who may not be very conscious of the child's development needs. This has more to do with attitudes about the child and modes of expression than with word frequency.

priss rules said...

"Those early years are crit­ic­al. By age three, 85 per­cent of neur­al con­nec­tions are formed, mean­ing it’s dif­fi­cult for a child who has heard few words to catch up to his peers once he enters the school sys­tem."

This is so much nonsense.

So, unless you teach Calculus to babies, they won't understand it later in life?

Those 85% of neural connections are basic in the early stage.

The later 15% are more crucial as they concern more nuanced skills.

Also, the PC fools failed to mention that the real problem among single black mothers is too much hollering, use of F bombs, and playing rap music.

Btw, some cultures are not very talkative. Northern Germanic types and Japanese for instance. Yet they seem to do okay later on.

priss rules said...

Well, at least black babies are taught to dance(and have sex) at an early age. No need to worry there.

What are we gonna do about the butt gap?

vanderleun said...

Somehow I don't think that listening to more chunks of Ebonics is going to do it for kids.

Sam L. said...

Oh, priss! That sounds raaaaacist.