Chapter 11: Child Language Acquisition
11.5 The Language environment and the so-called word gap
We’ve seen all kinds of examples of how important the language environment is for young language learners. Hearing babies start learning the patterns of speech sounds from the environment even before they’re born, and deaf babies start learning the patterns of sign language as soon as they get access to it in their environment. On a really simple, obvious level, the particular language that children acquire depends on the language that is in the environment. So it makes sense to wonder whether, for kids who are acquiring the same language, differences in their environments make a difference to their language development.
In the 1990s, Hart & Risley (1995) compared the English-language environments of American kids from different socioeconomic and racial groups, and reported what their book calls “staggering contrasts” between rich and poor families. The most-often quoted finding from their very influential study is the claim that, by the time they’re three years old, children in poor families have heard thirty million fewer words than children in middle-class and affluent families. That phrase, the “30 million word gap”, is used all over the place, and has led to all kinds of policy decisions and interventions to try to bridge the gap. There’s been more research on the factors that lead to disparities in school performance, and more investment in early childhood education programs for low-income families.
But that catchy phrase has also led to a lot of stigma for low-income parents, since it seems to blame them for not talking to their kids enough. (Figueroa, to appear) Calling their reported difference a “gap” reinforces the stereotype of a neglectful parent who ignores their kids and lets them watch tv all day. And a closer look at Hart & Risley’s data reveals that what they called a gap might be just a side effect of they way they counted words. In 2018, Sperry and colleagues (Sperry, Sperry & Miller, 2018) conducted a followup to Hart & Risley’s study, but they used a different way of counting.
The 1995 analysis only counted words that were spoken by the mother directly to the child. They didn’t count words spoken to the child by anyone else, and they didn’t count words from conversations that happened nearby but weren’t directed at the child. In other words, they used a measure for number-of-words that favours the way that white, middle-class, stay-at-home moms interact with their children. The other factor in their so-called 30-million word gap is that the affluent families they had studied were largely white, while the poor families were almost entirely Black. So in addition to income differences, there would also have been cultural and linguistic differences in the ways adults interact with children, which the analysis didn’t account for.
In contrast, the authors of 2018 study argued that children can learn from language they overhear in the environment, not just from what adults speak directly to them, so they included more measures in their analysis. When they counted using the 1995 measure, that is, speech by the primary caregiver to the child, the 2018 researchers found no clear pattern that depended on socioeconomic status. And when they counted speech by all caregivers to the child – parents, grandparents, older siblings, aunties and uncles – they found that the households with the greatest number of words per hour were the poor Black families. The same was true when they considered all the language used in the environment, not just what was directed at the child. Here’s what the researchers say about their findings:
“Not only did the Word Gap disappear, but also some poor and working-class communities showed an advantage in the number of words children heard, compared with middle-class communities. Our study also revealed a great deal of variation among communities within each socioeconomic stratum.” (Sperry et al., 2018, p. 11)
That last point is important: there’s a ton of variation in how parents interact with their children. A recent meta-analysis (Anderson et al., 2021) found that the nature of the language environment does indeed play a big role in children’s language development, but concluded that socioeconomic status was not a good predictor of what that language environment is like. In other words, whether you’re rich or poor doesn’t affect how much you talk to your kids!
This “word gap” controversy is a classic example of how scientists, including language scientists, can reach biased conclusions from supposedly objective quantitative measurements. Both studies used what seems like a pretty objective measure: the number of words spoken per hour. But the choice of whose words to count led the two research teams to quite different findings. So even the decision of what to measure is not purely objective. The other issue here is that, if you’re interested in researching the language environment, the number of words spoken per hour is maybe not the most important thing to observe. Language use isn’t just about quantity, where more is better. Language is used in conversations, in relationships within communities that have specific cultural practices and expectations. So if we want to get a picture of the factors that support children’s language development, it’s a good idea to consider those complex relationships and communities too.
Check your understanding
Anderson, N. J., Graham, S. A., Prime, H., Jenkins, J. M., & Madigan, S. (2021). Linking Quality and Quantity of Parental Linguistic Input to Child Language Skills: A Meta-Analysis. Child Development, 92(2), 484–501
Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Paul H Brookes Publishing.
Figueroa, M. (to appear). Language Development, Linguistic Input, and Linguistic Racism. WIREs Cognitive Science.
Sperry, D. E., Sperry, L. L., & Miller, P. J. (2018). Reexamining the Verbal Environments of Children From Different Socioeconomic Backgrounds. Child Development, 90(4), 1303–1318.