When Wealth Gaps Become Language Gaps

The New York Times recently ran a piece on how income affects language ability that began like this:

 “Nearly two decades ago, a landmark study found that by age 3, the children of wealthier professionals have heard words millions more times than those of less educated parents, giving them a distinct advantage in school…”

“Millions of words” is an abstract figure in this context but it’s an impressive one nonetheless. More alarming is the fact that new research out of Stanford University has found that the gap begins to widen as early as 18 months; at which point the children of lower income familys were already found to be several months behind their more affluent peers in language proficiency. The difference in number of words a well-off child and a less well-off child hear by age three is now thought to be close to 30 million.

It’s a gap that looks to only be widening, prompting calls for expanded prekindergarten programs to help combat the problem. Research also suggests that early deficiencies in language comprehension continue to affect reading ability later in life, meaning it’s a problem that’s unlikely to resolve itself.

Whether technology will address or exacerbate this issue is a likely a question of access. I.e. If there’s a language-learning program or app to help increase vocabularies and languages skills that’s great, but if the family lacks the necessary device or connectivity to use that technology only those children with means may be able to benefit.

While legislators and educational reformers try tosort out the details, it seems that if you’re a parent of small children, your best bet is still to read to and speak with them as much as possible. They’ll thank you later.

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