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Baby Talk

Tech & Innovation | November 9, 2015

A woman on the academic quad is talking to her baby.

“Look at the trees, Nathan!” she trills, pointing at the stacks of gold and red leaves collecting on the grass. “So pretty. Mommy loves fall because of pumpkins, cozy sweaters, and the pretty leaves! Mommy also loves dressing Nathan up on Halloween…”

The child stares back, round-eyed, and gurgles.

On the surface, this is a commonplace interaction. New parents appear to lose their minds after having children, engaging in endless, one-sided conversations about nothing. To the outside observer, these interactions range from cute to baffling to irritating, but they are actually crucial.

In reality, as this woman is talking, her baby is performing high-level deductions inside his head. He learns the names of things: the name of a leaf, the name of a culturally significant holiday—even his own name. But beyond that, he is learning how the rise and fall of intonation can express meaning. He is learning the difference between singulars and plurals. He is learning about subject-verb agreement and expressions of emotion. His task, grasping the endlessly complex twists and turns of his first language, is an unbelievably challenging one. Like any scientist, the more evidence he has to work with, the easier it is for him to make these discoveries.

In other words: the more he hears, the quicker he learns. This is true for all children.

“I think that we need to stop and consider what we know when we know the meaning of a word,” said Calvin Gidney, a Child Development and Linguistics professor at Tufts. “A word is a linguistic representation of a concept and so, the more words a child knows, the more concepts she has. Moreover, the more concepts that a person has, the richer her mental representations of the world, and the greater her ability to use language to analyze and describe the world.”

The problem is, not all children are given as much evidence to work with as others.

In 1995, two scientists spent two and a half years observing a sample of 42 Kansas families interacting with their children. They recorded the style of interaction, the children’s vocabulary, and the sheer number of words the child was exposed to on an everyday basis. They found that children from low-income households heard, on average, 30 million fewer words than their middle-income counterparts by age four. This gap, they concluded, leaves low-income children less ready to enter kindergarten, less able to express complex emotions, and less ready to begin learning to read.

If this is the case, then the much-discussed educational opportunity gap in education begins before school does.

Once educators and policymakers learned about the 30-million-word gap, it became clear that college access programs and SAT tutoring would not be enough to boost the college acceptances and test scores of low-income kids. In order to design effective interventions, they had to get to the root of the problem.

The first barrier to lower-income children’s development is that the US does not have publically funded prekindergarten programs. Instead, with some variation based on quality and location, pre-K generally costs between $4,460 and $13,158 per year. That means that families who can foot that bill can send their children to environments with constant, developmentally-appropriate stimulation while the parents are at work. For families who cannot afford that, childcare while working becomes a challenging problem: some parents will have extended family members provide care, try to bring their children to work with them, or even resort to missing work to keep their kids safe during the day. While some of these options certainly have benefits, they generally result in less verbal stimulation for the child, and the early exposure to education sets some kids ahead of others. When asked about the value of early education access, Gidney described himself as “an enthusiastic advocate for universal pre-K.” Not just because the US is the last developed country to make this policy, but because Gidney believes it “would go a long way towards addressing some of the early educational disparities that research has discovered.”

Additionally, there appears to be a disparity, on average, between the amounts that higher and lower income parents speak to their children. One reason for that difference could simply be that parents with more money have more time to spend with their children; when a mom is working three jobs, she may simply not get a chance to talk to her kids between sleeping, cooking, and going to work every day. It’s also possible that the circumstance of poverty itself contributes to this effect. As Margaret Talbot theorizes in her New Yorker article “The Talking Cure,” “When daily life is stressful and uncertain and dispiriting, it can be difficult to summon up the patience and the playfulness for an open-ended conversation with a small, persistent, possibly whiny child.”

For innovators trying to close the so-called “word gap,” there are two key areas of intervention: providing quality educational opportunities to all young children, and encouraging a shift in the way that children interact with their very first educators—their parents. For presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, this intervention takes the form of an organization called “Too Small to Fail,” sponsored by the Clinton Foundation, that focuses on informing caretakers how to best interact with children to stimulate learning and development. For example, the organization has started the #TalkingIsTeaching challenge in which parents and families can follow the organizers on Twitter for tips about engaging their children in conversation and can share their child’s progress via social media.

Other programs, like the Thirty Million Words Initiative, also take a parent-focused approach. They equip the child in question with a word-counting device and inform caretakers about ways to have developmentally engaging conversation. For example, when reading aloud to a child, it’s important—and not necessarily intuitive—to stop and point to the pictures. “What’s this?” a caregiver might say. “It’s round and fuzzy and green—it’s a tennis ball. Look at all the tennis balls! How many? One, two, three…” As parents begin to implement these techniques, the TMW employees record and provide them with feedback about the child’s progress.

These programs and many others—such as The Road Map Project and Providence Talks—are all run by powerful educators and thinkers, who have some demonstrated levels of success in their innovative strategies to close the opportunity gap. However, their work is not free of problems and controversies. In fact, some researchers disagree with the premise that the word gap is as much of a problem as it is said to be.

The first problem is that counting words is not the same as measuring the quality of conversation or interaction. A parent who is screaming at their child, for example, will receive more word “points” than a parent and child pair who are napping together on the couch. It also doesn’t take experiential learning into account, despite the fact that exploration, according to Gidney, is often the best way to learn. “I believe that young children’s direct experiences with the real world provide some of the best learning opportunities for the development of a rich vocabulary,” he said. “All of us learn new vocabulary best when it is relevant to our lived experiences. Children are no different from the rest of us in this respect.” A mere word count says little about quality and less about retainment.

Even worse, the “gaps” of ability that children demonstrate upon entering kindergarten are only the gaps that the school chooses to test. Since teaching in America is a profession that’s 82 percent white, the skills taught and tested in classrooms are likely to be made by and for white people, intentionally or not. To amplify the problem, the high-stakes tests our kids take are in English, regardless of whether English is the language spoken at home. Additionally, low-income children are at a disadvantage because of factors outside of linguistic exposure: they are restricted by limited opportunities for quality health care, nutrition, and even prenatal care. Finally, the entire idea that low-income families don’t talk to their children smacks of, as Susan Blum writes in her article “Selling the Language Gap,” the same kind of “blame-the-victim approach to language and poverty [that has been occurring] for at least half a century.” To suggest that low-income parents need coaching is to suggest that they are doing something wrong, and that a white standard of success should be “taught” to them as the “right” way forward for their children.

Still, from a neurological perspective, the more language, the more learning.

Like all questions of educational inequity, the way forward is murky, tangled with questions of what is right and what is fair. As we fight to close the opportunity gap by building charter schools, designing new tests, and crafting new curriculum, it seems unbelievable that this simple thing could help: talking to babies. And as educational reform builds as a hot-button topic in the upcoming election, it will be interesting to see if the candidates remember to look past school uniforms and screen time to remember that learning—and inequality—start from the day we are born.