Tuesday, March 27, 2007

By Age 3, Professional Kids Have a Larger Vocabulary Than Welfare Parents

Betty Hart and Todd Risley have been studying language development in infants and toddlers for a quarter century. They have been doing this not simply for academic reasons, but to find the real causes of the advantage that higher class kids have over poor kids. Their main finding is that, in general, the higher the class of the family, the more they talk to their babies. And their amount of talk– not their social class or income or race -- predicted their children’s intellectual accomplishments.

The most graphic example of what difference this makes is the finding I have used as the title of this post.

All families talk some to get on with the necessary business of life. What is added in talkative families is talk that describes the world, expresses emotions, tries out ideas. Every family has an average level of talkativeness, starting from this baseline of necessary business. The average family in Hart and Risley's study said something 400 times an hour, with the group ranging from 200 to 600 utterances an hour. This means that the average 3 year old has heard 8 million words; the children of silent families hear only half of that, while the toddlers of the talkers have already heard 12 million words. By three, kids learn to talk at their family's average level, and stop there.

Hart and Risley are quick to point out that there are enormous variations in how much parents talk to their children. There are talkative welfare parents and silent professionals. In particular, the classes in the middle of this range, the working class and lower white collar families, show a huge range in how talkative they are.

So talk to your babies. About anything.


Unknown said...

This explains so much. When our son, at age 2, would describe things as "marvelous" or "amazing", my husband would laugh and say it was like hearing my words come out in a baby's voice. Our kids talk and talk and talk -- sometimes this is exhausting, but I know it is really a good thing.

Anonymous said...

"Talk to your kids." This has been the mantra I have heard since my 22yo was a baby. I'm sure it was out there before that, I just didn't have any reason to hear it. I'm sure it's true, I just never understood how you could NOT talk to your kids. So the 22yo had a great vocabulary early, everyone talked to her.

I would be interested in the same question as it applied to second, third etc. kids. The parents of multiple kids seem much more overwhelmed and maybe not so talkative any more.

Jody Harrington said...

This must be where the "read to your kids" mantra comes in, also. It doesn't really matter if you're talking or reading for this purpose, does it?

Actually, if you're reading wouldn't you be likely to use a larger vocabulary reading to a young child than you might if you were talking to them? Hmmm.

This is a very interesting finding.

Anonymous said...

This is off-topic but a recent This American Life episode "Tragedy Minus Time Equals Happily Ever After" (http://www.thislife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?sched=1169) also emphasizes the tremendous influence parents have on their children. Fascinating story about a man whose entire career was shaped around his father.

Anonymous said...

I think I see the lived result of this everyday. Our college has a very high proportion of students who are in the first generation to come to college. Many come from the Iron Range - reserved families of Scandinavian origin. They can speak readily about everyday tasks - but they truly struggle to describe even a simple process. In classroom discussion, if they talk at all, they are often unable to tell me what or why two things are different from each other. They seem utterly puzzled by the question, or that I would expect them to know how to express it.

Their small vocabularies and patterns of (not) using language make it much more difficult for them to learn the skills of critical thinking.

A candidate for a position here gave her job talk on research showing the impact of language on the ability to do certain types of abstract thinking. The evidence is pretty amazing.

Gruntled said...

This work has made me wonder about the ideal of "the strong, silent type." Why, exactly, would that trait be selected for?

Anonymous said...

Good for stalking animals in caveman days? The image is of a good protector and provider.

I wonder if it's linked to the traits one considers important for children - the working class preference for obedience and the middle class preference for creativity. Obedience doesn't require much talking.

Gruntled said...

A scary detail of these studies is that the poorest families tend to have the television on all the time. It makes you wonder if the tv sound takes the place of talking, for adults as well as for children.

VP said...

I was thinking that a re-analysis of the video or audio tapes with attention to the media present would be interesting.

I grew up in a household where the classical music station was almost always playing. The announcers spoke clearly, used complex sentences and a literate vocabulary. That cadence is closer to my speech style than is my parents speech: both of them college educated but working class backgrounds.

TV or more chaotic sounding radio might have a different impact. If would be interesting to see if the rich data source could explore that impact.

Anonymous said...

"The most graphic example of what difference this makes is the finding I have used as the title of this post."

Where, exactly, is this finding supported in the article you link to? I'm not seeing it, but sometimes I miss what's right under my nose.

Gruntled said...

No, you are right. I linked to this piece as a summary of their larger work. The finding in question comes from the larger work that he cites.