Sunday, March 17, 2013

Socio-Economic Status and Language Development: Definitely Linked

I spent (some) the day dinking around on the internet, trying to find some good studies about how child-directed speech is impacted by caregivers and also poverty. Unfortunately, while there's some pretty decent stuff just floating around a lot of it is locked away in databases that want $35 per article, which seems a little steep (lame article —> lame(r?) article —> lots of searching —> huzzah! —> What the $35!?). But then I remembered that my husband is a student at a university with a very good library and so gaining access to those articles suddenly got a lot cheaper (if you consider getting a PhD inexpensive, which I guess it is since they're paying us (ie. him) to do it).

So, here's my first attempt (in a long time) at researching. Things are a little different this time because Benjamin's strapped to my chest...because I've already nursed him to sleep (twice) and put him down (twice) but you'd never know that from how he screams once he realizes he's been put down. He reacts to being placed in his cozy crib similarly to how you or I would react to having one of our fingers bit off rather than being fed liquid gold until we drifted off into a blissful slumber.

Wrapping him in a handmade quilt is as good as a water-board treatment. Closing the door with me on the other side of it? It's like a death sentence. He starts screaming for mercy. And doesn't stop. For anything. Ever.

So, here's my first attempt at researching with a baby strapped to my chest, who desperately wants to bang on the keyboard but is settling for scratching up my forearms. (They're both favourite activities of his.) My hat is off to mothers in school everywhere.


At Benjamin's nine-month well-baby visit, we were given a stack of papers of advice about how to raise a happy child. Besides cautioning me to lower his crib and keep poisons well out of reach, it had the following suggestions:

  • Read books daily to your child. Allow the child to touch, mouth, and point to objects. Choose books with pictures, colors, and textures.
  • Recite nursery rhymes and sing songs with your child. Avoid using "baby talk."
  • Name objects consistently and describe what you are doing while bathing, eating, dressing, and playing.
  • Introduce the child to a second language, if one is spoken in the household.
  • Sleep. 
  • [This bullet has been omitted since it was rather lengthy and talked about sleeping, not language development (though I'm sure sleep is necessary for language development to occur I'm not sure that not co-sleeping is).]
  • Minimize television time! Children at this age need active play and social interaction (Well Child Care, 9 Months. ExitCare Patient Information, 2012).
As a veteran parent (ie. I'm multipara and all my offspring are living) most of the advice seemed completely obvious and normal except for one sentence: avoid using "baby talk." 
Avoiding "baby talk," hence forth 'child directed speech' or CDS, seemed like odd advice since it's something very natural for caregivers to use. Intuition tells us that chirruping tones and simple words are at worst benign and at best exactly what a child needs and it's fairly safe to say that everyone has used child directed speech at one time or another, whether intentionally or not. I studied linguistics in college (after taking developmental psychology as a psychology major, which prompted me to change my major) and while I learned about child directed speech, I certainly never learned that it was bad.

Voicing my surprise about this new (to me) advice, elicited a few comments on my blog. My mother postulated that it might have to do with poverty levels, hence forth socio-economic status (or SES), which was an interesting and intelligent conclusion to draw since links between poverty and opportunity (eg. education) are clear and numerous. In fact, right in the abstract of the first paper I pulled up it says that "demographic factors, notably SES, are related to language growth, and are, at least partially, mediated by differences in caregiver speech, showing the pervasive influence of caregiver speech on language growth" (Huttenlocher, 343).^

As they're setting up the study, Huttenlocher et. al. explain the connections already known between socio-economic status and language use and development: that parents with higher socio-economic status tend to talk more than those of lower socio-economic status, that parents of higher socio-economic status tend to have a bigger vocabulary than lower socio-economic parents, that parents with higher socio-economic status tend to use more complex sentence structures and fewer noun phrases per sentence than their lower socio-economic counterparts (p. 345). So basically, people with higher economic status tend to have a higher vocabulary and they use those words more frequently in more complicated sentences, which directly impacts the language development of their children.

Huttenlocher also states that the "amount of exposure to particular syntactic forms is related to the acquisition of corresponding forms in the child," that "variation in the speech of different caregivers is related to the grown of those forms in children," and that "corresponding differences are found in the speech of their children" (p. 345). Children acquire language based on what they hear and, more specifically, from the language that is directed to them.

For the purpose of this study, the authors only looked at speech acts caregivers made to the child, ignoring all other speech that was going on in the home. I found that interesting. Huttenlocher mentions that "first-born children typically receive more speech than later-borns," and that caregivers tend to use speech of "greater complexity" with first-borns (p. 345). For me, personally, speaking to my first baby was difficult. It seemed strange and unnatural, like much (probably most) of motherhood did for me. Many so-called 'maternal instincts,' it seems, are learned behaviors, rather than innate abilities. When my mother noticed that I might've been going slightly mad from being locked inside all day with a tiny lump of a person, she asked whether I was talking to my baby. And I wasn't. So she suggested turning on some music and singing along to it so that my baby could at least hear my voice (and so that I didn't feel so much like I was in solitary confinement) so I took her advice and once I'd broken that barrier of silence, talking to my baby became easier. 

Explaining everything to my baby took practice—narrating every step of every task I set about to accomplish seemed silly but eventually became second nature. After I read that bit about first-born children receiving more speech than later-born children, and how that has been proven to impact their language acquisition, I thought about my communication with Benjamin. He hears talking all day long. 

I seriously cannot get his sisters to shut up! Ever. 

Much of the language he hears from them is obviously simpler from what he hears from me or his father, which means the language he's putting together in his head is simpler. Andrew and I talk all the time, too, of course, and we use much bigger sentences than the girls. However, I don't think much of that speech is directed to him. Language is going on around him all the time but our family forgets to include him. I'll have to make a conscious effort to do better at talking to Benjamin because usually I coo something like, "Oh, just a minute, sweet baby!" at him and then proceed to talk to his sisters. "Girls—stop screaming in the house; you're upsetting your brother. Take that noise outside, but don't forget to put on your shoes and it looks a little chilly so grab a sweater." By the time it's finally kind of peaceful I relish the silence instead of chatting up my nine-month old. 

This particular study only looked at children's language until they were 46 months (nearly 4 years) old but I'd imagine that the language skills of a first-born and third-born in the same family would eventually even out, even if the first-born was still ahead of the third-born by age four. By the time both children reach their twenties, I'd guess their language skills would be neck in neck. However, I can't say I think the language skills of a low SES child would grow to match those of a high SES child because eventually a high SES child would hear all the language they needed to work things out and catch up. That isn't necessarily so for a low SES child.

Both high SES and low SES parents/caregivers tend to use child-directed speech—or baby talk—with their children. This is normal and natural. It's what infants and children want to hear and it actually does play a role in helping language develop. As the child grows up, adults use more and more complicated speech with the child. Huttenlocher showed, however, that lower SES caregivers use fewer words and less complicated sentence structures with their children at 18 months than higher SES caregivers did; and although both low and high SES caregivers child-directed speech advanced as their children aged, the low SES caregivers were using less advanced language (fewer words, less complicated sentence structures) than the high SES caregivers were so the low SES children's language abilities were stunted (when compared to that of a high SES child).

With that in mind, I can see the wisdom in advising parents to not use baby talk with their children. I don't think such advice would actually prevent parents from using child-directed speech (with lilting, sing-songy phrases and diminutive forms of words such as "kitty cat" and "puppy dog") but it might encourage them to use more words in more varied sentence structures when speaking to their children, which in turn will help their children develop better language skills. Why? Because the speech of the caregiver directly impacts the speech the child develops. As Huttenlocher concludes, their study "provides compelling evidence that variations in language input, notably differences in the syntactic structures caregivers use, affect children’s language growth" (363).

This, I suppose, also helps explain why reading aloud to children—even wee ones—is beneficial for language development. Reading aloud forces the reader to use words and phrases they might not use otherwise—it exposes children to poetry and rhyming words and all sorts of fun things that a child might not hear in the everyday prattling they're normally surrounded by.

In an interview recently published by PBS, Jerome Kagan, a "pioneer" of childhood psychology, spoke about the widening "achievement gap" between high and low SES children. He and his interviewer, Paul Solman, went on to say this is due to "parental failure."

Lower SES parents are "not talking to their children, [not] interacting with their children, [not] insisting they do their homework and so on. Should we say it's a failure?" asks Kagan. "Let's say it's an error of omission."

"You mean that it's poor parenting?" asks Solman.

"Right, but people don't want to say that," responds Kagan.

(Yeah. Because it's rude! And wrong! An "error of omission" is a much better explanation.)

Poor people aren't trying to be poor parents. Poverty is as perpetual as language development, in my mind. The American Dream is a myth—few people break out of the bonds of poverty and no one does it on their own. Kagan admits this in the opening paragraph when he mentioned an editorial by Joseph Stiglitz, which said that someone in "the lower fifth of the income distribution" only has a fifty percent chance to "ever rise out of that [lower] fifth. That's all. Just to rise up to the next fifth."

Getting out of poverty is not a question of working harder because SES isn't about money alone. It's about opportunities, which, frankly, the poor get fewer of. 

Speaking of language growth, Huttenlocher explains that there are "other environmental factors...associated with SES, For example...high SES caregivers had greater knowledge of child development, and that this knowledge was related to children's language growth. Indeed, recent research suggests that maternal knowledge of infant development and her engagement* with the infant may partially mediate SES effects." 

That's good news for our family! We're in a lower SES bracket economically speaking but fortunately have a bit of education under our belt in order to even things out. 

With no learning disability coming into play, a low SES child and a high SES child have equal ability to acquire language. Unfortunately, low SES children do not have the same opportunity as high SES children to do so. It's not a defect of poor people, nor is it "their fault." It's just the way things are.

Sesame Street tried to fix this but, as Kagan pointed out, only helped middle class families because those parents sat down and talked with their children about the show. The poorest families did not, which is why it didn't help them. Listening to television all day long doesn't help low SES children develop language. Listening to their parents does.

That's why the Reach Out & Read program is effective***—it gets those low SES families using language they might not otherwise use, which helps their children develop larger vocabularies and have the ability to parse language more effectively. This gives them a leg up on both written and spoken language. Perhaps encouraging parents to avoid "baby talk" does the same.

I think anything that helps level the playing field of language development is a good thing—so long as we're raising the lowest up and not bringing the highest down. If being reminded to use more regular sentence structure and vocabulary with children (or being given books to read aloud to them) helps, then I only see that as a positive.**

* Mothers suffering from postpartum depression, for example, tend to be more distant with their infants, which affects the infant's cognitive development. See here and here. Fortunately, adequate social support can help lower PPD rates and even if PPD should set in, it is treatable. 

**And this has nothing to do with accents, mind you, since people everywhere speak with an accent of sorts.

***There is only one Reach Out & Read program in Utah County; I'd never heard of the program before. Of course, Utah is a less populous state than North Carolina but holds more "money" than North Carolina which means, in essence, that a larger percentage of North Carolina's children are at risk for being behind in language skills when compared to the average child in Utah, since, as I learned, language development and SES are definitely linked.

^I don't really want to look up how to format this correctly right now because I'm tired, but it's from Cognitive Psychology, issue 61, 2010, pg. 343-365 and is called Sources of variability in children’s language growth. It's by all these people: Janellen Huttenlocher, Heidi Waterfall, Marina Vasilyevac, Jack Vevea, and Larry V. Hedges. If I was really in school I would've actually given you a reference. But I'm not. And it's midnight. So.


  1. Very interesting! Thanks for reporting your findings. You may have covered this and I just failed to retain it while reading, but WHY do poorer people not read to their children? Can't afford books? Too tired after working two jobs? They are less educated so they don't want to? They prefer to watch TV? They relish the peace and quiet? Maybe poor people like silence and don't want to chat with their children and feel silly talking to an infant? I'm trying to figure it out. Any ideas?

    And my comment about accents (yes, I noticed your second **) has to do with how southern accents are perceived. I know everyone has an accent, but they are not all thought of the same way. Maybe being Canadian you missed this, but even a Syrian friend who lives in Memphis as of last August wrote this to me one day:

    "I'm getting used to the southern accent, learning some useful terms .. I have to admit though I got surprised when I first heard some of my very intelligent professors speak "southern" .. I don't mean to be offensive but for someone like me who learnt about US culture mostly from TV and movies, hearing the southern accent bring to mind the image of an "uneducated farmer" maybe rather than a highly educated professor with world class achievements! I'm ashamed of myself for thinking that way but honestly that's how southerners are mostly represented in movies and TV shows!"

    (By the way, he is an "ID Fellow at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital" according to his Facebook page.)

    Thanks again for sharing this. I am AMAZED at what you can do with your child strapped to you. Seriously, in awe! :)

    1. I'm not sure your first question has a definite answer. The PBS article mentioned that low SES parents simply don't realize that reading to their children is important; the Reach OUt & Read program has found that parents who received a book to read to their child were more likely to report reading at home than before than before. I do imagine that low SES children (and their parents) spend more time in front of the television and can't see the connection between how many jobs you work and whether or not you read to your children because my mom has always worked, often up to three jobs at a time, and she still read to me and my siblings nightly. It's one of my favourite childhood memories!

      Accents are fascinating and generally speaking, accents are inversely proportional to educational level (thick accent, low education—though obviously that's not always true). I don't see southern accents as unintelligent at all, and many accents also are perceived negatively (California surfer dude or valley girl, NY mobster, western cowboy, even...Canadian!).

      Also, people TRUST people who speak with southern accents. According to Neil Smither, who was interviewed on a segment of This American Life (who fakes a southern accent (which he learned from his grandparents (natives of Arkansas)):

      "Something about a Southern voice that just kind of opens up a trusting vein, you know? Which is great. That's what I want."

      Read that here.

      That's not the only account floating around of people enjoying listening to southern accents. There's this, which I found while looking for the TAL segment.

      As far as television goes...yeah...there's The Beverly Hillbillies. But a recent example that pops into mind is "The Help." Skeeter is a well-educated, forward-thinking woman and she definitely speaks with an accent. I'm not sure I can speak about the exposure of your friend to southern accents in the media but television certainly didn't put me off of them.

      But my grandma is from Florida and I've always loved listening to her talk. And I, myself, spent a good number of years being ridiculed for my accent before the Utah accent (which my Canadian friends and family considers "drawling") crept in. I'm sure I'll pick up some southern touches while we live here and that's just fine with me. Already when I take those accent placement tests I can never get a definitive result. I may as well mix it up some more. ;)

    2. *sigh* I messed up the code so those links don't work.

      Here is the TAL link. And here is the other one.

  2. And, um, I love the label you gave this post! Just noticed it. :)

  3. You'd be interested to know that I failed to pick up an English accent during my year in Yorkshire.

    However, I was observing a Portuguese-Immersion class (I help with the K-12 dual language immersion programme in Utah) and one of the Brazilian aides said that my Portuguese accent sounds British and not American.

    So now, apparently, I speak Portuguese with a British accent, to go along with my French with a Portuguese accent.

  4. This article from the other day could have saved you some effort on this post: The Power of Talking to Your Baby. :)

    1. I loved that article!

      And I've been thinking a bit about cultures where adults *don't* speak to children on purpose. I can't find a great article at the moment (this one mentions the Wolof tribe of Senegal). Somehow language still develops, but their children are woefully unprepared for receiving an education. interesting!

  5. I'm not sure if this article fits on this post or not, but I just saw it and thought of you. And wondered at your thoughts...if you have time,of course. :)

    (Sorry I don't know how to create links in comments)