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Speech Development Can Save from Poverty

Coming from a low-income, uneducated family can affect a child’s language skills, resulting in underdeveloped, ungrammatical speech, which hinders academic performance and limits one’s chances of success in life. However, parents can help a child offset the effects of a negative family background, according to Kirill Maslinsky, research fellow at the Laboratory of Sociology in Education and Science, HSE campus in St. Petersburg.

Children tend to develop faster, both linguistically and intellectually, when parents often talk to them, respond to their requests and engage in joint activities, such as reading books, playing games, visiting theatres and museums, etc. However, socially disadvantaged groups tend to limit their conversation with children, rarely respond to their requests and use a directive style of communication, which interferes with the child's ability to accumulate and make use of the lexical, syntactic, and stylistic richness of their native language. As a result, their speech remains underdeveloped, often leading to limited opportunities and perpetuation of poverty, according to Maslinsky's chapter on Language and Poverty in the book Poverty and Child Development (Moscow, 2015), edited by Daniil Alexandrov, Valeria Ivaniushina and Maslinsky. He also discusses ways to help a child develop good speech skills and thus improve their chances in life.

Parental Status: Not a Verdict, but a Significant Factor

While a child's language proficiency is not always determined by the family's income status – natural talents and abilities can sometimes overcome any socioeconomic disadvantage – it is difficult to deny the fact that education, income, employment and cultural capital make a difference by creating a family environment which either helps or hinders language acquisition in a child’s early years.

Maslinsky refers to the findings of American researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley, published twenty years ago in the article Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children (Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing, 1995). They observed the gap in the acquisition of active vocabulary between young children from low-income homes and their more economically advantaged peers. The researchers selected 42 families, categorized as professional, working class, or families on welfare, and carefully documented the interactions between children and their caregivers in all types of families.

The researchers identified five variables involved in significant family experience for a child interacting with the caregiver, including the richness of vocabulary (the variety of words heard by the child), tone and style of communication (the percentage of commands), symbolic experience (the percentage of references to names, relationships and past events), and caregivers' responsiveness (the percentage of responses to the child's utterances). Regression analysis showed that together, these five variables explained 60% of the differences in the outcomes of tests administered to the same children at the age of three. Children from families on welfare were provided with far less experience in all the five categories compared to children from high income families. According to Maslinsky, these variables reflect differences not only in social class, but also in certain aspects of parenting affecting the child's development.

The Number of Words and Tone of Communication Both Important

The amount of family talk is a key variable reported by Hart and Risley. On average, in professional families, the time of interaction with the child was 1.5 times and the amount of talk addressed to the child twice that of welfare families. According to the authors, by age three, children in professional families have heard more than 30 million words; children from working class families have heard 20 million words, while children from families on welfare have heard 10 million words.

In addition to this, the style of communication was found to make a difference. While all parents sometimes give directives to children, low-income mothers and fathers tend to be more authoritarian, and directives prevail in the overall smaller amount of utterances addressed to the child. In contrast, parents who talk more to their children expand the amount of talk by adding non-directive utterances.

Maslinsky suggests a few things which may help speech development in children, such as play. Several studies have shown that mothers from medium-income groups use play for teaching language to the child – by naming or commenting on objects in the child's field of view – more often than mothers in low-income groups.

Reading books is even more effective in stimulating intellectual development. When reading to her child, a mother talks more and her speech is more sophisticated. "Reading can offset the impact of social status; speech characteristics of low-status mothers, when they are reading to their child, tend to approach those of higher status mothers," explains Maslinsky.

Watching educational programmes on television can contribute to speech development when children learn new words and meanings; however, watching television at the expense of other types of verbal interaction hinders learning.

The Focus of Attention Matters

In western countries, it is more typical for mothers to follow the child’s focus of attention, while in some non-European cultures, a mother and her child's attention are often focused on the same object. In both cases, sharing the focus of attention can influence the child's speech development. "When mothers follow the child's focus instead of trying to redirect their attention, the child's active vocabulary tends to develop faster," according to Maslinsky.

Thus, the caregivers' style of interaction with the child can have a significant effect on the child's speech development and chances of success later in life by either offsetting or reinforcing the negative impact of the parents' socioeconomic status.

 

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, September 18, 2015