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 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.
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.