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Dad Next Door: Talk isn’t cheap

A little encouragement from across the fence


About a year ago, when I was just coming to terms with my soon-to-be empty nest, the universe saw fit to give me an unexpected gift. It decided not only that I should fall deeply in love, but that the woman in question should come with a bonus: a 5-year-old daughter. 

I know, not everyone would consider that a bonus. And to be completely honest, not every 5-year-old could be considered one. But somehow, I lucked out. I got to meet Pippa.

In most respects, she’s like any other 5-year-old. She likes mermaids, and princesses, and briefly became so obsessed with the movie Frozen that her mother had to place a 5-minute-per-day limit on all Frozen-related conversation. She’s funny (often hysterically and unintentionally so), imaginative, affectionate, a little shy, and surprisingly brave. But there is one thing about her that kind of sets her apart. Pippa speaks and reads at roughly a middle-school level. 

The other day, we were walking along the beach and she read a handwritten sign out loud. “Private Property —No Trespassing. Why don’t they want us to trespass?” she asked. I, on the other hand, remember sitting in my first-grade classroom in 1966, trying unsuccessfully to spell the word “ball.” Oh, and did I mention that she also speaks fluent Mandarin?

It would be easy to attribute Pippa’s impressive vocabulary to a freakish natural intelligence. Both of her parents are exceedingly bright, so I’m sure genetics play a role. But still, one would expect a little regression toward the mean. People who study the acquisition of language in early childhood are becoming more and more convinced that language skills are at least as dependent on nurture as they are on nature.

One group of scientists quantified the volume and breadth of spoken language that children hear in their environment. They found that by the age of 3, a child of lower socioeconomic status has been exposed to about 30 million fewer words than a child in the upper middle class. No, that’s not a typo — 30 million.

Language is acquired through repetition. A toddler has to hear a word in context more than two dozen times before they begin to understand it, and even more before they can use it. If you don’t hear words, you can’t learn them, you can’t use them, and you can’t read or write them. At each step, the deficit is magnified by an inability to apply vocabulary at the next level. Say what you will about poverty, discrimination and family dysfunction causing income inequality, but a difference in language exposure may be just as big a factor. And unfortunately, that impact may do much of its damage before a child even sets foot in a school.

My little friend Pippa had a lot more than genetics going for her when she entered kindergarten this year. As an only child, and an only grandchild, she had two sets of educated, highly verbal parents and grandparents speaking to her day and night in two different languages. Not only were they speaking, they were listening. That, it turns out, is the secret sauce.

Just hearing a word is not enough. A steady stream of words from a television set, for example, doesn’t provide sufficient context to build understanding. The language learning centers of the brain are stimulated, not by sound alone, but by communication. Without the give and take of a real conversation, words don’t stick. And it’s not just the sheer volume of words that counts. A variety of words, especially if delivered as questions, magnifies the effects of language exposure.

Right now there’s a study taking place that is designed to find out if we can close the education gap between wealthy and poor kids by teaching parents how to create a language-rich environment. Young children are fitted with recording devices, and the language all around them is analyzed for amount, variety and quality of communication. Parents are provided feedback on what their kids are hearing, and taught to use the “Three T’s”: Tune in, Talk more, and take Turns. So far, the results are encouraging. Simply by teaching the importance of varied, interactive speech, they’ve been able to increase the number and variety of words that parents use with their kids every day. Over time, that should enable those children to acquire the vocabulary they need to keep pace in the classroom — and ultimately in life.

As a society, we need to recognize that poorer communities struggle with more than a lack of wealth — they also suffer from a poverty of words. Unless we find ways to fill that gap, our other attempts to correct inequality may be doomed to fail.

Jeff Lee lives in Seattle and still thinks “ball” should be spelled differently.

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