Child Language Development  

December 19, 2013
New research by Stanford psychologists just published in Developmental Science shows that 2-year-old children of lower-income families may already be six months behind in language development. This does not come as a surprise since over 50 years of research has shown that the children of lower-income, less-educated parents typically enter school with poorer language skills than more privileged children. Some of these studies have shown that five-year old children of lower socioeconomic status score more than two years behind on language tests by the time they enter school. This study shows that the discrepancy starts much earlier than shown previously.

The new research by Stanford now shows that these differences begin as early as 18 months with disadvantaged children are already several months behind. Anne Fernald of Stanford tested children from each group at 18 months and then again when they were two years old. The test measured toddlers’ language processing speed by measuring the length of time in milliseconds that it took for children to look at a target object. At 24 months the lower SES toddlers had barely reached the level of processing efficiency that the higher SES children had achieved at 18 months.

“By two years of age, these disparities are equivalent to a six-month gap between infants from rich and poor families in both processing skills and vocabulary knowledge,” Fernald said. “What we’re seeing here is the beginning of a developmental cascade, a growing disparity between kids that has enormous implications for their later educational success and career opportunities.”

A critical factor in explaining these differences among children is the different amounts of language stimulation that parents provide to their infants. There is generally less child-directed talk in families living in poverty. However, low SES children whose parents engaged in more talk with their babies got faster in processing speed and learned language more quickly.
Fernald said, “The good news is that regardless of economic circumstances, parents who use more and richer language with their infants can help their child to learn more quickly.” Further research will aim at devising intervention methods. Parent education programs might help. Sharing books with infants, talking to children, and describing the world around them may help. Catherine Snow from Harvard University says that although parent intervention may be useful, we also need to change the conditions of growing economic inequality. Low income families often work several jobs, come home exhausted, have house work to do, and just want to keep their kids quiet. Derrick Jackson reporting on the work of Fernald and Snow for the Boston Globe says, “It now seems more critical than ever to change conditions before today’s language gap creates an even greater divide.”

Derrick Jackson’s Boston Globe article Child language gap seen at younger ages than ever appeared in the Omaha World Herald, Oct. 29, 2013.

-by Rosemary Cervantes, English Language Learners Coordinator