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Bridging the Word Gap

by

Poorer children start falling behind the richer children in their age cohort long before they toddle off to their first day of school or sit down for their first standardized test. Before formal instruction begins, children learn from their parents. Poorer children fall into a “word gap”—they hear and say fewer things per day than more well-off children. Words are just one more resource that, Piketty-style, accrues fastest to those who already have most.

In Providence, a team of researchers is trying to measure and close the word gap by fitting little kids with microphones and keeping count of what they hear and say. The researches then share the tallied words and plotted charts they assemble with the parents. Far from conducting a blinded study, the researchers’ goal is to use sensitivity to observation to reshape behavior. Instead of high-handedly instructing the parents to alter their approach, the researchers point to the data and nudge parents toward their own conclusions: After seeing a dip during the hours the television is left on, for instance, the parents decided to limit viewing hours.

The television is an environmental factor—it interests the researchers because it inhibits useful speech. Since it remains wholly under the control of the parents, they have the power to shut it off and speak to their child themselves. But there are other environmental limits on fruitful speech that the researchers are unlikely to highlight, because it will take more than just one parent to change them. The parents in the study don’t have any period where they work fewer hours, and so the researchers don’t see what their child would sound like if their parents had more moments to concentrate entirely on their child, or were less tired when they came home, or simply were home earlier in the day.

Parents are meant to take on the role of Adam, but most homes aren’t Edenically diverse. Alone in a house, there are only so many things to name and elicit the color, shape, and number that describe them. If parents hit a breaking point when asked to read Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooie ad nauseum, how much more exhausting can it be to endlessly iterate the objects in the house, without so much as a plot or a rhyme scheme to hold them together?

But once parent and child venture out in search of stimulation, they’re likely to encounter new obstacles. Our cities have been redesigned, incorporating anti-homeless urban design to discourage loitering and leisure. On a walk through the streets around their homes, parents will find blank spaces where there used to be benches and flat areas studded with spikes to prevent anyone from taking a seat and spoiling the neat aesthetic of the neighborhood.

Our public spaces are designed to keep us moving, hurrying travelers out of the streets and on to their destinations. But parents are unlikely to find that private establishments will welcome them. Children are treated as abnormal when they turn up outside the home, to the point where some parents, when getting ready to leave the house, pack little bags of treats not for their child, but for the strangers they’ll meet, as an apologetic gesture to compensate them for any noise or disruption the child may cause.

Even churches have installed cry rooms, so that a toddler can be whisked out of sight and hearing as soon as they start speaking. In these parishes, it would be hard for parents to imagine taking Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry’s advice and narrating the Mass to their little ones. So much for their spiritual and linguistic edification.

Families are in need of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls “Third Places,” spaces outside of the home and the workplace where people can spend time casually together. Oldenberg holds that the fabric of society is strained by the absence of these neutral, convivial spaces, but the burden may fall particularly heavily on young parents, who need the company of other adults.

When I visit my friends with kids, our conversations tend to fall into a Muppets-like rhythm. It’s true that most of our speech is pitched at the level of the toddlers, falling into the rhythms of motherese, but our child-friendly comments tend to have allusions, puns, and jokes tucked in between the doctor-recommended “Where’s your sock? Is your sock red?”

Without other adults, the conversation is apt to devolve into call and response, leading the child through a flashcard dialogue where the parent becomes a tutor, rather than a conversational partner. In a group, it’s much easier to switch back and forth between content that is nourishing to the adults and to the children.

Making sure working parents can earn a living wage, opening up “third spaces,” and restoring our public spaces so that they are welcoming to people of all ages are essential to closing the word gap and helping parents take care of their children. The parents in the Providence Talks program are doing an excellent job adapting and compensating for environmental and social hurdles, but, in a just society, we wouldn’t let the deck be stacked so badly against them.

Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco works as a news writer at FiveThirtyEight by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012. Arriving at Amen, her first book, will be published in Spring 2015.