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  • Britain's "Communication Champion": Parents don't have time, so kids don't talk

    Jean Gross, Britain's first Communication Champion, has warned that a significant number of British children don't learn to talk because their parents are so busy working that they don't have time to talk to them.

    Gross acknowledges that parents do have to earn a living, but she intends to earn her living by admonishing everyone else to stay at home and talk to their children, something that will make "a big difference to the future of every child who is currently denied the fundamental human right of skilled communication."

    Gross, an educational psychologist just appointed to the newly-created government post of Communication Champion by Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools, and Families, told the BBC that one in six children has difficulty learning to talk and some three year olds can't even say a single word.

    Lamenting what she sees as the growing silence of Britain's youth, Gross, who seems not to have spent much time in Britain's noisy classrooms, also took a swipe at immigrants by suggesting that speech only counts when it's in proper English: "Native English speakers struggle as much as 'a child who has Bengali as their first language.'"

    Gross complained that the children of working parents get little attention at home or at day care and spend too much time in front of television and computer screens: "Our brains have not evolved to learn from machines." While she insisted that the problem affects children from all social classes, Gross cautioned that "the poorest children hear just 600 words an hour compared with 2,000 in better-off families," though while some studies do find a connection between social environment and the ability to acquire a target discourse -- say, the language of the schools or of a government minister -- it's not clear that promoting unemployment is the best way to increase vocabulary size and volubility. And the Communication Champion -- her negavity makes her sound more like the Communication Czar -- reported that underprivileged children are chastised twice as much as they are praised, while well-to-do youngsters get six compliments for every scolding, though that hardly explains why middle class children can be so neurotic.

    Citing the alarming figure that one quarter of the children who have trouble learning to speak receive no help from teachers or speech therapists, Gross warns that, "left unaided, children risked developing mental health problems or getting into trouble with the law later in life. . . . In one study, two thirds of young offenders had language problems," though the supposed silence of these delinquents may also owe something to the police caution, the British equivalent of a Miranda warning, "You do not have to say anything but anything you do say will be taken down and may be given in evidence."

    British children can't talk is only the latest in a string of warnings that language in England isn't what it used to be, say in the time of Shakespeare or even Lady Thatcher. If other recent reports are to be believed, British children can't write because their lives are so sedentary that they don't sufficiently develop their arm and hand muscles; Facebook is destroying their physical and mental health as well as encouraging terrorism; internet addiction has become a serious medical problem for teens; and if and when Britain's young people -- the ones whose brains have evolved so they can learn from machines -- manage to surmount these obstacles and make it into graduate school, they can earn an M.A. in Facebook studies.

    But it turns out that British children are as talkative as ever, and that the Communication Champ's dire warnings are based on anecdote, not on any hard scientific evidence (she admitted as much in a BBC interview). Gross commissioned the research firm YouGov to conduct an unscientific telephone survey of 1,015 parents, who were asked such questions as whether speaking was more important for children than writing or working with numbers (60% said "yes," while 11% rated writing more important and only 1% picked math, which may explain the survey's lack of scientific precision; 26% said the ability to interact with others and make friends was most important, though this would seem to presuppose an ability to communicate linguistically).

    So far as parents talking with children is concerned, 100% of the parents surveyed insisted that they read books with their children at home, 99% said they told their children stories, and 79% maintained they corrected their children's speech errors, all of which suggests the rather unsurprising fact that British parents do indeed interact with their children. 17% said they didn't know or couldn't remember when their children said their first word, which could mean that the parents were too busy working to notice, that they had several children and the memories of who did what, when, had become blurred, or that they had simply gotten tired of answering silly questions on the phone and needed to make sure the kids weren't destroying the kitchen or torturing the family cat.

    What's more, only 3% of the parents surveyed said they had a child with a significant language-learning problem, a figure which suggests that the children of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales are basically a talkative lot, and that although quality family time is probably a good thing -- depending of course on the family -- in some of the world's cultures parents pay little attention to children's language learning, but in all cultures children learn to talk whether or not their parents talk to them. In fact, it takes extraordinarily pathological measures -- threats, punishment, extreme social isolation -- to prevent normal youngsters from acquiring speech.

    Reading to children is lots of fun, of course, and as most parents and teachers know, talking with them is a delight. But the children of working parents don't grow up in a linguistically impoverished environment, and neither do children who happen to grow up poor. If Jean Gross's job as Communication Champion is to encourage people to communicate, she will find herself with very little to do, since the English have been communicating just fine, thank you very much, for 1,500 years, and while they may use a variety of English that displeases the Communication Champion, a title which itself shows little connection with the language of, say, Keats and Wordsworth, they show no signs of stopping any time soon. Perhaps the best advice for Champion Gross, if that is what we are supposed to call her, is to stop talking to the press and to quit while she's ahead, so that she can spend more time with her own family. 

    Scene from

    Children's Stories are not always what they seem, from Monty Python's Flying Circus


merchant@uchicago.edu Jan 7, 2010 9:48 am
There actually has been some work showing (to many, including me, initially counterintuitive) correlations between caregiver speech (both amount metrics and kind and speed of acquisition of particular morphosyntactic facts) and children's acquisition of target grammars and lexicons. I'm no expert in this area, but relevant certainly is the following: "Early vocabulary growth: Relation to language input and gender." By Huttenlocher, Janellen; Haight, Wendy; Bryk, Anthony; Seltzer, Michael; Lyons, Thomas, Developmental Psychology. Vol 27(2), Mar 1991, 236-248. Abstract: Examines the role of exposure to speech in children's early vocabulary growth. It is generally assumed that individual differences in vocabulary depend, in large part, on variations in learning capacity. However, variations in exposure have not been systematically explored. In this study vocabulary growth rates are characterized for each of 22 children by using data obtained at several time points from 14 to 26 mo. A substantial relation between individual differences in vocabulary acquisition and variations in the amount that particular mothers speak to their children was found. It is argued that the relation between amount of parent speech and vocabulary growth reflects parent effects on the child, rather than child-ability effects on the parent or hereditary factors. It was also found that gender is an important factor in rate of vocabulary growth. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2009 APA, all rights reserved) See also "Toward a Theory of Gradual Morphosyntactic Learning" by Matthew Rispoli & Pamela Hadley, Department of Speech and Hearing Science University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who write that "More rapid child growth was correlated with more informative caregiver speech" (though their interests weren't in vocabulary size, and all children presumably eventually acquired the target grammar). Lastly, the correlation between vocabulary size of children and their caregivers' socioeconomic status is made explicitly, if memory serves, in Huttenlocher, J., Waterfall, H., Vasilyeva, M., Vevea, J., & Hedges, L. (submitted), "How Caregiver Speech Affects Childrens Language Growth". None of this is to argue that Ms. Gross has chosen a particularly efficacious way of going about her set task, but merely to point out that there is some scientific literature addressing these questions, and that her numbers may indeed have some support in that literature.

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