Tuesday, April 28, 2015

What language do you speak at your house?

Ok, so I am often chastised for talking too much.   Guilty as charged.   However, that is not necessarily a bad thing and if I had an infant in my house it would be a good thing.   The single most important element in academic achievement is language ability.  Children growing up in homes where language is used often and in positive ways are much more likely to do well in school and to be high achieving in life.
One of the most famous studies is 20 years old this year.   That study followed 42 infants who were just learning to talk.  The families were 13 middle class families, 10 professional families, 10 families of working class backgrounds and 6 families on public assistance.  The results were staggering.  It was not just the huge difference in the number of words the babies heard per hour- 2,150 for professional families, 1,250 for working class families, and only 600 for babies in families of people on welfare.  There were also huge differences in the quality of both the words and the language.
Children in professional families heard more unique words.  But even more importantly they heard encouraging words and sentences that asked their opinions.  From simple things like, "What flavor ice cream do you want?", to more complicated questions, "why do you like that flavor best?".   Children from families on welfare heard mostly disciplinary language, "don't touch that", "stay put".
When these children were followed into early elementary school they were found to have discipline problems in school more often than their peers with better language skills, were unable to express themselves with language and lagging in all the language arts.   Their interactions with other children were often negative and constrained by an inability to express themselves.
The children from the higher language homes did better in school and tested higher on IQ tests.  We don't know if the language facility of these children led to their higher scores or if they were just inherently brighter.  We do know that their language skills would improve performance on these language based tests.
Just talking more is a very simplistic solution.  We need to help parents to use more complex language in speaking with children.  We need to help parents have conversations with their children.  Lecturing a child on his/her behavior is not a conversation.  Giving direction orders is not a conversation.
 Playing games with a child is a great way to engage in the give-and-take of a conversation.  If we think of language development much like a game of catch.  I throw the ball to you and you throw it back to me.  I ask you a question and you answer me.  Then you ask me a question and I answer you, pretty soon we have a conversation going.  Then we add some adjectives and adverbs and before you know it we are enriching our language to the point that we are both expressing how we feel.  If we want to play major league ball, we can add a metaphor or simile.  The language spoken at my house is like a salmon swimming upstream, you need to fight the waves of language coming at you from all sides.

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