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Gilbert: Words Matter

05/17/11 7:55AM By Peter Gilbert
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(HOST)  Commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert has some thoughts about the importance of parents talking with very young children.

(GILBERT)  When the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities visited Vermont this winter to talk about the importance of civility in our political and social discourse, he said that words matter.  What he meant was that when people call others Nazis or communists, it isn't just harmless hyperbole - it's destructive. The words we use define the debate and the dynamic.

I was struck by that simple phrase - words matter - and I thought about how true it is in another context as well.  Not too long ago, one of our literacy outreach trainers was encouraging a well-intentioned mother in Vermont to talk and read a lot with her very young child.  The mother replied, in effect, why should I talk with him?  He can't understand what I'm saying anyway.

What she didn't appreciate is that hearing language is the way children learn language, and how their brains develop in important ways.  And if some of their brain muscles don't get developed early on, unfortunately those cognitive muscles may never fully develop.

Researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley have studied the actual number of words spoken to young children from families at three different socioeconomic levels.  The differences were astonishing.  Children in low-income homes hear, on average, about 600 words an hour.  Kids in middle-class homes hear about 1,500 words an hour, and kids in professionals' homes about 2,100 an hour!  That means that when those kids are four, the more affluent children had heard an incredible 32 million more words than the low-income kids.

Not only that, those words are more varied and complex - and more positive.  By age four, the more affluent children had been verbally discouraged about 120,000 times - but encouraged about 750,000 times - more than six times as often.  But kids of low-income families had been verbally discouraged 250,000 times, and encouraged only 120,000 times - negatives outweighing positives more than two to one.

In part that's because if care providers don't talk with the kids very much, much of what they say is business talk - not fun talk - and so it's more likely to be less positive.  And lots of negative or positive feedback early on affects one's attitudes about oneself.

Does it matter how many words young kids hear - to their intelligence, their ability to read and learn later on in school?  Absolutely.  How much influence nature and nurture have on intelligence and school success is a complex issue.  But most scholars say that it isn't either/or.  Rather, nature and nurture work together - environmental factors (how we are raised and the opportunities we are afforded) interact with inherited factors (our genes).

Significantly, the kids of taciturn affluent parents didn't do as well down the road, and the kids of talkative low-income parents did very well.    With good nurturing - from parents, other family members, and childcare providers - good things are possible for many kids.  Without good nurturing, kids of all backgrounds don't develop as they might.

Words matter.  In many ways.
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