Igniting the Spark of Language for All

At the end of March, my daughter Luci turned two, and with this milestone of another year of life, her language abilities have taken flight. This week her preschool teacher Mr. Nick taught Luci and her classmates about cardinals, robins, and blue jays, so now Luci discusses the birds and the worms they eat, she imitates their birdsong, and discusses the birds’ ability to build a nest, or nido in español.

Luci’s sentences are often not much longer than two to four words, but when she tells me “kitty is thirsty” when Zelda, our house cat, whines to have water from the bathroom sink, I am excited to hear what else Luci has to say. For a parent watching her child begin to express herself, it is both thrilling and humbling to realize that who you have been nurturing is at long last speaking, in her own voice. That and an important reminder to watch what I say and to continue to listen and chat with my little girl.

Of course, linguists have several theories for how children like my daughter Luci acquire language. Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker posit human brains are hardwired for learning language. As Mila Vulchanova, Giosuè Baggio, Angelo Cangelosi, and Linda Smith wrote in their 2017 editorial for Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Chomsky and Pinker’s take is that “linguistic input is merely a trigger for language to develop.”

The alternative view, Vulchanova and her colleagues write, is that linguistic development depends on the child’s environment and how much child-adult interaction and communication there is to encourage the spark of language. Michael Tomasello’s take, in its most simplified form, is that those child-adult interactions help children consolidate knowledge by strengthening the neural networks, thereby making learning and real-world applications possible. These theories, known as the embodied and situated cognition theories, are how we currently make sense of young children’s language acquisition.

So when another early literacy study was published online this week by researchers at The Ohio State University in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, tons of follow-up news reports focused on the “million-word gap,” the number of words children who were read to regularly (about five books a day) would know by kindergarten as compared to their non-read-to peers.

Anya Kamenetz, an education correspondent for National Public Radio, reported almost a year ago about the racial and cultural bias of a “word gap.” In her report, Kamenetz critiqued an outdated and controversial 1992 study from researchers at the University of Kansas, which claimed children in poverty heard 30 million fewer words in conversation by age three as compared to children from more privileged backgrounds. The Ohio State University research, published this week, differs substantially as the researchers were interested in investigating the vocabulary “word gap” versus the conversational “word gap.”

Still, other researchers take issue with the phrase “word gap” itself as it frames language learning as a deficit to overcome instead of a foundation on which to build.  As Sofia Bahena, assistant professor of K-12 education leadership and policy studies at The University of Texas at San Antonio said to Kamenetz last year:

“We can talk about differences without resorting to deficit language by being mindful and respectful of those we are speaking or researching about. We can shift the question from ‘how can we fix these students?’ to ‘how can we best serve them?’ It doesn’t mean we don’t speak hard truths. But it does mean we try to ask more critical questions to have a deeper understanding of the issues.”

Jessica Logan, the lead author of The Ohio State University study and an assistant professor of educational studies, wanted to explore what happens to children whose caregivers do not read to them.

While this week’s study underscores the importance of reading with children, Vulchanova, from the earlier editorial, asked a series of questions about what the evolving bedtime story looks like now that more and more children are put to bed with a tablet instead of a book. Of those questions, one, in particular, stood out to me:

“What are the consequences of this new digital reality for children’s acquisition of the most fundamental of all human skills: language and communication?”

And while reading more books with our kids is a wonderful practice, how are we also mindful that we are in the completely new territory about how technology affects our children and their ability to learn?

In the meantime, Luci’s father and I will continue to read to her about Jedis and luchadoras and little scientists and the mighty power of the humble acorn. We, like most parents, will continue to do our best to balance the limited screen time of Peppa Pig and Baby Shark with Jack Ezra Keats and bell hooks.