In a room bursting with pretty dolls and pink stuffed animals, Barbara Bermudo sits with her two daughters. Bermudo is an anchor at Univision’s news program Primer Impacto. In this public service announcement she’s encouraging parents to take at least 15 minutes a day to talk, sing, or read to their children – in any language.
It’s part of an effort to close the word gap. What is the word gap?
“By the end of the age of three, children who are born into poverty will have heard 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers,” says Dr. Dana Suskind.
Dr. Dana Suskind is the director of the Thirty Million Words initiative – an education and research program out of Chicago.
“And this had nothing to do with race or ethnicity. This is really socioeconomic status which is education and income.”
The moment a baby is born their brain is already beginning to develop. That is why these early language interactions are so crucial. Scientists can actually measure the word gap or the number of words spoken at home. They use a little device called the LENA which stands for language environment analysis.
The LENA is about the size of a credit card. Babies wear it at chest level. Not only does it count or record words, it can also analyze what it records. The LENA is able to differentiate all the different kinds of sounds that are heard in a baby’s environment. One way to think of the LENA is that it’s like a language pedometer.
“So just like a regular pedometer counts the number of steps you take in a day the LENA counts the number of words a child is exposed to and how many conversations they have with their caregiver or parent,” Suskind says.
It’s not just the number of words spoken to babies but the quality of words spoken. Dr. Adriana Weisleder, a developmental psychologist who is an associate project director and co-investigator at the BELLE project says that, “in some families a lot of the speech to children is what they called business talk. The function of the speech is to get the child to do something right so they’re commands or imperatives. That happens in all families. It has to happen, right? Parents have to get their kids to do things. But when a high proportion of the speech that children hear is composed of those kinds of business talk or imperatives then that means they’re not getting a lot of the other rich talk and conversation.”
Still a device like the LENA can’t close the word gap all by itself.
“Just like a pedometer will not change the obesity and health crisis in the country, we can’t put everything on a piece of technology,” Suskind says.
One way Dr. Suskind’s Thirty Million Words initiative tries to close to gap is by actually going into homes. On top of going over the results from lena recordings – Thirty Million Words has created a curriculum for parents. It includes videos modeling ways caregivers should talk to their baby.
Families that speak more than one language at home can face a special challenge: what language should they speak to their kids in?
“It’s not just a moral and right thing, but the science is clear that parents and caregivers should be talking and interacting with their children in their native language. It does no good to be speaking in a language you don’t feel comfortable with,” Suskind says.
“Having a higher vocabulary even if it’s in Spanish still makes kids be more prepared for school.” Weisleder says.
Why is that? talking a lot to your child is about more than just teaching them words – it’s helping them understand basic concepts.
”If you know in spanish the words for horse and dog and house and barn. You know those words in spanish but you also know a lot of relationships between those things. You know that dogs and horses are animals and that a lot of dogs live in houses and horses might live in barns, lots of the different things.”
Bridging the word gap is not about getting babies ready to read Don Quixote by the age of four – it’s about setting up the building blocks so that children can be ready learn more easily once they get to school.
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