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Title:Listening to all of the words: reassessing the verbal environments of young working-class and poor children
Author(s):Sperry, Douglas
Director of Research:Miller, Peggy J.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Miller, Peggy J.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Dyson, Anne H.; Fisher, Cynthia L.; Koven, Michele; Haight, Wendy L.
Department / Program:Psychology
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Word Gap
Language Socialization
Abstract:For many educators, scholars, and policy makers alike, one of the most commonly cited reasons that poor and working-class children fail at school is due to differences between the language within these children's homes and the language within the school. Unfortunately, these differences are often conceptualized as language deficits or language impoverishment in the homes of non-majority families rather than as differences between two distinct, but equally viable systems, one of which possesses political hegemony over the other. In particular, recent discussions of language deficit have centered around the notion of the Word Gap, a finding that Hart and Risley (1995) extrapolated from their research on 42 families from Midwestern communities suggesting that children from impoverished homes hear 30 million fewer words than children from professional homes by the time they reach four years of age. Alongside these dire findings and predictions exists another tradition in scholarship on language development whose central premise is that most children grow up to be fully competent speakers within their cultural contexts. This tradition known as language socialization is an approach to language study that examines how language use among young children is socialized by caregivers, and how language is used by caregivers to inculcate into their children the beliefs, values, and norms of their culture and its practices. Questions of language deprivation are essentially moot within this tradition because language is always defined as emerging from within the contexts in which its speakers live, work, and play. In this way the mismatch between the language of the home and the language of the school is redefined as a problem of language contact where the hegemony of one language becomes central to any difficulties experienced by competent language speakers within different contexts. The present study looks at the Word Gap by situating its approach and findings within the tradition of language socialization. In this manner, it interrogates the work of Hart and Risley (1995) and other studies of language deprivation by an examination of the degree to which they considered the contexts and the practices of the participants whom they studied. Where traditional language development studies approach the process of learning language as an essentially dyadic enterprise, this research asks who is talking to the child on a regular basis. This study examines data from five pre-existing language corpora, each of which was collected in the methodological tradition of language socialization. The participants in this study are 42 children and their families from five communities across the United States. Two communities were rural in geographic distribution and two were urban; one community within each geographic distribution was impoverished and one was working class. A fifth community was urban and relatively affluent, and provides a comparison group to which data from the other communities are compared. All participants were European American except those families living in the rural, impoverished community who were African American. Children were observed longitudinally according to different time schedules in the five communities. An average of over six samples per child exists ranging from approximately 18 to 48 months of age across the five communities. In all, verbatim transcripts of 157.5 hours of data were analyzed. Every word spoken to and around the child by family and friends was sorted according to categories reflecting the speaker and intended listener. Several important findings emerged. First, although the talk of one primary caregiver addressed to the child was important in the everyday lives of all children in this study, most children enjoyed frequent exposure to the speech of multiple interlocutors—listening to, answering, and learning from all talk in their ambient verbal environment. In nearly every home, children were exposed to significant amounts of speech addressed specifically to them and spoken around them above and beyond the speech of their primary caregiver. Moreover, analyses of vocabulary diversity demonstrated that in every community the addition of this speech to the mix increased the quality of language the children heard, even considering that some of the speech was spoken by younger interlocutors such as the child's siblings. Qualitative analyses of the speech spoken both to and around children by other interlocutors than their primary caregiver were offered to demonstrate not only the types of situations in which this speech occurs, but also the everyday, normal nature of the speech. Finally, this study concludes with an examination of the ideological issues surrounding the Word Gap, asking why this concept remains relatively impermeable to evidence that questions both its authenticity and its importance.
Issue Date:2015-01-21
Rights Information:Copyright 2014 Douglas Sperry
Date Available in IDEALS:2015-01-21
Date Deposited:2014-12

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