In 1995, a seminal book was published suggesting that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were exposed to 30 million fewer words than richer children by the age of 4 — the so-called “word gap”. The idea is now widespread and has informed early childhood policy in the United States (though the findings are more contentious than this ubiquity might suggest).
But why might these kids be exposed to fewer words? A new study from a team at the University of California, Berkeley, finds that worries about financial insecurity reduced the amount that caregivers spoke to their small children, suggesting that these concerns themselves could be at least partly responsible for the word gap.
Participants were 84 caregivers and their three year old children. First, a caregiver and their child were seated across from each other at a table, and while the child completed an unrelated experiment with a researcher, caregivers were placed into one of two conditions.
In the scarcity condition, caregivers were asked to reflect on three or four times in the past week when they didn’t have enough of something or when resources were scarce, writing a brief reflection about two of those experiences. In the control condition, caregivers wrote about two things they had done in the last week.
When the caregiver had completed the survey, they were left alone with their child and a shape sorting puzzle which allowed, but didn’t obligate, them to engage in speech. A video camera recorded their interactions, with researchers using transcripts to analyse the quantity and quality of language used by caregivers.
Results showed that those in the scarcity condition used fewer words than those in the control condition as well as fewer word types (e.g. nouns, adjectives, and other categories), though this latter difference was not statistically significant. Interestingly, caregivers who reflected specifically on financial insecurity spoke to their children significantly less than those who focused on other forms of scarcity (such as time).
A second study looked at more natural, daily environments, using publicly available audio recordings of children and their caregivers taken over multiple days. The team looked specifically at changes in conversation towards the end of the month, which previous research has identified as a period when people of all income groups are less financially secure.
Across all of the recordings, back and forth interactions between caregivers and children were reduced during the last week of the month. Children themselves were also on average less likely to use language during this week compared to the rest of the month, though adult speech overall was not reduced during this period. The results also held for caregivers from all financial brackets.
Though the end of the month may, on the whole, be a time of relative financial stress, the study was not able to isolate this as the key factor in reduced speech; further research could look more closely at times of difference in vocalisation between caregivers and children, using specific measures of financial stress to understand the link.
The findings could go some way to explain why parents who are struggling financially might talk less to their children. The team suggests that parents have less time and attention to speak to their children when stressed or anxious. “If you are worried about putting food on the table, or scraping together money for that medical bill, or figuring out where to enroll your child in school now you have been evicted, you may be less likely to narrate the colour of the sky to your child as you ride on the bus,” they write.
As noted, however, there are also issues with the concept of the word gap altogether: recent longitudinal research failed to replicate the findings of the 1995 study, suggesting it may not be as cut and dry as assumed. But limitations aside, there is certainly one serious takeaway from the study: the importance of considering external, material factors on childcare and parenting. While individual interventions may solicit some positive results, looking at wider social and political factors could be a better way of addressing childhood inequalities than putting the onus on individuals.