March 26, 2013

Closing the “word gap”


Time-honored toddler technique of absorbing new words BY ACTUALLY EATING THEM.

From the “this is kind of weird, but ok, maybe?” department: the city of Providence, Rhode Island, has just won a $5 million grant in Bloomberg’s “Mayor’s Challenge” contest to help close the “word gap” between low-income children and middle- and upper-class children, by equipping Providence toddlers with “language pedometers.”

The idea of the “word gap” comes out of the research done by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, as the blog Language Log links to and David Shenk summarizes in an article in the Atlantic here, which found that low-income children were hearing a significantly fewer words per year and the complexity of those words and how they were used was also substantially different. And this paucity of verbal experience, especially early on, has effects on the vocabularies and eventual intellectual development of these children.

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras came up with a plan, called “Providence Talks,” in which children in low-income families will be given small recorders that will keep track of all the conversations that children hear and participate in (though it will screen out conversations coming from TV or the radio) each day. And, based on the data collected, parents will be given monthly coaching sessions to help improve their child’s language skills.

The recorders, which look like flat little cellphones, are produced by the Lena Research Foundation, and can be stored in ordinary pockets or in specially designed clothing—no word yet on how they operate when chewed on, thrown, or taken out and used as pretend cellphones, which I’m betting are going to be some of the most common uses of these particular gadgets.

Like Mass Observation and other projects that aim to record the minutiae of everyday life, this one veers between seeming invasive, even if undertaken voluntarily, and utterly and totally fascinating. At the end of his Language Log post, Mark Liberman points out that one of the major benefits of this project will be to expand the sample size of the data, as Hart and Risley’s studies were done on a data set of only 42 families and “Providence Talks” is intended to eventually extend to around 3,000 families. Let’s hope it helps shed further light on what these particular verbal environments are really like, and how the children born into them develop.

Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.