Words Matter

Talk to Your Baby

05.06.13 1:30 PM ET

Class divisions are hardening in America, and the reasons may go deeper than the economic. Earlier in April, the New York Times reported on the lifelong effects of the simple act of talking to your baby. One of the most important changes of our time has been the trend since about 1980 of upper-class families to invest more time in their children even as lower-class families have invested less.

Children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour. Working-class children heard 1,200 words per hour, and children from professional families heard 2,100 words. By age 3, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words in his home environment than a child from a professional family. And the disparity mattered: the greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school. TV talk not only didn’t help, it was detrimental.

Hart and Risley later wrote that children’s level of language development starts to level off when it matches that of their parents — so a language deficit is passed down through generations. They found that parents talk much more to girls than to boys (perhaps because girls are more sociable, or because it is Mom who does most of the care, and parents talk more to children of their gender). This might explain why young, poor boys have particular trouble in school.