palabras.words

Do you think it matters how much children talk (expressive language) or how many words they recognize when they hear them (receptive language)? Literature shows that a child’s exposure to an environment rich and diverse in language between birth and age three is crucial for their language development and actually has important long-term impacts, like better school and labor market outcomes. Here are typical examples:

Mario is three and lives with his parents and siblings in La Paz, Bolivia. He has trouble recognizing words that describe shapes, colors or simple objects. His parents usually give him orders (“eat this!”, “don’t touch that”), but have little time to engage in a conversation with him. They think that after all, Mario is still too young to be talked to.

At Ana-Maria’s home things are different. On her way to the daycare center in La Paz her mother talks to Ana Maria about the color of the flowers they see in the park, if it’s rainy or sunny, or the number of buses and cars…simple things that Ana-Maria loves. That is probably why she quickly recognizes words and eagerly learns new ones.

We learned about the “early catastrophe” or the “30-million-word-gap” in our post “Talk to me” and now a follow-up study has found a language gap as early as 18 months. The catastrophic finding that children from lower-income families at age three have heard 30 million words less than children from higher-income families seems to be starting to influence policy in the US.   In relation to this, there is an extremely interesting study from Chile showing clear socioeconomic gradients in the beliefs and practices towards language. However, the same study also shows that some of these practices are not always correlated with educational background as found in developed countries.

It is clear that a change of behavior in parents and teachers is needed. How is the US going about it?  A recent New York Times article discusses President Obama’s proposal to provide preschool for all 4-year-olds and support language development as early as possible (see another of our posts on this topic). The aim is to intervene at an early stage and not wait to provide remediation programs that are often more costly and in most cases, just come too late. This proposal faces many challenges. In order to really impact the child’s cognitive development pre-k’s classrooms need highly qualified teachers who can address adequately the children’s needs.

What about public policies to address these issues in Latin American and Caribbean countries? First of all, policymakers need data to understand the size of language development deficits in order to intervene. For instance, a recent IDB study finds important differences in receptive language development by socioeconomic status for five Latin American countries, which emphasizes the importance of programs directed towards children living in poverty. Secondly, interventions that affect parental and teacher behavior in relation to language are needed. Some interventions have been tried in LAC, but, except for home visits, none of them was particularly tailored to this issue. And even so, the program effects estimated in the literature are small in relation to the magnitudes of the differentials in receptive language found in the above IDB study.

The challenge seems big for LAC, but one thing that educators and policy makers say is that schools should not be the only focus for policy, one must concentrate increasingly on parents, like Mario’s parents.   The Clinton Initiative Too Small to Fail offers lots of information on the importance of parents speaking to their babies and toddlers and presents new research finding on early child development and how to fight the language gap. There are a lot of good things happening in LAC on well-designed early childhood development programs and services. What other ideas do you have that could foster language development from the start? Share in the comments’ section or in Twitter using #FirstWordsBID.

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