Uneducated families = Noncomplex language?

Stacey McBurney SJMcBurney at lp.psd.k12.ca.us
Fri May 1 17:02:04 UTC 2009

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>>> Harold Schiffman <hfsclpp at gmail.com> 4/30/2009 7:17 AM >>>
Re: Uneducated families = Noncomplex language?

David Johnson writes:

>I am curious to hear what other linguists think about the research to which
>this newspaper article refers. The researchers argue that less educated
>families do not deliver language as complex to their children as those who
>are educated. This lack of complex language leads to a lack of complex
>thoughts (and even dreams!). Doesn't this ignore decades of linguistic


The reporter is probably referring to work by Hart and Risley (1995), but
somewhat mis-characterizes their findings. (Note that these are my
recollections from a seminar five or so years ago, refreshed by glancing
over a summary of Hart & Risley 1995 at the web page of American Educator.
They should be taken with all appropriate caveats.)


Hart and Risley observed 42 families with 1-2 year old children. They found
that parents in the lowest socioeconomic group uttered an average of 176
words per hour, while those in the highest group uttered 487.

The Seattle Times says, ''[T]here's a gap of 32 million words between
children on welfare and children from affluent homes.'' It would be more
accurate to say that if the patterns observed by Hart and Risley hold over
four years of real-world experience (that is, the years before the child
enters pre-school), the lower status children will have heard several
million fewer words from their parents, and uttered several million fewer
in response, than higher status children will have done. This is indeed
reason for concern, but it is not quite as the Seattle Times report makes
it sound.

Commenters on Seattle Times's web page say things such as, ''Wow, now I
feel inadequate. Must be my poor upbringing. I am fairly confident that my
vocabulary is less than a million words.'' This suggests (probably
facetiously) that the ''32 million words'' claim can be heard as a claim
about vocabulary size. If I recall correctly, Hart and Risley did have
important things to say about the size of parent's and children's active
vocabularies and verbal repertoires, but I don't recall anything as
simple-minded as ''Uneducated families = Noncomplex language''.

To read the previous thread in this discussion, please visit:

[Note from moderator:  this calls to mind the work of Basil Bernstein on
'elaborated' and 'restricted' codes from several decaes ago. (HS)]


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