Uneducated families = Noncomplex language?

Christina Paulston paulston at pitt.edu
Fri May 1 17:22:42 UTC 2009

I don't know about Hart&Risley,  but it certainly is what Basil  
Bernstein (and his students) wrote about with his elaborated and  
restricted codes .  Bernstein has been much misunderstood not just  in  
this country, inter alia applied to the speech of African-Americans,   
which he has refuted repeatedly to little avail.  See e.g. his "A  
sociolinguistic approach to socialization; with some reference to  
Educability" in the Gumperz and Hymes reader of 1972.  The basic  
purpose behind his scholarship was to explain the low scholastic  
achievement by lower class students so they could ultimately be  
provided a more effective educational experience.  Sounds  familiar?   
Bernstein is difficult to read, and although he writes as a  
sociologist/psychologist,  he is best read as as poetry with illusions  
and metaphors and insights rather than taken as literal meaning.   

On Apr 30, 2009, at 10:17 AM, Harold Schiffman wrote:

> 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
> research?
>> http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/health/2008700779_brains03.html
> 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.)
> http://www.aft.org/pubs-reports/american_educator/spring2003/catastrophe.html
> 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:
> http://linguistlist.org/issues/20/20-1607.html
> [Note from moderator:  this calls to mind the work of Basil  
> Bernstein on
> 'elaborated' and 'restricted' codes from several decaes ago. (HS)]
> http://linguistlist.org/issues/20/20-1641.html
> -- 
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