August 29, 2016 1 Comment annab Anthropology News Columns

Anthropology News Article

Is language responsible for poverty? If poor and minority parents spoke like rich white parents, would they too become rich and successful?

That’s the impression one gets from the now-familiar discourse about the language gap (or word gap, or 30 million-word gap) between children (of color) on welfare and children of professional (white) parents. This notion of a language gap is based on flawed and limited research yet has taken on a life of its own, circulating like those 200 Eskimo words for snow.

Here’s the background: In the 1980s, two psychologists, Hart and Risley, counted the words and utterances addressed to 42 infants and toddlers in families they classified as ranging from upper to lower socioeconomic status. They claimed to calculate the number and quality of utterances addressed directly to the children and to discern a correlation: the wealthiest children were hearing the greatest number of words (primarily in the form of “encouragement,” according to Hart and Risley) while the poorest children were hearing the fewest words (many “discouraging,” according to Hart and Risley). Extrapolating, they estimated that by the age of 3, the gap between children at the economic top and bottom amounted to a staggering 30 million words. Without investigating whether this pattern exists across contexts and country, they concluded that the language gap could explain the correlation between poverty and school failure (see the original study here and an early critique here).

language gap 1

"Language Gap" by Bernard Perley. Used by permission.


More recently, neuroscientific researchers have used this research as the basis for their own arguments that the brains of poor children are adversely affected by this presumed lack of linguistic input (Hutton et al., 2015; Noble et al., 2012; Noble et al., 2015). Embraced as gospel by journalists, medical professionals, public health workers, policy makers, and funding agencies, the “language gap” model has led to the implementation of a growing number of (perhaps) well-meaning but misguided corrective programs designed to rectify the perceived deficit: social workers are sent into homes to teach parents to speak “correctly” to their young children, thus infiltrating the most intimate realm of social relations and thereby scapegoating individual parents for systemic inequities.

In other words, the language gap discourse ignores the rich diversity of human experience, including how families interact and how languages are learned, as well as the many ethnographic studies of language socialization that document this diversity. It naturalizes and renders invisible those ideologies of socialization that, entrenched in the habitus of the powerful, masquerade as universal and scientific. Finally, it offers an “easy fix” that is seductive because it shifts blame for the unequal distribution of wealth and privilege to the caregivers who bear the consequences of that inequity.

To combat these discourses and their damaging consequences, linguistic anthropologists and kindred scholars have been analyzing and undermining the ways in which this discourse is being forged in the public media. This effort has included an intertextual analysis that we have undertaken of popular metaphors — e.g., language as wealth, language as health, and language as food — that embody the problematic ideologies underlying this trend. These metaphors suggest that minority parents are irresponsible because they are not providing their children with the basic needs for survival. By using a range of outlets to critique popular media, we can raise awareness of these problematic discourses and make changes in the way they are replicated and eventually implemented.

Members of the Language and Social Justice Task Group of the AAA have been particularly active in their response to this hegemonic, difference-as-deficit discourse in a AAA panel; see also the resulting tweets, followed by a presentation “Deconstructing the ‘Language Gap’” at a recent invited colloquium at the American Association of Applied Linguistics. We published an article in the Anthropology News and an Invited Forum in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology (see video abstract) and are preparing a special issue based on this topic in the International Multilingualism Research Journal. To make the case in the public media, we have written op-eds and blog posts. We’ve been cited in The New Yorker and interviewed by PBS and for an article in The Atlantic.

Additionally, we have begun to craft an alternative model, which we refer to as “anthropolitical language socialization” (inspired by Zentella 1997) that links the rich body of research on language socialization to studies addressing the consequences of structural inequalities found in schools throughout the world. The key point here is that diverse ideologies not only influence but are also reproduced by language socialization practices. Thus, it is not surprising to find that hegemonic discourses in hierarchical societies breed notions of linguistic deficiency and insecurity. On the one hand, minority parents are discouraged from pursuing their own ways of speaking and raising children, while do-gooders from dominant groups are applauded for stepping in to remediate these presumed-to-be problematic parenting styles. This then ignores and exculpates some of the real culprits of school failure (e.g., parents’ unequal and insecure access to safe housing, nutrition, and steady employment).

Finally, we use the language gap controversy as a teaching moment. So many basic anthropological concepts–relativism, socialization, family composition, the uses of language, and more– are highlighted by the debate. Followed to its logical conclusion, the model suggests that there’s only one way to learn, only one way to do things with words, only one ‘right’ way to be a family or even a human being. For our students, this is a prime example of how language and power are enmeshed to the benefit of a dominant class. It is a clear illustration of the danger of using scientific discourses that pretend to be neutral and/or moral, but are in fact grounded in practices and stances that are hegemonic. It is an opportunity to discuss if and how to apply anthropological knowledge and take action by questioning academics, columnists, associations, city officials, and program directors, i.e. those who have the power to implement better solutions to a sociopolitical problem (in this case, school failure by certain segments of the population). In other words, the conversation — whether in the classroom, the media, or our research — is, and must be not only anthropological but also political — anthropolitical.

The challenges are diverse, but so are our efforts — through careful research, critical analysis, and dialogic education, we are making our points to a range of audiences. Please visit our webpage and join our collective efforts!!

Netta Avineri , Susan D. Blum , Eric Johnson , Kathleen C. Riley , and Ana Celia Zentella  are members of the Society for Linguistic Anthropology’s Committee on Language and Social Justice.  Please find more information about collaboration between the American Association for Applied Linguistics and the Society for Linguistic Anthropology in a previous column, Interdisciplinary Collaborations Around Language and Social Justice.

Please send your comments, contributions, news and announcements to SLA Contributing Editors Aaron Ansell ( or Anna Babel (