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Marketing language abilities

Recently some scholars in language acquisition and education have posted links on Facebook to the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (henceforth CCFC), which is asking the US Federal Trade Commission to stop the company Your Baby Can Read (YBCR) from advertising its products.

According to CCFC, YBCR sells a system that promises to teach babies to read by watching DVD videos and using flash cards. I should say that all I know about YBCR, apart from what is alleged in the CCFC complaint, is what I’ve seen in their television commercials; I’ve never used or evaluated their products. CCFC alleges that YBCR does not offer evidence for the effectiveness of the system. Since the advertising refers to “studies,” the complaint holds, such evidence is required. CCFC further argues that watching DVDs for the extended time YBCR recommends is harmful for children under two years of age.

Again, I don’t know whether YBCR is an effective way to learn to read, and I have not read the studies purporting to show harm to young children watching television. Nevertheless, this controversy reminds me of some recent work in linguistic anthropology. It is somewhat reminiscent of my own work with Hippo Family Club as well as work by Dr. Char Ullman of the University of Texas at El Paso. Both Ullman’s work and my own deal not with literacy education but with foreign language learning.

Ullman (2010) worked with transmigrants in Tucson, Arizona, who had purchased an English language-learning system called Inglés sin Barreras (English without barriers). The books and videos in Inglés sin Barreras promise Spanish speakers greater access to American life through the acquisition of Standard English. What these consumers get for their $3,000 or so, though, is usually not academic or linguistic success — most people Ullman interviewed stopped using the system before completing the first volume — so much as it is distinction relative to other transmigrants (Bourdieu 1984). By purchasing the expensive system and displaying signs of their purchase, such as Inglés sin Barreras key chains, individuals show their commitment to life in the United States.

Ullman also interviewed workers and undertook participant observation at Lexicon Corporation, the video’s marketers. Though the 2010 paper does not include much detail of these observations, I have discussed the work with Dr. Ullman. As I recall, many people at Lexicon Corporation report viewing themselves not as educators but as marketers and salespeople. Though this is merely speculation on my part, I would be unsurprised to learn that Lexicon employees regard themselves as successful when they sell the Inglés sin Barreras system, and do not pay particular heed to whether those who purchase it actually acquire the English language.

Like Ullman, I also carried out participant observation and interviews both with members of Hippo Family Club and with staff of LEX Language Institute. Hippo Family Club is a multi-language learners’ club found throughout Japan. LEX Institute, which organizes and operates the clubs, sells audio CDs and other materials which club members use to learn foreign languages. Members then meet each week to speak with one another in multiple target languages. Members also frequently host foreign visitors to Japan in their own homes, or themselves go abroad through tourist excursions or study-abroad trips arranged by LEX Institute.

Unlike Lexicon Corporation, whose employees seem not to put particular emphasis on the effectiveness of their learning system, LEX Institute staff and Hippo Family Club members alike express great faith in the effectiveness of their learning system. LEX/Hippo explicitly rejects any comparison with foreign language classes in schools, which it claims are ineffective, and so its members have no interest in traditional assessments such as language testing. Members have faith in their own abilities, though, since membership in the club gives them access to a kind of “cosmopolitan citizenship,” including relationships with foreign visitors and knowledge of foreign cultures. This cosmopolitan citizenship constitutes a distinction within Japanese society, not unlike owning Inglés sin Barreras endows Arizona transmigrants with symbolic citizenship and social distinction.

As I have said, I do not know whether Your Baby Can Read is an effective way to acquire literacy. Furthermore, I don’t know whether the company’s motivations are more like those of Lexicon Corporation or like those of LEX Institute. To me, though, the latter question is equally as interesting as the former one. Are any anthropologists looking at this or related issues with Your Baby Can Read?


Bourdieu, Pierre
1984 Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. London: Routledge.

Ullman, Char
2010 Consuming English: How Mexican transmigrants form identities and construct symbolic citizenship through the English-language program Inglés sin Barreras [English without Barriers]. Linguistics and Education 21:1–13.