Language, vocabulary… Inequality starts long before kindergarten

Researcher Nawal Abbub publishes The Power of Babies (Fayyard). In her book, which L’Express was able to read at a preview, she deciphers the latest findings from neuroscientists about the extraordinary abilities of babies. In the section on inequality, we find that differences between children appear very early, much earlier than we previously thought. However, there is no determinism here: by adopting the right behavior, the adults around them can help them get the best possible start in life. Glad.

A gap of 30 million words … In 1995, American psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley found that children from the most privileged families hear an average of 2150 words per hour, compared with 1250 in working class families and 620 in working class families . those followed by the equivalent of social assistance. Extrapolating from these data, the researchers concluded that during the first four years of life, children from the most affluent families hear 45 million words, compared with 13 million for children from disadvantaged families. May this “gap of thirty million words” become a famous slogan in the United States.

While Hart and Risley’s methodology has been criticized (with a small sample of 42 infants in particular), many studies have confirmed the importance of language differences based on the socioeconomic status of parents. The differences are much earlier than long thought. Research by Ann Fernald, a professor at Stanford University, shows that by the age of 2 years, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are already six months behind in speech processing. However, children who process language faster and have a larger vocabulary at 24 months will have higher scores in terms of language production, IQ, and working memory at 8 years…

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Vocabulary gaps, which can range from single to double

“This is not economic determinism. More recent studies have shown that poverty alone does not predispose a child to a lower level of language proficiency,” says Nawal Abboob. “The interaction and the quality of the language used with children is important. Therefore, there is no inevitability. A mother on maternity leave and her family who help her will, of course, have more contact with their child than a mother who has to take care of her food. But this data means that we can do a lot, that there are solutions!”

With the start of kindergarten, differences in vocabulary richness can increase from simple to double. “Children are already accumulating delays that will hinder their learning. And in kindergarten, in classes of twenty-five or even fifteen students, individual time is very rare, unlike in a nursery,” says Nawal Abbub. However, in France, a country of equality, this topic remains taboo. “We tell ourselves that we must give the children time, not to put pressure on them and not to judge the parents. But this is reality. Let’s stop closing our eyes.”

The researcher offers several directions. On a case-by-case basis, two American studies conducted at the University of Washington (2019 and 2020) found that short-term parenting sessions had an impact on language performance. During the training, special attention was paid to the importance of communicating directly with a small child, modulating his voice and having privileged moments with him. At the state level, Nawal Abboob advocates greater efforts in favor of kindergartens. “Before, the priority was care and food. We have made incredible progress. But cognitive stimulation is just as important as the way you eat.” According to the researcher, neuroscience will also improve the work of kindergarten specialists by providing them with working tools.

For the specialist, investing in early childhood is “the highest possible return on investment.” She refers to the famous experience of Carolina Abedarian in the United States. Started in the early 1970s in North Carolina for very vulnerable populations, this program welcomed young children under the age of 5 with very active and individualized pedagogy. The results were stunning and the effect continued into adulthood. According to statistics, children in these nurseries studied more than others, then received higher salaries and suffered less health problems or even imprisonment. Conclusion: “Neurologists are often criticized for ultradeterminism and biologization of academic success. But the scientific evidence shows us that there are ways to fix it! We all know that there is inequality at birth. Therefore, we must do everything so that all children can have the same chance. The state should be able to guarantee this.”

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The power of babies, Nawal Abboob. Fayard, 300 pages, 19 euros. Release September 21st.


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