The Language Gap
April 17, 2009, 05:15 PM
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One element of the conventional wisdom about racial achievement gaps that has become particularly popular in recent years is the idea that the gap is caused by the fact that the parents of poor children tend to have small vocabularies and generally don`t engage their children in mentally stimulating discussions. Much of this tracks back to a project several decades ago by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, who recorded 1300 hours of 42 families during various in-home sessions over 2.5 years, and then tabulated every word they said.

Not surprisingly, they found that professional class parents spoke to their children with larger vocabularies, had more interesting things to say, and tended to speak more encouragingly to their children along the lines of "Why, that`s a very interesting observation, honey; why do you think that is?" In contrast, the welfare moms` tended to more often interact with their children in the "Shut yo` mouth" mode.

Hart and Risley write:

Before children can take charge of their own experience and begin to spend time with peers in social groups outside the home, almost everything they learn comes from their families, to whom society has assigned the task of socializing children.
I remember when I got the memo from Society that my wife and I had been assigned the task of socializing our children. It came as quite a shock, let me tell you.
We were not surprised to see the 42 children turn out to be like their parents; we had not fully realized, however, the implications of those similarities for the children`s futures.
So, the conventional wisdom insists, what we must do is take poor children away from their homes each day from age one upward and put them in day care staffed by college trained professionals from age one onward, who will mentally stimulate them by speaking with large vocabularies.

But, is it really true that "almost everything they learn comes from their families?" Well, no. Among other sources, a lot of what children learn comes from the media.

For example, I`ve heard about this brightly colored cartoon show about the adventures of a ten-year-old boy and his wacky family, and each episode features the carefully concentrated cognitive liveliness of about a dozen of the most mentally effervescent Harvard graduates of recent years. And it`s on free TV twice a day in most cities!

You might have heard of it, too: it`s called The Simpsons.

Each of the 450 or so episodes of The Simpsons is a lot more mentally stimulating than listening to your parents or to your daycare worker talk. (Okay, well, some of the episodes from this decade might not live up to that standard, but there are still a couple of hundred good ones.)

By the way, I haven`t been able to find anything on Google about the Nielsen Ratings of The Simpsons in black households. It probably doesn`t help the shows` rating among blacks that the writers are clearly completely terrified of poking fun at blacks, so the show is kind of boring for black audiences.

Thus, out of the huge cast of recurring characters, the only black ones are Dr. Hibbert and his wife, who go back to the show`s ancient rivalry with The Cosby Show, and one each of two interchangeable white-black pairs: Homer`s coworkers Lenny and Carl and the cop partners Eddie and Lou. After 20 years, I still can`t tell you which one are the black guys and which ones are the white guy. Presumably, the interchangeability of the two white-black pairs is an in-joke from the writers about how afraid they are of touching anything black-related.