Rethinking the ‘language gap’

By Julia McLaughlin

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Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article misidentified a language spoken by Luiz Amaral’s daughter. It also identified Hispanic Linguistics as a department at UMass, which is false.

The Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of Massachusetts held an open discussion on the “language gap,” the linguistic separation between underprivileged children and wealthy children, Tuesday evening in Herter Hall.

Also known as the “word gap,” this disparity is often seen as the result of parents from lower socioeconomic backgrounds not speaking enough to their children during development.

After reading recent articles from The New York Times on the so-called “word gap,” UMass Professor of Anthropology Jonathan Rosa said he found these works to be limiting and one-dimensional, and recognized that this controversial topic needs more analysis in order to be understood fairly and accurately.

With the help of Meghan Armstrong of the Hispanic Linguistics program in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, and led by Rosa, this open discussion served as an opportunity for faculty and students to share their perspectives on, and stories of, the “language gap.”

Rosa initiated the discussion by referencing past research on the subject by linguists and anthropologists. Anne Fernald, an American psychologist and specialist in children’s language development, has conducted recent studies within this field. Her research concluded that by 18 months, a language-gap can be recognized in children.

In the 1980s, Shirley Brice Heath, an American linguistic anthropologist, analyzed three communities in the Carolinas – one wealthy, middle-class white community, a working-class white community and a working-class African American community – as part of a 10-year ethnography to study language and linguistic differences.

“She shows us how only particular home practices are picked up on in school so that the practices that kids are learning in the working class African American communities, the particular kind of verbal routines, are not viewed as valuable in school,” Rosa said.

In this way, family practices valued in the white, middle-class communities control the way that language is defined. The school that Heath observed, therefore, particularizes certain skills in mainstream society that some children have rooted in their family, which others do not share.

“What Shirley Brice Heath showed us is how systematically, over the course of the school year, the children’s responses that didn’t fit the presumed-upon normative routines that the teacher was seeking to enact in that situation positioned them as cognitively inferior and as incapable, or academically unsuccessful,” Rosa said.

Stressing these cultural differences among the communities, Rosa pointed out that often times, it’s not so much about language as it is about race. In regards to academic language, Rosa said, “…we really want to think critically about the ideologies that position particular families’ language use … as academically-oriented or deficient.”

In this way, he questioned what exactly constitutes an academic language. A solution for this problem, Rosa said, is to “reduce these issues of inequality and educational achievement to be straightforward linguistic matters.”

Providence Talks, a program designed to boost early education among underprivileged children, serves as a leading effort to end the so-called “word gap.” In this intervention program, participating families receive a free “word-pedometer,” which tracks a child’s daily speaking routine and verbal interactions. The families then receive feedback on the child’s progress, as well as targeted coaching to improve language use in the household.

However, often times with Providence Talks, “there’s this idea of benevolence,” Rosa said, because the program regards underprivileged people as “ignorant families” who “do not know how to use language.” Additionally, the word gap often serves as “an explanation for education underachievement,” Rosa said.

Carmelo Chiello, a UMass doctoral student studying education in the Languages, Literatures and Cultures Department, commented on the language system, saying that English is “a language of institutional power in the United States,” which encourages the educational system to promote the learning and teaching of English even more.

Luiz Amaral, professor of Hispanic Linguistics in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, said he has been personally impacted by those who believe in the “language gap.” As the father of a bilingual daughter, Amaral has seen how bilingualism can play out in the education system.

When his daughter was only 4 years old, he said that there was “complete ignorance” of the Portuguese language – it was not valued in her school at that time. However, by the time his daughter was 10 years old, her bilingualism had come to be appreciated.

Rosa noted that often times education “positions certain forms of bilingualism as a gap,” especially Spanish bilingualism, which he said can be seen as “a handicap to overcome.”

Jessica Filion, a UMass doctoral student in the Languages, Literatures and Cultures Department, spoke about the discrepancy between race and language. She said that often times, a person’s race can impact the way his or her language is interpreted and viewed by others. Even though English may be this person’s native language, racialization has an influence in how discrimination comes into play.

When looking at language as a part of the process, it often seems that race is a controlling factor, because observers can racialize language. Most of the time, Rosa said, it is about the context that frames how these situations unfold.

“We can make the linguistic case all we want, but it seems that people are using language to talk about something else,” he said.

Julia McLaughlin can be reached at [email protected].