Title: Resolved: It is “alarming for both scientific and ethical reasons” to encourage talking with young children in non-Western societies. Really??
Hart & Risley (1995) were the first to document substantial differences among families in the amount and quality of adult verbal engagement with young children. They found that children in more affluent families experienced 30 million more words directed to them over their first 4 years than children in less affluent families, differences linked to early vocabulary and later school success. Critics of this landmark study deny that a “word gap” among children in higher- and lower-income families could contribute to SES differences in academic achievement. Denouncing this claim as a “deficit model”, they argue that by privileging Western middle-class practices, cultural differences in parenting style are ignored and disrespected. I challenge these objections based on our research on child-directed speech by Wolof-speaking caregivers (n=443) in rural villages in Senegal, concluding that encouraging verbal engagement with young children can be beneficial in diverse cultural contexts.
Dr. Fernald is a Josephine Knotts Knowles Professor in the Department of Human Biology at Stanford University.
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