Monday, April 7, 2014

Head Start, Puberty, 30 Million Words and More

This is my third installment in a series about the 30 Million word Gap.  Here are links to the first two short articles.

Language Literacy and Policy, What?

What is the 30 Million Word Gap?

This post is about how the 30 Million Gap robs students of their potential, and impedes their progress when they attempt to achieve higher education goals, or synthesize complex language.

Before we begin, here is a quick and dirty explanation of the three levels of language all people develop as they go through life.

Aural - This is the language that you hear.  You won't use all of the language in your aural arsenal, but it is in there.

Oral - This is the language that you actually use from day to day.  No word that is not in your aural language store can ever be used in oral language.

Experiential - Experiential language means that you've heard a word used in context that is unfamiliar to you, and you use your experiences and contextual clues to figure out what the new meaning might be.

For a longer, more in depth look at these three types of language and how they interact, I recommend this blog piece I wrote some time ago.

The Three Levels of Language

When you introduce a 30 Million Word Gap into the aural end of a person's language system, it has huge impacts on their ability to use oral language, and it devastates experiential language.

When a baby is learning their first words and experiencing language for the first time, the brain has to figure out how to synthesize the language it hears.  If that language is varied and dynamic and made up of lots of different kinds of words, and there are lots and lots of them, the brain says,

"Wow, this language thing is complicated.  I shall allot a 'mansion sized' space for it so that as they go through life, they will have ample storage for this information."

If ever there comes a time when this space is in danger of being filled, the brain creates another mansion sized space.  There is no time where the brain is not able to synthesize new language.  As the person gets older, they have all of this language at there fingertips to play with and recombine as they choose.

If a baby hears threadbare language, the brain says,

"Language, clearly not so important.  I will allot a 'condominium sized' space for it"

As you can see, this condo is very nice and there is nothing inferior about it in the is just smaller.

Think of the mansion or condo as places you hang words like pictures on the wall.  In a mansion, you have lots of space and you can hang pictures that are related to each other fairly close together.  If you ever look like you are running out of space, you can just build a new mansion.

If your brain gives you a are going to run out of space pretty quickly, and then your brain has to build another condo.

Even if your brain suddenly realizes that language is actually pretty complicated, it seems that once it has allotted you a condo, it cannot go back and give you a mansion.  You have to stick with the condo for the rest of your life.

Your brain has to build condos as fast as it can to deal with the new barrage of language you are hearing.  While that is happening, you don't learn new language.  You might hear it and it might go into your aural storage, but it will lay dormant while your brain readjusts.  When the condo is finished, those new words go right into the condo, but if you've heard enough of them, your brain doesn't have time to even think about them before it has to start building another condo.

With a small area, your brain is busy putting words wherever it has space, but these images are not stored in a neat and tidy way, and they may be much harder to access when you move into experiential language.

It would be as if you wrote a fifty page paper and saved each and every page in a separate place without labeling them and then tried to reassemble the paper in proper order.

The 30 Million Word Gap makes it hard to synthesize language made up of smaller words because you have to search a really long time through your language database to find these small words.  Sometimes, if the Gap is not addressed at all, these words aren't even in your aural storage.

For a post about how this plays out in the real world, here is a blog I wrote about working with students in a rural community in southern North Carolina.

Hubris and Vanity and Mythology, Oh My!

Luckily for us, Pandora let Hope out of the box.

What we have discovered is that it is never too late to boost aural language in a child.  Despite their ability to synthesize it or not, you have to keep putting it in there.  You have to keep exposing them to language.

Why do we know this?  Because of Head Start!

Much is spoken about Head Start.  Some people think it is a waste of time.  They point out that the gains children make in Head Start seem to disappear by about second grade.

This is because of the condo sized space for language!  The kids seem to fill up and not be able to go further and then they start falling behind. 

What we discover if we look further than second grade, is that this language reasserts itself later in life!  If we put it in there, it is in there, and waiting to reappear.

Why does this happen?  When a person hits puberty, their brains change over.  They stop soaking up language like a sponge, and they start collating it.  This is the first moment when the brain can go back and figure out what it has stored over the first part of a person's life.

Here is an informational article about language acquisition, development and puberty.  It is interesting, digestible and not that long.

The longer you wait before you go into puberty...the better for brain development and language strength.

So, what is the upshot of all of this?  PUT THE LANGUAGE IN THERE!  

Once it is in there, it has a chance of becoming part of the experiential language later on in a child's career.  

In the next post about this...can't promise it will be the actual next post...but in the next post about the 30 Million Word Gap, I will discuss how storytelling can play a huge part in repairing this gap.

Happy Talking!

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