October 12, 2012

Another victim of the Word Gap

The 21st Century upper-middle class parent speaks constantly and encouragingly to his or her child, thus readying the little one for the SAT Verbal in 10 or 15 years. But, other cultures have not always demanded that parents speak to their children frequently. For example, here is the story of a man whose parents almost never spoke to him, which presumably accounts for his notoriously small vocabulary.
Only once do I remember my father having breathed a word of complaint about his fortunes to me, and that for a passing moment. ... He had been very angry and disturbed. Understanding at once that I was distressed, he took occasion to reassure me. I then had one of the three or four long intimate conversations with him which are all I can boast. He explained how old people were not always very considerate towards young people, that they were absorbed in their own affairs and might well speak roughly in sudden annoyance. … I listened spellbound to this sudden complete departure from his usual reserve, amazed at his intimate comprehension of all my affairs. 

Winston Churchill 

18 comments:

DaveinHackensack said...

He did have a governess, though I'm not sure how much she talked to him. After all, there was no TV back then, so she wouldn't have seen a public service ad like this one telling her to talk to him.

Anonymous said...

The high performance of schools in IA and MN can obviously be traced to the notoriously extreme talkativeness of Scandinavian-Americans.

Marlowe said...

First, let us do away with the folklore that parents teach their children language. No one supposes that parents provide explicit grammar lessons, of course, but many parents (and some child psychologists who should know better) think that mothers provide children with implicit lessons. These lessons take the form of a special speech variety called Motherese (or, as the French call it, Mammanaise): intensive sessions of conversational give-and-take, with repetitive drills and simplified grammar. ("Look at the doggie! See the doggie? There's the doggie) In contemporary middle-class American culture, parenting is seen as an awesome responsibility, an unforgiving vigil to keep the helpless infant from falling behind in the great race of life. The belief that Motherese is essential to language development is part of the same mentality that sends yuppies to "learning centers" to buy little mittens with bull's-eyes to help their babies find their hands sooner.

One gets some perspective by examining the folk theories about parenting in other cultures. The !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa believe that children must be drilled to sit, stand and walk. They carefully pile sand around their infants to prop them upright, and sure enough, every one of these infants soon sits up on its own. We find this amusing because we have observed the results of the experiment that the San are unwilling to chance: we don't teach our children to sit, stand, and walk, and they do it anyway, on their own schedule. But other groups enjoy the same condescension toward us. In many communities of the world, parents do not indulge their children in Motherese. In fact, they do not speak to their prelinguistic children at all, except for occasional demands and rebukes. This is not unreasonable. After all, young children plainly can't explain a word you say. So why waste your breath in soliloquies? Any sensible person would surely wait until a child has developed speech and more gratifying two-way conversations became possible.

-- The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker, Penguin Books 1994, pp. 39-40.

For the English upper class of Churchill's day, sensible speech started after 21.

Matrices said...

This word gap idea is just a red herring to distract people away from exploring the genetic causes of the achievement gap.

We'll soon be hearing that there is an ink gap, and that there is a special ink on home titles and diplomas which has been shown to impact the brains of developing fetuses, and white people are exposed more to these than blacks, so we need to let more African Americans freeload their way into college and home ownership or we're just evil nasty white people.

Chicago said...

There's been a number of people in academia who've seriously maintained over the years that ebonics and various obscure tribal languages were so complex as to put mere English to shame, a language for simpletons it would seem. Proof that that speakers of those languages are the true master race. Perhaps the US should switch over to a Papua New Guinean dialect so as to finally close all gaps forever and thus usher in the new golden age that's been dreamed of by so many.

peterike said...

But when poor, un-spoken-to Winston went to school, he was made to read real literature from a very early age. And lots of it. No "readers" full of carefully constructed, politically correct idiot-speak. And to read phonetically rather than by sight-reading. And to write in clear, logical prose, rather than being asked to "tell his story" in whatever sloppy hash he liked. And his teacher's corrected his mistakes, often harshly, without concern over his little self-esteem.

jz said...

One, or many, counter examples do not disprove the thesis that growing up in a verbally rich home is a wonderful advantage.

Anonymous said...

Who needs language? It's boomerang skills we need for the coming dystopia.

Geoff Matthews said...

I think the issue isn't hearing people talk, but people actually talking to you, and eliciting you to talk to them.
But the point about the verbose nature of Scandanavians and the taciturn nature of Blacks is an interesting notion, but not one I'd leap to.

Rob said...

Good with words he may have been, but giving Winston Churchill the Nobel Prize for Literature was pushing it a bit.

pat said...

You're wrong and I can prove it. I talk to my dog all the time but I never talk to my cat. So Charlie - my dog - knows three times as many words as my cat Max. Max only knows one word - Max. Whereas Charlie knows three - Charlie, Walk and Chicken.

Albertosaurus

Anonymous said...

And his teacher's corrected his mistakes

Oh, the irony!

Nanonymous said...

That's right - it's all about climate. Those Indians in Patagonia are doing really great with their supercomputers. And Tasmanian aborigines gave us remarkably deep philosophical thinking before they went extinct. Not to mention Chukcha and Evenki advanced civilizations.

Anonymous said...

Here's a favorite Churchill quote: The cultured are the glittering scum that float upon great river of production.

Anonymous said...

Proof that that speakers of those languages are the true master race."


Masters of what?

Not of nature, other folks or technology and certainly not of themselves.

Iowa Workshop said...

A lot of those atom bomb guys weren't so verbal either

Anonymous said...

"giving Winston Churchill the Nobel Prize for Literature was pushing it a bit"

A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which won him the prize, (although in part the work of an army of researchers and gofers) is a great read and a tremendous overview of British and US history.

Anonymous said...

Apparently, when Churchill was 90 years old, the only picture on his bedstand was of his nanny, Mrs. Elizabeth Everest. Mrs. Everest died when he was 20. Churchill returned from Cuba to be at her bedside for a week while she was dying. With that kind of relationship, I think it's a good bet she talked to him as much as a regular parent would, and I doubt Churchill suffered from a Word Gap.