Language Development and Socioeconomic Status


Parent’s education level which is a reasonable measure of their SES is found to influence language proficiency of their children. Substance abusing parents from low SES tend to be negligent of their children, which affects their language development. Ethnic and racial minorities, especially whose first language is different from the dominant language of the region, have historically found social mobility difficult. Parents under mental stress tend to be poor caregivers and this affects the language acquisition of their children – most such adults are from lower SES.


Research indicates that of all the parent-child activities, reading to children has a major influence on the subsequent language development of the child. This is so, because the other verbal interactions between parents and children that occur during meals, playtime, dressing up, etc, are nowhere as verbally rich as reading is. It is also a well-established fact that parents from middle-class and higher socioeconomic backgrounds spend more time reading to their children than their poorer counterparts. This implies that children from the lower strata of society are at an increased risk of language delay. They are also generally found to possess poorer reading skills and below average academic performance (Mendelsohn, Leora, 2001, p.130).

Language Acquisition in African American Children:

Another strong influence on the language acquisition of children is the quality of care that they receive. And the quality of child-care is determined by the SES of the respective families. In one study performed on African American children aged between 6 and 12 months, nearly two thirds of them had otitis media with effusion and 2 out of 5 subjects also suffered partial hearing difficulties. The affected child suffers a partial hearing loss and hence the reception of auditory signals is poor and irregular. The ability of the child to discriminate and process speech and to store up that information in its developing repository of language is made difficult. The overall effect of all of this is a sluggish development of language skills (Roberts, Burchinal,, 1998, p.353).

Some of these children also suffered frequent ear infections and performed below par in language tests. The African American community generally fits in the lower-middle class or lesser bracket, which goes to show the relation between the SES and language development in children.

The consistent under-achievement of African American students academically, including language skills is a widely recognized fact. Research conducted on the African American community over the last few decades suggests that the socio-economic backwardness of the community at large has a major role to play in this outcome. Traditional inequalities, cultural oppression, shanty-town housing environments and gangster rap attitude among the students have all contributed to this historical anomaly. It is also noted that African American students usually attend schools that are ineffective in imparting essential language skills. If socio-economic factors such as poverty and dysfunctional family systems may be the primary reason, but biases in standardized tests and prejudiced teachers are also significant factors. (Singer, Arendt, 2001, p.1057) The most appalling aspect of this institutionalized injustice to the African American community is the failure of the education system to impart literary and language skills to students from the community. As these skills are held to be vital to academic and professional success in contemporary America, the community is highly disadvantaged when it comes to finding jobs in trans-national corporations.

Current literacy and language trends reveal that history continues to repeat itself. For example, in Los Angeles for the first time African American students scored lower than the bilingual population in reading, language, and writing on the CTBS-U (eighth-grade) in 1997-1998. More recently, as reported by the Nation’s Report Card on Reading (2000), African American students had the lowest percentage of students, 12%, at or above proficiency compared to 32% for the nation. Something is not working. (Singer, Arendt, 2001, p.1058)

The influence of Care-giving Environment:

The responsiveness of home and care-giving environments (both at home and child care providers) also determines the levels of hearing difficulties in children. The first two years of care-giving is said to influence children’s linguistic and cognitive development later. The verbal and emotional responsiveness of the parent, availability of toys for play, the neatness and organization of the surroundings are all contributing factors to the child’s language acquisition. Maternal involvement is another important factor. All of these, however, happen to be of a poorer quality for children from lower socio-economic backgrounds. For example, the environment offered a toddler from low SES contain cheaper furnishings and play objects. The personal care routines are also found to be substandard. The care-giver, on average, talks, listens and interacts less with the child.

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