Social disadvantage and language development—what matters, and how much?

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This is one of the largest studies we’ve seen in a while on factors than impact infant and toddler language—over 1000 babies were followed to see what matters most for language development in the first two years of life.

First, one of the really beautiful things about this study is that they measure social disadvantage, but actually differentiate things parents can control (that is, what they do with their child) from things they can’t (e.g. family income, maternal education). So bravo for that! Then, note that this study is dense. We’re only skimming the surface, here, with the biggest takeaways for SLPs, which are:

 What parents do with their child matters:

  • e.g. “…reading to their child, telling stories, singing and taking the child on errands to public places… having toys… books available in the home… having a safe and supportive home environment.”

  • (In fact, here’s another recent study showing that responsive verbal behaviors in play interactions with a parent at 12 months are predictive of language outcomes at 36 months in a cohort of families experiencing adversity.)

Language at 15 months is highly predictive of language at 2 years.

  • Implication: Are we catching kids early enough?

Now, I think most SLPs pretty much already knew that. But what you may not have a good feel for is how much these things matter. To put it in perspective—the single strongest measured predictor of language was biological sex. Also, most of what predicts language development was not something the researchers were able to measure. Instead, it’s some other thing(s), likely, “… other developmental or genetic mechanisms.” So, basically, what parents do with their children is important not because it matters the most, but because we have control over it (well… we can try to).

 

Law, J., Clegg, J., Rush, R., Roulstone, S., Peters, T.J. (2018) Association of proximal elements of social disadvantage with children's language development at 2 years: an analysis of data from the Children in Focus (CiF) sample from the ALSPAC birth cohort. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1111/1460-6984.12442.