The Word Gap is a Racist Myth (and it follows kids to college)

Former Vice President Joe Biden was asked, during the most recent Democratic debate, to speak on “inequality in schools and race,” which was framed (correctly) in terms of “the legacy of slavery in our country.” Biden topped off his bumbling response with a gesture towards this idea of a “word gap” that children of color in low income neighborhoods are supposed to experience. His response was so bad, it deserves to be repeated in full right here:
Well, they have to deal with the — look, there’s institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Red-lining banks, making sure that we are in a position where — look, you talk about education. I propose that what we take is those very poor schools, the Title I schools, triple the amount of money we spend from 15 to $45 billion a year. Give every single teacher a raise, the equal raise to getting out — the $60,000 level.
Number two, make sure that we bring in to help the teachers deal with the problems that come from home. The problems that come from home, we need — we have one school psychologist for every 1,500 kids in America today. It’s crazy.
The teachers are — I’m married to a teacher. My deceased wife is a teacher. They have every problem coming to them. We have — make sure that every single child does, in fact, have 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds go to school. School. Not daycare. School. We bring social workers in to homes and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children.
It’s not want they don’t want to help. They don’t — they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the — the — make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school — a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.
This response is so astonishingly bad in so many ways and has already been roasted and dismantled everywhere on the internet in funnier and smarter ways than I can do here. What I want to do is focus on something that not everyone in my online orbit knows about–the “word gap” Biden is alluding to.
The Word Gap is the idea that children of color in low income families grow up hearing fewer words than their whiter, wealthier counterparts, and that this results in a cognitive deficit, which then puts them behind at school from the very beginning. The Word Gap myth is driven by the false belief that language=knowledge and words=language. More words? More language, and therefore smarter kids.
(This is the same idea that sells products and services to middle class parents to teach their kids more words earlier than everyone else’s kids, and the same idea that makes parents think that how early their child begins speaking is a clue into their kid’s intelligence. None of this is based in linguistic reality.)
The idea that people of color have deficient linguistic and cultural practices is as old as colonization of this land, but this particular framing of it as a Word Gap that has consequences for education disparities (and the use of “low income” as a dog-whistle for non-white) can largely be connected to a widely cited study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, titled “Meaningful Difference in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children” (1995).  To summarize, the book argues that “by the age of three, children from affluent households are exposed to approximately 30 million more words than children from families on welfare. The authors claim that this ‘word gap’ is largely responsible for low academic achievement of students from economically impoverished backgrounds” (“Bridging the Language Gap,” 67).
The idea had already been dismantled by celebrated linguist William Labov in his famous 1972 study “Language in the Inner City.” The 1995 study was critiqued by Curt Dudley-Marling and Krista Lucas in “Pathologizing the Language and Culture of Poor Children” in 2009 and clearly debunked by Sperry, Sperry, and Millers 2018 “Re-Examining the Verbal Environments of Children from Different Socioeconomic Backgrounds” in Child Development. The researchers showed that there is “substantial variation in vocabulary environments within each socioeconomic stratum.” One of the many problems with Hart and Risley’s study was that it narrowly defined what counted as input (numbers of words; speech specifically directed at the child) and privileged language socialization practices of white, higher income families as the norm.
The Word Gap persists into the current day as a seductive solution to educational “gaps” because it becomes a problem with parents/cultures instead of with schools, and therefore masks the structural nature of these inequalities. A more appropriate framing is the existence of what Gloria Ladson-Billings has called an “education debt,” and which education scholars since Ladson-Billings have been addressing through Culturally Relevant and Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies (see H. Samy Alim, Django Paris, Jonathan Rosa, and many others). These approaches, especially recent work in CSP see the object of critique as the school systems, not the students. The linguistic practices and cultures students are bringing to the classroom are an asset to build upon.
In light of the history and implications of the Word Gap myth, Biden’s finger-pointing at parents (they, them) and their problems, and the teachers and their problems (the word “problem” seems to be denoting the children themselves) is disgusting. The Word Gap framing persists, though, and while there is a robust effort to fight deficit frames in K-12 systems, I hear relatively little about it my conversations with higher ed administrators, and even less among faculty.
The Word Gap discourse follows students of color (especially those from low income backgrounds) into their time in college, but it hides itself a bit better. The idea that deficit perspectives in higher ed, generally speaking, are a problem, and that they are racist/classist, is not new. But I want to point out here that these deficit discourses are directly related to the myth of the Word Gap, and we can see that through the focus on “Academic English,” and/or “Basic Writing” remediation classes, reading and writing workshops, and other student success initiatives, as the solution to inequities in higher ed. I’m not saying don’t offer services to students; this is a large part of what I do every day, and I hope to write more about how I approach that work in future posts. My problem is with the logic and what that logic closes down, in terms of possibilities and the future of higher ed: if we can just offer enough services, programs, administrative support to help students bridge this “academic language gap,” it seems, we won’t have to face how the entire system is designed to privilege wealthy and middle class whites, whose linguistic practices are normalized.

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