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Floating out of poverty on a deep river of words

The Monitor's language columnist considers research that shows the real advantage middle-class parents give their children is that they talk to them.

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Talk is cheap.

What a mercy. That means that even poor families can afford to provide their children something that is arguably key to lifting them out of poverty and into middle-class success: a torrent of words.

One of the biggest differences between poor families in America and their middle- and upper-class counterparts, research has shown, is the dearth of language in the former and the abundance of it in the latter. Specifically, a study done in Kansas City in the 1980s found that a middle-class child is likely to have heard, by age 3, 20 million more words than a poor child.

These are the words of conversations around the breakfast or dinner table, or on family outings. They are the words of "How did your day go, dear?" conversations children overhear between their parents. And most important, they are the words of books read aloud.

Usually this space considers individual words that are in the news or have caught the ear or eye of your faithful scribe. But right now I'm thinking of the value of language as a whole. Specifically, something I've picked up in my late-summer listening: the piece Ira Glass presented, as part of his public radio series "This American Life," on Geoffrey Canada's "Baby College."

Mr. Canada has been the driving force behind the Harlem Children's Zone, an ambitious program in New York City that seeks to lift young people out of poverty by getting them through high school and college.


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