The power of home environment

By Razib Khan | October 6, 2012 11:01 pm

Before a Test, a Poverty of Words:

Things are very different elsewhere on the class spectrum. Earlier in the year when I met Steven F. Wilson, founder of a network of charter schools that serve poor and largely black communities in Brooklyn, I asked him what he considered the greatest challenge on the first day of kindergarten each year. He answered, without a second’s hesitation: “Word deficit.” As it happens, in the ’80s, the psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley spent years cataloging the number of words spoken to young children in dozens of families from different socioeconomic groups, and what they found was not only a disparity in the complexity of words used, but also astonishing differences in sheer number. Children of professionals were, on average, exposed to approximately 1,500 more words hourly than children growing up in poverty. This resulted in a gap of more than 32 million words by the time the children reached the age of 4.

This makes sense. It certainly explains the dearth of the children of working class Korean immigrants in higher education, seeing as their parents often have rudimentary English vocabularies. Oh wait…. These tales of the power of upper middle class homes to give their offspring a leg up are commonly distributed because they appeal to common sense, as inferred from cultural presuppositions. One of them is that parents matter, a lot. To some extent this is certainly true. If your parents have the income and wealth to give you a university education so that you don’t need to take out student loans, then that’s a major leg up. Perhaps even more importantly it is critical in many fields if you come from enough money so that you can toil away in unpaid internships.

But I am more skeptical of research which purports to draw a line between the vocabulary of children at age 4 to the vocabulary of children at age 18, because they often imply that parental input is critical. To some extent parental input is important; intelligence is at least moderately heritable. But if parental input in English vocabulary at an early age was so critical then the children of all immigrants would be at major disadvantage. This is just not the case for admissions to elite New York City public schools. The children of Hispanic immigrants are at a disadvantage, but not those of Asian immigrants.

Let me offer myself as an example. My English was rudimentary when I entered kindergarten. By the end of the school year I had moved up to the top of the class in verbal abilities according to standardized tests, but I also exhibited some blind spots in my language fluency up until the age of seven (e.g., I had difficulties with male vs. female pronouns, as my home language did not have that feature). Eventually these lacunae were rectified, and I don’t perceive any differences in my fluency with those raised in homes where English was the first language. More importantly I grew up with a cohort of children of highly educated immigrants where the families did not speak English at home, and I’m rather certain that almost all these children scored highly on the verbal portion of the SAT.

My point is that looking at vocabulary at age 5 is an indicator of underlying conditions. It is not necessarily the cause, and it may be at some causal remove, so fixing the conditions which lead to this result may not solve the problem with different academic outcomes. Finally, as an Asian American I do think it is incumbent upon the cultural elites concerned about gaps between the achievement of various groups to admit that many of the Asian American students who have de facto driven non-Hispanic whites out of elite public schools like Stuyvesant are not economically privileged. This does not negate the broader issues which are being addressed, but it seems farcical to engage in a discussion of the demographics of elite New York City high school, and ignore the plural majority (Asian Americans) because they do not neatly fit into the narrative of privileged white vs. underrepresented minority of color.

Addendum: The Nurture Assumption is worth reading.

MORE ABOUT: Education
  • Darkseid

    this is pretty cool, if you think about it. i had always subscribed to the idea that all things being equal, parents don’t matter when it comes to determining one’s personality. (meaning if you have a relatively normal upbringing, with minimal stress and trauma, genes will be the determining factor for most personality traits.) this example suggests that perhaps even this language “trauma,” even during a critical period of language development, *still* will not matter much. am i rite? human behavior is even more deterministic than i thought? i seem to recall this girl:
    who i saw speak in front of Big Barry O. she didn’t speak english well and had only been here for 4 years but that was enough to get her 1st in her class. i was in disbelief/awe when i was told she’d only been here for 4 years on the car ride home. i remember that AP biology class she got an A- in, too. i took one look at the book and dropped the class the next day:)

  • Sandgroper

    “I’m like, ooh.” Clearly now expresses herself eloquently in English :)

  • Sandgroper

    But seriously, another anecdotal case. When my daughter was born, my wife insisted on speaking to her only in English, because she wanted English to be her “first language”. Obviously she had some environmental exposure to spoken Chinese language, but that was probably more confusing than anything because it was a mixture of dialects; her Chinese grandparents and great grandmother spoke to her in Shandong dialect, her aunts and uncles in Cantonese, often all at the same time. She began to talk and read only in English. At age 3.5, when she still spoke and read only English, she began attending a kindergarten where *only* Cantonese was spoken (the linguistic equivalent of throwing her in the deep end). You could say it was a cruel thing to do (we didn’t realise just how cruel because we had no clue that the teacher would expose her to racist ridicule in front of the class for *not being Chinese*, but that’s something else). Easily within 6 months she was speaking Cantonese fluently, and switching effortlessly from one language to the other without confusing them at all, and had made a good start on learning to read and write in Chinese as well as English.

    Conclusion – bright kids catch up fast once they get exposure. The question is, whether languages written in different scripts utilise different parts of the brain, and whether early environmental exposure ‘fixes’ this somehow (like, her classmates found it less effort to learn and memorise Chinese characters, while she found it less effort to learn words in the English alphabet and figure out how to pronounce them phonetically, and what the numerous exceptions were). There is some evidence to support this, although offhand I can’t give a handy reference. But basically, the theory is that early environmental exposure to a language written either alphabetically or in pictographs has some influence on brain lateralization of some functions like reading and memorization. Well, it’s a theory, but there does seem to be some evidence to support it.

    Another part of the anecdote – before she began attending kindergarten, she and her little pal had no common language to communicate with while playing, so they invented their own, that sounded nothing like either English or Cantonese. Once they began attending kindergarten together and had enough of each other’s languages, they switched to talking to each other in a mix of Cantonese and English, and forgot their own private language – didn’t need it any more. Little kids’ brains are amazingly plastic. And fast.

    So basically, I don’t believe this – if you take a bright 4 year old who is not disadvantaged in some other way, other than a poor vocabulary, and put him/her into school, (s)he’ll catch up fast. If there are kids who don’t catch up, I’d be looking for other reasons.

  • jose

    Silly point, but we really need better terms than just Asian-American if that lumps in East Asians, Southeast Asians, and South Asians. I know Asian in Britain typically means South Asian. But in the US “Asian” connotes East Asian .

    Especially since the government actually uses it as a racial category alongside white and black.

    Personally, I think South Asians should have their own category. I really don’t think we can learn much by putting Pakistani and Korean immigrants in the same box.

    My Indian friends always get upset when people don’t call them Asian, so I understand it’s a bit sensitive. But we had large scale Chinese immigration 100+ years before Indians started showing up in America, so they kinda took the term “Asian”. Unless we’re gonna bring back the term “Oriental”.

  • JGB

    You seem to be unfairly dismissing one environmental variable without considering others that would explain the general power of the observed correlation between vocab and performance. For example vocab may be a useful proxy for something like the complexity of concepts the children are exposed too. There is also an obvious set of confounding variables in terms of values toward education, expectations, and work ethic that also will heavily influence performance in school.

  • Divalent

    Although I am skeptical of the theory they are advancing, your anecdotal counter points (academic success of the children of some non-English-speaking immigrant groups) might be missing the mark if it is not *English* words that are important, but rather the exposure to a greater number and variety of concepts, regardless of the verbal symbol used to represent them.

    (I wonder if this might be related to what Flynn thinks is a component of the Flynn effect.)

    It is, of course, trivially obvious that the English word is important where the test question essentially requires knowledge of the english word’s definition.

  • gwern
  • Jacob

    The situation of a bative english speaker with a poor vocabulary is distinct from that of a speaker of another language learning English.

    In the realm of second language acquizition, much has been found confirming that literacy in a childs first language greatly improves their ability to learn a second language. So in nyc you have children who have never fully become literate un spanish struggle their whole lives to become literate in english, while apanish speakers who are literate in spanish learn english much more quickly.

  • Dm

    I don’t think the “vocabulary deficiency” is meant to apply to bilingual children with substantial exposure to rich vocabularies in at least one language?

    In any case if it posits that vocabulary utilization by the parents makes so much difference, then it may mean that the effect is at least partly genetic rather than purely environmental

  • Michael Watts

    Anecdote as to “If your parents have the income and wealth to give you a university education so that you don’t need to take out student loans, then that’s a major leg up.”:

    I went to the local public university, along with a friend of mine from high school. I paid full tuition, he got a financial aid package including loans. And he ended up failing out after three years, which stuck him with the loans… but they were in the neighborhood of $1000 for all three years. That’s not a difference I’d describe as “a major leg up.”

  • Riordan


    Out curiosity, since you offered yourself as an example, did your parents continue to teach you Bengali after arriving at the US? If so, how much fluency do you still possess after that time?

  • Razib Khan

    much has been found confirming that literacy in a childs first language greatly improves their ability to learn a second language.

    cite it, or shut up.

    I don’t think the “vocabulary deficiency” is meant to apply to bilingual children with substantial exposure to rich vocabularies in at least one language?

    just for the record, i didn’t have much of a rich vocab in the other language. this is pretty obvious if anyone speaks to me in the other language. in my parents’ culture children were not spoken to in the same manner that parents of middle to upper middle class children speak to their children. rather, the social norm is much closer to the lower to lower middle class norm.

    but they were in the neighborhood of $1000 for all three years. That’s not a difference I’d describe as “a major leg up.”

    since median debt load is ~$20,000 right now, don’t you think this is a true but stupid example? i do.

  • Razib Khan

    #11, illiterate 5 year old.

  • Riordan

    Razib’s reply #13:

    Do you mean you effectively “stopped” learning Bengali once you reached 5 years of age ? I take it that’s when you’ve entered kindergarten in America?

  • Darwin’s Chihuahua

    My eldest son is Deaf, a fact that introduced us into the world of Deaf adults and Deaf culture. It also introduced us into the absolute war that began with Alexander Graham Bell, the Congress of Milan in 1880, and the complete suppression of American Sign Language (ASL) that continued until about the mid-1980s. When our sonwas in his young and formative pre-school years we encountered many parents of deaf children who refused to have anything to do with sign language or any people who used sign language, opting instead to peg their hopes on teaching their children to speak fluent English. Most of them failed. When trying to get information out to parents and students of the Alberta School for the Deaf in Edmonton, I found than many of the parents and teens were estranged and would have nothing to do with each other. The fact that the students used ASL and the parents used spoken English was obvious and perhaps at the root of the fact that the students showed a profound defecit in learning despite their fluency in their primary language, ASL. Before going to Edmonton, when my son was 5 years old, our family was tapped to help with a situation involving another child of 5 years who had just been diagnosed as having profound hearing loss. This child never did develop a great deal of fluency in any language, with the subsequent limited prospects for life that one might expect. The child also never had any experience of real communication, despite a great deal of desire for it on the parte of both parents and child. It was quite clear that many people like my son, with profound pre-lingual hearing loss (in my son’s case, from birth) benefitted markedly from the introduction of sign language very early in their life. It was also clear that hard of hearing children with less than profound hearing loss benefitted greatly from the oral programs for teaching speech that appeared to fit best with their level of hearing loss and natural aptitude. Despite being Deaf, my son learned native ASL skills, speech reading, speech as a second communication mode, and reading. When he was about 12 years old I remember passing Discover Magazine to him regularly for him to read and having animated discussions about things like the topology of the Universe (of which neither of us really knew anything!). The point is that perhaps the real, fundamental necessity is communication, and anything that tends to produce a poverty of communication can have an effect on the manifestation of a child’s intelligence and social integration. Differences in languages used could be one thing affecting this ( I tend to the view that the more languages the better, but that’s a personal opinion – though I surmise it’s also backed by research), but so could other things like the family environment a child grows up in, whether the adults actually have something intelligent to talk about…Perhaps what needs to be taught is that communication itself is a valuable, delightful, and effective tool. Perhaps in some cases it is a means of punishment or a weapon used to define and maintain power relationships. Perhaps it doesn’t really occur at all, even when there is no obvious barrier. And, yes, the growing brain is plastic, so that there are likely to be no absolutes, only trends.

  • Razib Khan

    Do you mean you effectively “stopped” learning Bengali once you reached 5 years of age ? I take it that’s when you’ve entered kindergarten in America?

    i guess. the only ppl i spoke with in that language were my parents, and those conversations were always rudimentary. unlike educated americans my parents were from a culture where excessive reciprocal conversation with children was not encouraged (this explains my extreme cognitive deficiencies). you also have to know that bengali is characterized by high literary vs. colloquial diglossia, so the fact that i’m illiterate means that i lack a language which my parents both have.

  • Riordan

    Thank you, just wanted to learn more about how other 1.5 gen Asian Americans learned their languages growing up

  • Jacob

    #12 Razib,

    Here are some studies and papers summarizing studies concluding that L1 (native language) literacy (and ability generally) greatly improves L2 (second language) literac, acquisition and general ability.

    “Even with the complexity inherent in defining literacy, research evidence is clear that basic literacy skills developed in L1 transfer to L2.”

    Two main tests were administered: a test of syntactic comprehension, given in both Spanish and English, and a test of literacy skills, specifically listening comprehension in both the L1 and L2 are significant predictors of performance on L2 listening comprehension, with L1 syntactic comprehension shown to be the stronger predictor. These findings provide support for the position that L1 knowledge may be accessible to facilitate comprehension in the L2, particularly in cases in which the learners are dominant in the L1

    As predicted here was a strong relationship between L1 oral language levels and L1 reading comprehension. But there was no relationship between L1 oral levels and L2 reading comprehension levels. However, there was a significant positive relationship between L2 reading comprehension and L1 reading comprehension.

  • Razib Khan

    #12, thanks.

  • Razib Khan

    #18, i have some secondary experience with bilingual education. i have much younger siblings, and they were put into what passed for ‘bilingual education,’ which meant throwing them into a class full of mexican and russian kids. the homework was moron level, and when my parents found what had happened (they were not told) they had them moved to normal environments. as per your first link, the paradigm they’re working in in these papers is in my opinion frankly bullshit (the paradigmatic difference is highlighted in the introduction). e.g., positive references to whole language learning. the last paper is of possible future interest, but though i think sample size objections are often bullshit, in the case of an N = 13 for your second link i think it is warranted.

    in short, i am 100% sure that the research you point to is not robust. i have no interest in convincing you it is not robust, nor any of my readers. but though i have weak political opinions on most topics, this is one where my opinions are very strong, because i come from an immigrant non-english speaking background, with my parents being from a society where language politics was prominent. bilingual education as it is practiced (was) in the USA does positive harm to people, and i’m not going to pretend like people who publish this research aren’t doing harm to people.

  • Dm

    i didn’t have much of a rich vocab in the other language. this is pretty obvious if anyone speaks to me in the other language. in my parents’ culture children were not spoken to in the same manner that parents of middle to upper middle class children speak to their children. rather, the social norm is much closer to the lower to lower middle class norm.

    perhaps – if we assume that the hypothesis of vocabulary deprivation is correct – then what might have mattered was your exposure to the language your parents spoke with each other, and with friends and family, rather than directly with the children. Or perhaps the simplified, lower-middle-classish way of communicating with children still far surpassed the threshold of detrimental vocabulary poverty. Or perhaps two simple vocabularies in two dissimilar languages (for example bengali from your parents and English from cartoon networks) give as much mental stimulation and nourishment as one rich wordset in just one language?

  • ryan


    I mostly agree with your opinion that bilingual activists are often doing damage to children by shunting them into crappy classrooms.

    But I’m curious about this comment:

    >in my parents’ culture children were not spoken to in the same manner that parents of middle to upper middle class children speak to their children. rather, the social norm is much closer to the lower to lower middle class norm.

    Children were not spoken to in the same manner, sure. But did your parents not speak to each other as adults in your presence an awful lot? I don’t think the studies are saying that anybody’s kids have 2,000 words spoken to them an hour. You’re a new parent, as am I. I’d have a hell of a time sustaining that hour after hour. But I talk to my wife while my daughter’s around, and that’s what adds up to 2,000 or more an hour in middle class homes.

    At any rate, my feeling is somewhat different from either theory. I do suspect there is a large degree of variability in nurture. However, I don’t think it has much to do with the number or quality of words spoken around them or the complexity of concepts they hear as toddlers. Instead, I think there are variations of parenting methods that can damage children, and I suspect these parenting styles vary demographically. I think the ability to learn can be damaged by a parenting style that is gives too much negative reinforcement, and does so in inconsistent ways. I think this can work in ways that diminish children in quite basic, preverbal ways. My calculus teacher used to say he could tell we were smart, because we came into his class on the first day looking around at everything, trying to take it all in. I think there are kids who are taught not to be bright-eyed and aware, and I don’t think that’s inherited.

    I also think it can be overcome, which is why the work of Robert Planta that I had pointed to several weeks ago seems interesting.

  • Razib Khan

    i am not too interested in sharing too much more in this line, but i opened the can…. my parents had an arranged marriage. they don’t share much intellectually, and almost all the conversation can be bracketed into two domains

    1) inter-personal concerns (go shopping, fix the washing machine, cook dinner)

    2) gossip about relatives who i can’t even place in any pedigree

    my mother is not interested in science or intellectual pursuits in general. in this she differs from the rest of her family, probably due to particular circumstances (she was the only daughter in a large and moderately wealthy family).

    also, for the record, 3 out of 4 of my parents’ offspring are probably what you might term intellectual in orientation (e.g., interested in not just doing well in school, but also philosophy and other useless shit).

  • Razib Khan

    #22, i think there are parental impacts, especially negative ones. i am not going to raise my daughter like i was raised. OTOH, i think

    1) we overemphasize the power of parents, as opposed to broader cultural inputs which parents can not control (e.g., i don’t share my parents’ social views, and never have, thanks to american schools, peer groups, and TV)

    2) i think we have a very weak to zero understanding of many environmental effects, and it is damaging to our society when we jump the gun and assume we have some grasp and begin formulating policies (most educational theory seems seems to be as good as a random number generator going by their past track record)

    3) i think parents can do great harm, but far less good. in other words, i doubt there is a linear response to enriching environments, but a threshold effect.

  • stargene

    #5 JGB raises an important point. Dunno if any research supports
    it, but the possible role of one’s deep cultural past in helping shape
    one’s present and future has come up before. Specifically, “..values
    toward education, expectations, and work ethic..” can arguably be
    seen as powerful forces, or ‘memes’ if you like, which can operate
    in the lives of children, whether they are immigrant or not, whether
    the language they experience in the larger society is their mother-
    tongue or not. Immigrants from many Asian countries, Jews arriving
    from even the poorest ghettos abroad are historical examples of
    peoples who have an extremely long history of valuing and respect
    for the highest levels of learning and scholasticism, not to mention
    at least some minimal expectation of success from hard work, often
    involving whole families and even extended families. This has carried
    some weight even for those whose previous lives in former lands
    were characterized by poverty, hardship and lack of education.

    I’m positing here that even poor illiterate immigrants who nevertheless
    come from pre-existing well established cultures and traditions, may
    yet still embody enough from those cultures to significantly enhance
    their, and especially their descendants, chances of surviving and
    even thriving in the new country. Further, I posit that this would
    most likely be true of immigrants from homeland cultures that have
    not suffered strong core dislocations or annihilation of those cultures.
    China and India are examples of very long lasting cultures with
    strong traditions matching what #5 JGB suggested. Both were
    severely impacted by colonial and imperial predation; the infamous
    British Raj is a case in point. But many of their core cultural themes
    survived intact.

    I believe the upper bounds on this success are largely a function of local
    racism, provincialism and the deliberate or accidental agendas of class
    stratification and perceived interests.

    The same cannot be said of Black history in the U.S.A. While long
    lasting civilizations existed in subsaharan Africa, most of the black
    slaves were not only torn literally from their tribes and nations in
    Africa, but were subjected to almost unimaginable and powerful
    efforts to utterly destroy their own sense of home and deep culture,
    in order to function as slaves with NO past. After the Civil War,
    powerful and hateful class-inspired racism continued to isolate
    all communities of freed blacks, the intent being to systematically
    deprive them of nearly any connection with the larger society and
    even minimal cultural expectations of rights, success from work,
    education, let alone scholastic accomplishment. A kind of genocide,
    which Blacks have been fighting against to the present day, the
    Civil Rights laws notwithstanding. This puts young black kids
    at risk and ensures, following the dictates of late modern capitalism,
    a ghettoization and stratification of the American labor force.
    Following the ugly but effective Divide and Conquer Rule of that
    same British Raj. The recent baldly stated opinion of a certain
    demagogue about ‘the 47%’ is merely a more naked reflection
    of this.

    The fact that Blacks have not allowed themselves to be thus
    annihilated and returned to a de facto slavery is something of
    a human miracle.

  • ryan

    I agree with all three points at #24. My current attachment to Planta may be a wrong-headed youthful enthusiasm. But in particular, I think pt. 3 should give us pause when relating what we think we know about the relation between the heritability of intelligence and its distribution across demographic groups.

  • Hermenauta


    I see you have strong opinions about that _ to the point of ditching the literature you asked Jacob to display. This is remarkable since you do not accept an study based in a N=13 sample, but supports your position from the perspective of your anedoctical personal experience (N=1).

    In spite of it I´m prepared to accept your judgment _ I bet that being a researcher you´re more apt to get the feeling of scientific papers than I. But I would like to display my own anedoctical experience against yours because I think this can be illuminating.

    I´m not a son of migrants, or at least, not migrants from other countries. I was rised in a big latin american city from parents that came from different backgrounds; my father was a son of portuguese immigrants, my mother came from the hinterlands.

    Both of them were not high class and scientific or philosophical matters never were brought to conversation; they were pretty much like your parents, at least judging from conversation topics.

    But _ and this is very important _ both of them, albeit not being intellectual types, put high value in an education. This was actually the main theme in my life as a child. My father went to the extreme of getting another job after retiring just to afford a better school to me. This, in retrospect, was almost the single turning point of my life, because in that school I met the scientifically oriented peer group that put me in my actual life trajectory (i´m not really great stuff but in my country just the fact of being interested in the matters discussed in your blog is very, very uncommon).

    So I think I do agree with you when you say that ” i think we have a very weak to zero understanding of many environmental effects, and it is damaging to our society when we jump the gun and assume we have some grasp and begin formulating policies “. I just would like to observe that the role of parents is as misterious as that. Not having “intellectual” parents can be a harm in the sense that intellectual parents are more likely to transmit this background to their offspring, but I bet that much more important are the values _ in my case this was groundbreaking since my parents didn´t give me an intellectual background but the values that made me want to pursue one. I know you said that you´re not interesting in more disclosing of your private life, but I believe that the characteristics of your parent´s offspring (75% intellectually oriented) probably reflects strong pro-education values transmission.

  • Dm

    Sorry if my question appears to be intrusive, Razib, but generally (no need to narrow it down to one specific pair of parents!):

    Is bedtime reading to children the cultural norm or an exception in your culture and your general social layer?

  • Razib Khan

    #28, not in the 1970s. bangladeshi society (and my parents themselves) are much more conventionally western in these ways today from what i can tell.

  • Jim

    My father was born in the US to immigrant German parents. When he entered the first grade the
    only word of English he knew was “Hello”. He told me that he didn’t recall any great difficulty or
    stress in learning English. As a child growing up I don’t recall him having any accent that differentiated him from other English speakers. The only evidence that English was not his first
    language was that he sometimes said “Raus” to the family dog Archie when Archie was occupying
    his favorite chair. I had no idea that this was a German word until I took German at college.
    When I took German in college I remarked to him once how strange it was that in subordinate
    clauses in German the verb is placed at the end. He assured me that this was the most natural way
    to speak.

  • Jim

    Come to think of it I vaguely recall my father often using German when addressing the family dog.
    As a child I had no idea that his words to the dog were in German. He probably figured that as German was the simplest and most natural language in the world the dog would most easily understand it.

  • Sandgroper

    #31 – As a kid, I knew a dog that understood/responded to instructions only in French. It struck me as funny at the time, because it really irked my mother that the dog could understand human speech that she couldn’t.

  • Isaac

    Word deficit is an interesting concept. The more I think about it and read this article the more I completely agree. In dealing with many adults, I see that same problem. This is completely due to environmental factors.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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