04/30/2014 10:54 am ET | Updated Jun 30, 2014

'The Language Gap' -- Liberal Guilt Creates Another Not-So-Magic Bullet

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Why are people poor? Why do children of the poor not thrive?

Over centuries, suggestions have ranged from genetic unworthiness to lack of marriage among their parents to a "culture of poverty" and inability to delay gratification. Maybe they are poor because they speak a kind of language that "has no rules at all" (not true), or maybe because they don't have books in their houses. Maybe it's because they don't eat dinner together every night. Maybe being bilingual has stunted their intellect. (All these have been discredited, following a period of popularity.)

The latest explanation for why children coming from disadvantaged households do not rise in this land of equal opportunity, why they do not do well in school, is that they are exposed to "30 million fewer words" by the time they enter school.

While language experts, such as linguists and linguistic anthropologists, challenge the very definition of "word" and the importance of the number of "words" and what such exposure might mean, and would wonder about all the other fascinating ways playing with language might occur especially in bilingual households, a new industry has arisen, promising to diagnose and treat the disorder. Termed the language gap, like the achievement gap, this well-funded research program aims to count the words parents address to their very young children and then to retrain them to act more like majority upper-middle-class parents. If they produce more words and better words, the argument goes, they will test better and therefore will do better in school and therefore their life chances will be enhanced.

If only it were so.

A new program, Providence Talks, proposed by the mayor of Providence and funded by a 5 million dollar grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, is to provide electronic devices that can (supposedly, without worrying about definitions) count the number of words addressed by parents to children. (English words only?) Technical concerns aside, this raises a number of troubling concerns.

Again, the disadvantaged are blamed for their own inequality by the ways they act, even if their ways honor their elders, bathe children in physical security, mingle age groups, and do many wonderful social things that are not addressed.

And again, a single aspect of life is selected -- one that can be counted, to be sure, making it convenient; little linguistic sophistication is required to count -- so it can be taught and assessed.

And again, well-meaning liberal academics are attempting a magic solution to what is indeed a heartbreakingly enduring reality: Social inequality is inherited - not biologically, but socially.

But our society has a tendency to pick up a single, simple aspect of middle-class life that is missing in the lives of the less advantaged, and to promote it as the magic formula that will suddenly erase all the other markers of cultural difference.

In an arms race of advantage, winners have the edge.

Promising poor, possibly bilingual parents that if only they reject everything about their heritage and act like the readers of this newspaper, then they will escape their fate.

Read to your baby. Talk to your baby. Get rid of Ebonics. Eat dinner together. Play Mozart to the child in the womb.

I sympathize entirely with the intentions of researchers and practitioners who want to share the secret of middle-class academic, and life, success with those outside the middle classes.

But ways of talking in a household are not only test-prep. They are intertwined with everything else that occurs there -- singing and playing and working and worrying and fixing things and eating.

If disadvantaged households engaged in the continual mock-testing and pseudo-school activities that completely absorb middle-class households, then they too would enter school already living the academic life. But often they are busy doing other life tasks, without the leisure or resources to devote to focusing on school forms of literacy and testing.

Introducing anxiety and blame about their interactions with their young is not what they need.

What they need is a genuine fair economic chance.

But that is too hard and too complicated, so instead well-intentioned researchers and governments seek a magic bullet.

And as always, if wishes were horses....