At What Age Does the Word Gap Emerge? Findings from the Language in Little Ones Study


Brushe, M.1, 2, Lynch, J. 2, Reilly, S. 3, Melhuish, E. 4, Brinkman, S. 1, 2

1Telethon Kids Institute, Perth, AUSTRALIA 2University of Adelaide, Adelaide, AUSTRALIA, 3Griffith University, Gold Coast, AUSTRALIA, 4University of Oxford, Oxford, UNITED KINGDOM

Language is a critical development accomplishment of early childhood, enabling later literacy, education and employment. Previous studies have highlighted socioeconomic inequalities in the amount parents speak to their child, with researchers estimating by age four parents from professional backgrounds spoke 30 million more words to their children, than parents who were on welfare. The Language in Little Ones (LiLO) study utilises innovative speech recognition technology called Language Environment Analysis (LENA), which counts the number of words children hear and speak over a day. LENA data is collected once every six months from 6 – 48 months of age, across two cohorts of children who are stratified by two levels of maternal education to examine the effects across socioeconomic groups. Results from the first three waves of data collection demonstrate that differences between education groups in the number of adult words spoken to the child are not evident until the children are 18 months old. Average change in adult word counts per day by maternal education show there is a differences of 135.78 words at 6 months, 710.51 words at 12 months and 3,831.83 words at 18 months. This is the first study to be able to identify the age when socioeconomic differences in the amount of talk emerge. This has significant implications for the timing of interventions aiming to reduce the word gap, suggesting targeting the implementation of programs prior to 18 months of age. As the study progresses, developmental assessments at various ages will be measured to understand how parent talk impacts children’s later development. Ultimately, linking children’s trajectories of talk with their Australian Early Development Census results will explore how a talkative home environment may mediate the relationship between social inequality and developmental outcomes at school entry.

Mary is employed as a Study Manager at Telethon Kids Institute where she manages the Language in Little Ones and Electronic Noise in Little Ones studies. She is also a PhD candidate at the School of Public Health at the University of Adelaide, prior to which she completed her Honours in Psychological Science. Mary sits on the executive committee of the Public Health Association of Australia, South Australian branch as well as their Child and Youth Health Special Interest Group. Her research interests span early childhood development, youth mental health, intergenerational disadvantage and children’s use of mobile technology, with a specific focus on reducing social inequalities.  .