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This Forum provides a range of voices on the Language Gap, as our aim is to shed light on the need for more critical dialogue to accompany the proliferation of political initiatives, policymaking, educational programs, and media coverage. We highlight some relevant background on the Language Gap and describe some of the research used to support the concept. The diverse slate of Forum contributions that we have assembled approach the Language Gap topic from a range of linguistic anthropological perspectives—theoretical, empirical, political, ethnographic, personal, and experiential. Based on an acknowledgment of the need to improve educational access for economically and culturally diverse students, the subsequent discussions provide a range of perspectives designed to move away from denouncing and altering home language skills as a panacea for academic woes and social inequity. Linguistic anthropology's focus on language learning ecologies, and the sophistication therein, provides a novel perspective on the Language Gap. The contributions included below problematize existing ideologies, demonstrate the wealth of resources within various communities, and propose new directions for school practices and policymaking in an effort to bridge the “language gap” toward a more inclusive and discerning view of linguistic practices across diverse groups.Video AbstractEste Foro ofrece una amplia gama de voces sobre el concepto del “Language Gap” (la Lacuna en el Idioma) ya que nuestro objetivo es arrojar luz sobre la necesidad de un diálogo más crítico para acompañar la proliferación de iniciativas políticas, formulación de políticas, programas educacionales, y cobertura de los medios. Destacamos algunos antecedentes relevantes sobre el Language Gap y describimos algunas de las investigaciones usadas para apoyar el concepto. Las diversas contribuciones del Foro que hemos montado tienen un enfoque en los temas del Language Gap desde una gama experimental, personal, etnográfica, política, empírica, teórica de las perspectivas de la lingüística antropológica. Basadas en el reconocimiento de la necesidad de mejorar el acceso educacional para estudiantes de diversas culturas y clases sociales, las pláticas subsecuentes ofrecen una gama de perspectivas diseñadas para alejarnos de la denuncia y alteración de las habilidades lingüísticas en los hogares estudiantiles como una panacea para los problemas lingüísticos y la iniquidad social.La antropología lingüística se enfoca en la ecología del aprendizaje de idiomas y la sofisticación del mismo, y proporciona una nueva perspectiva sobre el Language Gap.Las contribuciones que hemos incluido a continuación problematizan las ideologías existentes, demuestran la riqueza de los recursos dentro de las diversas comunidades, proponen nuevas direcciones para las prácticas escolares y la formulación de políticas en un esfuerzo por hacer desparecer el concepto del Language Gap y lograr una visión más inclusiva y exigente de las prácticas lingüísticas en diversos grupos.
Netta Avineri
Middlebury Institute of International
Studies at Monterey
Eric Johnson
College of Education
Washington State University Tri-Cities
Shirley Brice-Heath
Departments of English and Linguistics
Stanford University
Teresa McCarty
Education and Information Studies
University of California,Los Angeles
Elinor Ochs
Department of Anthropology
University of California,Los Angeles
Tamar Kremer-Sadlik
Department of Anthropology
University of California,Los Angeles
Susan Blum
Department of Anthropology
The University of Notre Dame
Ana Celia Zentella
Department of Ethnic Studies/Emerita
University of California,San Diego
Jonathan Rosa
Department of Anthropology
University of Massachusetts,Amherst
Nelson Flores
Graduate School of Education
University of Pennsylvania
H. Samy Alim
Graduate School of Education and, by
courtesy, Anthropology and Linguistics
Stanford University
Django Paris
Teacher Education
Michigan State University
Invited Forum: Bridging the
“Language Gap”
This Forum provides a range of voices on the Language Gap, as our aim is to shed light on the
need for more critical dialogue to accompany the proliferation of political initiatives,
policymaking, educational programs, and media coverage. We highlight some relevant back-
ground on the Language Gap and describe some of the research used to support the concept. The
diverse slate of Forum contributions that we have assembled approach the Language Gap topic
from a range of linguistic anthropological perspectives—theoretical, empirical, political, eth-
nographic, personal, and experiential. Based on an acknowledgment of the need to improve
educational access for economically and culturally diverse students, the subsequent discussions
provide a range of perspectives designed to move away from denouncing and altering home
language skills as a panacea for academic woes and social inequity. Linguistic anthropology’s
focus on language learning ecologies, and the sophistication therein, provides a novel perspec-
tive on the Language Gap. The contributions included below problematize existing ideologies,
demonstrate the wealth of resources within various communities, and propose new directions
for school practices and policymaking in an effort to bridge the “language gap” toward a more
inclusive and discerning view of linguistic practices across diverse groups. [Language Gap,
poverty, education, language socialization]
Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Vol. 25, Issue 1, pp. 66–86, ISSN 1055-1360, EISSN 1548-1395. © 2015
by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/jola.12071.
Netta Avineri and Eric J. Johnson
It is undeniable that individuals who live in poverty face distinct challenges in
academic contexts (NCES 2011). Debates over the relationships among language,
socioeconomic class, and education have been circulating in academic and
popular discourse since the 1960s. One popular stance in this debate views the
difference in linguistic environments between wealthier families and those who
live in poverty as producing a “language gap” (aka, “word gap”) that contributes
to children’s trajectory of educational success or failure (Hart and Risley 1995).
Others counter this perspective and encourage a language socialization lens for
viewing educational disparities across socioeconomic status groups (cf. Miller and
Sperry 2012). While this fervent debate is based on attempts to better understand
the role that language plays in academic challenges (Erard 2014; Talbot 2015),
placing blame on parents for not speaking to their children “correctly” or “suffi-
ciently” is unfortunately rooted in the same dominant group norms that in fact
continue to perpetuate educational inequities (Blum 2014; Blum and Riley
2014). Moreover, considering the disproportionate number of ethnic minorities
(especially Native Americans, African Americans, and Latinos) who live in poverty
and have a record of lower academic achievement (Aud et al. 2010; DeNavas-Walt
et al. 2013), it is imperative to explore how cultural diversity intersects with dis-
cussions of language and educational environments (Ladson-Billings 2014; Paris
and Alim 2014).
In this introduction, we provide some relevant background on the Language Gap
and describe some of the research used to support the concept. The diverse slate of
Forum contributions that we have assembled approach the Language Gap topic from
a range of linguistic anthropological perspectives—theoretical, empirical, political,
ethnographic, personal, and experiential. By including a range of voices on this issue,
our aim is to shed light on the need for more critical dialogue to accompany the
proliferation of political initiatives, policymaking, educational programs, and media
Current educational initiatives like Providence Talks (,
the Thirty Million Words Initiative (, and Too Small to Fail ( have
spurred on a surge in media exposure on the Language Gap (e.g., Bellafante 2012;
Guernsey 2013; Loope 2011; Ludden 2014; NPR (National Public Radio) 2013;
Rosenberg 2013; Talbot 2015; Unmuth 2014). Programs like these are aimed at level-
ing academic disparities by remediating the language patterns found in lower socio-
economic status households–essentially training parents to modify the way they use
language with their children to reflect the linguistic environments found in school
settings. Although the objective of improving educational access for traditionally
marginalized communities is well intentioned, implicating home language patterns in
academic struggles further entrenches the broader deficit perspective toward
minoritized groups—including the view that members of the groups targeted for
remediation have of themselves. Moreover, expecting parents to change their lan-
guage habits to support their children’s academic progress attenuates the responsi-
bility that schools have to build on their students’ home experiences and skills as a
way to scaffold classroom learning (Gonzalez et al. 2005; Johnson 2014; Zentella
The credibility of the Language Gap in the political and media realms is largely
based on research studies in child development and psychology. The most commonly
cited study in Language Gap research is Hart and Risley’s (1995) book that reports
that by the age of three, children from affluent households are exposed to approxi-
mately 30 million more words than children from families on welfare. The authors
claim that this “word gap” is largely responsible for the low academic achievement of
students from economically impoverished backgrounds. Although Hart and Risley’s
Invited Forum: Bridging the “Language Gap” 67
study has been critiqued for its methodological flaws and its deficit orientation
theoretical framework, it continues to be widely cited to support “evidence-based”
programs (Dudley-Marling and Lucas 2009). In addition to examining the quantity of
words produced in low socioeconomic status households, the Language Gap concept
has manifested in a variety of other lines of inquiry, including a focus on the quality
language environments in impoverished homes (Hoff 2003, 2006), parenting practices
in poverty communities (Evens 2004), differences in language processing skills
between economically advantaged and disadvantaged families (Fernald et al. 2013),
and the negative repercussions of home language on classroom settings (Jensen 2009).
Given that research like this is used to support programs that push for enhancing
educational equity, espousing a perspective that highlights and honors the linguistic
complexity and sophistication of all language groups is often eschewed in the popular
The set of commentaries presented in this Forum contributes unique linguistic
anthropological perspectives to this debate. While swaying the opinion of those
emotionally and financially engaged in Language Gap research and programs is
probably out of reach, our goal is to illustrate alternative perspectives to those that
focus on what minoritized communities do not have—instead, recognizing the rich-
ness of these communities’ everyday realities. The impetus here is to advance the
debate by offering ethnographically informed descriptions of language socialization
processes within micro- and macrolevel contexts, not to discredit the intentions of
research or programs designed to explore the nature of educational inequities. To
accomplish this, we have assembled seven distinct contributions that explore the
underlying ideological assumptions bolstering the Language Gap as well as the
circulating discourses (and resulting policies) that position minority groups as lin-
guistically inferior to majority groups.
Based on an acknowledgment of the need to improve educational access for eco-
nomically and culturally diverse students, the subsequent discussions provide
a range of perspectives designed to move away from denouncing and altering
home language skills as a panacea for academic woes and social inequity. Linguistic
anthropology’s focus on language learning ecologies, and the sophistication therein,
provides a novel perspective on the Language Gap. The contributions included below
problematize existing ideologies, demonstrate the wealth of resources within various
communities, and propose new directions for school practices and policymaking in
an effort to bridge the “language gap” toward a more inclusive and discerning view
of linguistic practices across diverse groups.
The Simple and Direct? Almost Never the Solution
Shirley Brice Heath
Hope for a simple way to help children in poverty in the United States has
been around more than half a century. Single-approach programs to mitigate
the effects of poverty continue to be implemented in spite of evidence-based
research showing that positive long-term outcomes only result from systemic
and sustained wraparound programs (Karoly, Kilburn, and Canon 2005). Even
though a quarter of children living in the United States today grow up in poverty
with little or no access to sustained medical care, preschools, or stimulating
primary schools, programs such as “Too Small to Fail” (a philanthropic initiative
started in 2014 in conjunction with the Clinton Foundation) direct their efforts to
eliminating the “word gap” of children living in poverty (www.clintonfoundation
.org/our-work/too-small-fail). Scholars familiar with child development reproach
such programs by pointing out that an increase in direct talk to infants and
toddlers must work alongside economic and healthcare changes if impove-
rished children are to gain academic success and future employment with a living
68 Journal of Linguistic Anthropology
Today’s poverty in modern economies is unlike that of earlier years. Children
growing up in poverty now live within complex networks of strangulation created by
economic and health policies that force well-meaning parents into unhealthy spaces
and harmful practices of nutrition, time expenditure, and material acquisition. Holis-
tic programs created for impoverished families in the 1970s provide models of effec-
tive systemic change for parents and children. For example, the Carolina Abecedarian
program ( initiated just after the civil rights era folded parents and
children into a comprehensive full-day preschool program. Children received health
and dental care, academic support during the elementary years, and follow-up
through secondary school and into early adulthood by staff of the Frank Porter
Graham Center of the University of North Carolina. Compared to control groups,
those who had been in the program as young children exhibited stronger academic
achievement evidenced in cognitive testing from their toddler years into young
adulthood. Both reading and mathematics achievement held through secondary
school and into early employment opportunities. As young adults, Abecedarian
intervention children showed positive aspects of physical health, property owner-
ship, and employment, as well as avoided the criminal system and were more likely
to attend a four-year college than individuals in the control group.
So where are language measures in results like these? Perhaps as a result of the
immersion of the nation in talk during the civil rights era of the complexities of
change for those living in poverty, effective intervention programs that remained well
into the 1980s did not emphasize change on any single behavioral feature, like talk
with children or word counts. Instead, these programs took into consideration health,
high levels of parental involvement, sustained involvement in reading, engaging in
sociodramatic play, and experiencing events and locales beyond communities of
parents. Families were surrounded with broad experiential learning opportunities
that generated talk with children, to be sure, but also comparative reflection and
question-asking in relation to expanding horizons of children and parents. Is the wide
embrace of this interventionist approach “enhanced language development?” Yes,
but enhancement within and around much more than words.
Simultaneously with these inclusive intervention programs came the research of
linguistic anthropologists on language socialization in cultures around the world.
Accounts from Japan, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, as well as white, black, and
Mexicano families in the United States, analyzed language development within the
context of family structures, group belief systems, and ecological factors (Heath
1983/1996; Schieffelin and Ochs 1986; Tudge 2008; Zentella 1997). These findings
challenged long-standing claims by child language specialists regarding the univer-
sality of specific characteristics of language input from mothers to babies and young
children. Such features included simplified talk (“baby talk”), varying intonation,
direct-face-to-face talk from mothers to their infants, and specific games such as
“peek-a-boo” (Snow and Ferguson 1977). Yet today, programs in the United States
directed toward language and literacy development within impoverished families
still promote these types of features as normative and developmentally appropriate
for all children (cf. Snow et al. 1991).
Following the economic boom of the 1990s came 9/11 and the recession sparked
by the financial crashes of 2008. Subsequent employment shifts and economic
changes affected family life across the United States. Some linguistic anthropologists
turned their attention to how these changes affected language socialization and
academic trajectories for children across social classes. Ochs and colleagues at UCLA
and Heath at Stanford University documented the impact of changing work patterns
for males and females, along with the growing influence of technologies on family
life, commercial entertainment forms, and altered peer socialization habits of not
only lower-class youth but also middle- and upper-income youth (Ochs and
Kremer-Sadlik 2013).
All of this research portrayed households in which adults and children had less
and less joint time in creative interactional pursuits. Two working-parent households
Invited Forum: Bridging the “Language Gap” 69
relied on heat-and-serve foods and outsourced labor for house-cleaning and garden-
ing. When blocks of family time came about, parents and children turned to passive
spectatorship of sports, films, and concerts either live or via technology. During such
entertainment times in homes, family members often made individual choices, going
to different rooms or technologies. Extended talk and coparticipation in both work
and play faded from the lives of many families, as did socializing of the young toward
taking on responsibilities within the household (Heath 2012; Ochs and Izquierdo
2009). Everyday vocabulary of schoolchildren, particularly adolescents, also declined
(Flynn 2012).
Multiple regions in the United States hit hard by the decline in manufacturing after
2000 remained locked out of educational and employment opportunities that would
bring individuals into the salaried class or stability in small business development.
The ramifications of low property taxes on poor schools and transportation cut deeply
into education options, and the divide between the very rich and most of the rest of
the population grew, leaving an increasing number of children and families strug-
gling for much more than simply vocabulary growth.
So how might anthropology help change the social, economic, and academic
inequities facing children in poverty? In general, unfortunately, research of linguistic
anthropologists showing the high variation found in language input behaviors
around the world has had little or no effect on either teacher education programs or
reading curricula, even as school populations have increasingly diversified from the
1990s forward. Academic research alone cannot alter economic realities or political
will. What scholars in linguistic anthropology and other fields willing to take up a
long-term perspective can do is insistently push against searches for simple solutions.
For example, more researchers in psychology and linguistics need to carry out their
studies within groups of same-class families in order to show the variability within
these families. The few such studies done in recent years demonstrate that families
living within the same poverty level manage their time for talk with their children in
highly variable ways (Fernald et al. 2013; Weisleder and Fernald 2013).
The history of the sciences, including social sciences, unrelentingly affirms a
truism especially relevant for scholars who straddle basic and applied science. The
most effective intervention is likely to be both complex and indirect. Alas, we are also
likely, more often than not, to get it wrong before we learn to make it right, and to try
the simple solution before we undertake the complex (Holmes 2008; Schul 2010).
How the Logic of Gap Discourse Perpetuates Education Inequality: A View
from the Ethnography of Language Policy
Teresa L. McCarty
In The Culture of Education Policy, Sandra Stein argues that the narrative elements of
government policies—“the scenarios and argumentation on which policies are
based” (2004:5)—construct taken-for-granted logics about those whose behavior the
policies seek to regulate. These policy narratives constitute discourses, “ways of
thinking which may overlap and reinforce each other and close off other possible
ways of thinking” (Shore and Wright 1997:18). The important point, says Stein
(2004:1), is that these systems of meaning “promote ways of seeing individuals and
provide tools for organizing their lives.” Policy discourses have material conse-
quences for their subjects.
One of the most pervasive discursive tropes in U.S. education policy is the gap
metaphor. Indeed, the premise of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act
(ESEA)—the most massive piece of federal education legislation in the nation’s
history—is that ESEA-funded programs will close the so-called achievement gap
between students of color, poor students, English learners (ELs) and their more
affluent dominant-English-speaking peers. In this essay, I draw on insights from the
anthropology of policy (Shore and Wright 1997, 2011) and related work in the eth-
70 Journal of Linguistic Anthropology
nography of language policy (Hornberger and Johnson 2011; Johnson 2013; McCarty
2011) to critically examine gap discourse in U.S. education policy as it constructs a
logic about minoritized language learners. How does this discourse frame language
problems and solutions? How does it construct ways of thinking about what counts
as language and “proper” language use (Hymes 1996)? Who gets to do the counting,
and by what measures?
Gap discourse can be traced to the 1957 Sputnik launch, which propelled not only
the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, but also unprec-
edented federal spending on public education. Here, the perceived gap was in science
education, in which U.S. students were deemed lacking (Wax 2002). Embedded in this
discourse was a military metaphor, used to great effect in the Johnson administra-
tion’s War on Poverty, the centerpiece of which was the 1965 ESEA. Policy discourses
surrounding the ESEA’s passage constructed poverty as individual failure induced by
deficient parents unable to provide their children with the intellectual, moral, and
financial resources to succeed academically. The ESEA’s intended subjects were chil-
dren “shackled by the ‘chains of disadvantage which bind them to a life of hopeless-
ness and misery’ ” (Stein 2004:xiv).
This policy narrative was abetted by a powerful scholarly discourse—the culture of
poverty—popularized in Oscar Lewis’s (1959) ethnographic study of five Mexican
families. Culture of poverty theory fit hand in glove with prevailing notions in
education scholarship of race- and class-based deficit (see, e.g., the Chicago Confer-
ence on Compensatory Education for Cultural Deprivation, in Bloom et al. 1965).
“Policymakers embraced the culture of poverty theory as evidence that the poor
required government intervention to break free of the individual habits . . . under-
stood to perpetuate their conditions” (Stein 2004:15). This logic at once diverted
attention from race- and class-based social, economic, and educational inequities and
encouraged “a condemning, paternalistic” policy stance (Stein 2004:15).
Intertwined discourses of the culture of poverty and the achievement gap have
percolated throughout each ensuing ESEA reauthorization. One version of this por-
trays poor and minoritized children and families as illiterate, placing the very nation
at risk, as exemplified by the 1983 Nation at Risk report (National Commission
on Excellence in Education 1983). A parallel narrative is the permeant portrayal of
children who enter school speaking a language other than English as limited and
lacking. The 1968 Bilingual Education Act (Title VII of the ESEA) targeted children
who were both poor and “educationally disadvantaged” by their home language.
Renamed the English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic
Achievement Act in the 2001 ESEA reauthorization known as No Child Left Behind
(NCLB), the current legislation (in which the word bilingual has been purged),
laminates immigration, race, poverty, and language deficit. In the first nine para-
graphs of the policy, the word “limited” appears 11 times, more than half alongside
the word “immigrant.” As Villenas (2007) points out, the term “immigrant” conveys
a gap between those who belong and those who do not, symbolically distancing
children deemed limited by home language and culture from their U.S.-born, white,
middle-class, dominant-English-speaking peers.
A key mechanism through which gap discourse regulates its subjects is a
government-mandated system of achievement measurement that relies almost exclu-
sively on English standardized tests. Portrayed as objective, neutral, and universally
valid, the tests are not, and they are particularly disadvantageous to ELs. Any test that
uses language is in part a test of linguistic skill (Solano-Flores 2008). Disadvantage is
also conferred by the fact that ELs comprise a tiny fraction of the sample used
to establish testing norms (Solórzano 2008). It is therefore not surprising that
race-, class-, and language-based test performance disparities have not changed
significantly under NCLB; in some cases, the disparities have widened (U.S.
Commission on Civil Rights 2004).
An especially damaging entailment of this policy is the curricular remedy for
learners disenfranchised by the tests, which prescribes reductive, decontextualized
Invited Forum: Bridging the “Language Gap” 71
English reading regimes comprised of scripted vocabulary drills. In a recent large-
scale study of language learning and teaching in Indigenous-serving schools, my
colleagues and I documented widespread, federally imposed use of such approaches,
described by participating educators as “not real teaching” (Romero-Little et al. 2007).
Meanwhile, learners in more affluent, high test-performing schools have the benefit
of rich, contextualized language and literacy instruction that privileges the linguistic,
cognitive, and cultural capital these students bring to school. Cummins (2007:566)
describes such differentiated instruction as “the pedagogical divide.”
Thus, gap discourse ineluctably reproduces the very social, linguistic, and educa-
tional disparities it calls into question. Cloaked in well-intentions—“giving children
the competencies they need to succeed in school” (Hart and Risley 1995:2)—gap
discourse simultaneously constructs a logic of individual dysfunction, limitation, and
failure while masking the systemic power inequities through which the logic is
There are clear alternatives to this logic. Paris, for example, calls for pedagogies that
actively sustain the cultural and linguistic competence of nondominant students’
families and communities, while offering “access to dominant cultural competence”
(2012:15). McCarty and Lee (2014) offer examples of critical pedagogies for Indig-
enous learners that are culturally sustaining, revitalizing, and decolonizing.
Ladson-Billings (2006a) argues that the focus on the achievement gap elides the
historically accumulated “education debt” that continues to exclude communities of
color. She calls for culturally sustaining/revitalizing/decolonizing pedagogies that
also enable mainstream learners to “critique the very basis of their privilege”
(Ladson-Billings 2014:83). In the context of such pedagogies, the gap metaphor is
reframed as a multipath bridge—a logic that embraces critique and social transfor-
mation, and promotes diverse ways of speaking, knowing, and being for all.
How Language Became Knowledge
Elinor Ochs and Tamar Kremer-Sadlik
The Language Gap debate focuses on socioeconomic variation in the number
of caregivers’ words addressed to or in vicinity of children—including words
co-occurring with a caregiver’s gesture or a child’s gaze, and words related to the
immediate context—as a predictor of a child’s expressive vocabulary and academic
achievement at school.A wide swath of studies links higher SES, word-rich input, and
children’s expansive vocabulary to academic success (e.g., Fernald et al. 2013; Hart
and Risley 1995; Hoff 2003; Rowe and Goldin-Meadow 2009). This commentary
proposes that Language Gap studies underscore a pervasive cultural ideology that
equates language, especially language that signals reflexive thinking, with knowl-
edge. A language socialization practice that maps on to this ideology transpires
whenever caregivers heighten infants’ awareness of words for objects or elicit infants’
verbal representations of their understandings or feelings about objects, including
themselves (Duranti 2009). The Language Gap focus on number of words, we argue,
is a proxy for this modernist celebration of highly reflexive communication as
the signpost of intelligence. Caregivers who direct word-rich talk about objects to
infants do so not simply to communicate but also to stimulate their infant’s reflexive
Although verbal displays of reflexive thinking are ubiquitous across speech com-
munities, reflexive communication is pivotal to late modernity’s agentive focus on
transformation of objects, self, and others (Giddens 1990; Habermas 1984; Husserl
1989). Reflexive objectification is viewed as fundamental to the possibility of choice,
redefinition, and modification at the individual and societal level. Relatedly, reflexive
communication lies at the heart of late-capitalism (wherein one acts as rational agent
to reflexively and creatively develop the economy) and the modern self (wherein one
acts as moral agent to reflexively and creatively develop one’s inner self). Hayek
72 Journal of Linguistic Anthropology
(1945), for example, placed entrepreneurs’ ability to reflexively synthesize and rep-
resent information coming from diverse sources as central to economic decision-
making. In the contemporary knowledge economy, the bar for creative reflexive
communication is set even higher: the information sources are themselves textual
representations of knowledge, information changes rapidly, and social networks and
sources are global (Castells 1996). The successful new knowledge worker is a lan-
guage virtuoso, applying communicative prowess to continually generate, develop,
problem-solve, and package new ideas through teamwork (Farrell 2001; Gee et al.
When caregivers (re)introduce a word for an object for an infant as intended
addressee, they model reflexive communication for the infant. Unlike words
exchanged between competent interlocutors that an infant might overhear, the care-
giver’s proffered word to the infant constitutes more than a symbol. It is a meta-
cognitive, reflexive act of labeling that signals to the infant that the world is discrete
and categorizable. Reflexive communication entails critical detachment from and
meta-awareness of thinking, feeling, and/or communicating about a state of affairs
(Lucy 1993). From a phenomenological perspective, the caregiver’s heightened atten-
tion to a word-object relation modifies the infant’s taken-for-granted experience of the
world of objects. Such solicitations of phenomenological modifications encourage
infants to reflect upon and reconceptualize their relation to the world. In other words,
the caregiver and the infant enter into what Husserl (1989) calls “the theoretical
attitude.” Communication of this sort that draws infants and other novices into the
theoretical attitude lies at the heart of language socialization (Duranti 2009).
Language Gap studies indicate that talk addressed to the child is more efficacious in
developing children’s expressive vocabulary than talk overheard by the child. This
finding makes sense when we consider that the former condition co-engages care-
giver and infant in the highly reflexive theoretical attitude. Such hyper-reflexive
caregiver–child communication can also involve infants in reflexive talk about objects
paradigmatically, logically, sentimentally, imaginatively, or otherwise. Caregivers the
world over draw infants into the theoretical attitude, but the sheer proliferation of
metacognitive talk dedicated to this end may set apart certain communities.
What distinguishes the Language Gap as an issue in the United States is that it rests
upon a class-based and anxiety-filled vernacular notion of the child as a communi-
cative (cognitive developmental) project (Kremer-Sadlik and Fatigante 2015). In this
habitus, families have become entrepreneurial hives of activity. Caregivers look for
signs of infants’ and toddlers’ expressive language competence not just to promote
emotional bonding and sense-making and not just as a sign of normal development
but also as a sign of precocity that will translate into symbolic capital and academic
advantage. Middle-class U.S. parents are bombarded with advice about how to
enhance their infants’ vocabulary as the gateway to intellectual achievement. No child
is too young to be a communicative partner: middle-class parents-to-be are encour-
aged to read stories and talk to their baby in utero; websites advise teaching sign
language to infants in their first year of life to generate larger vocabularies, enhance
the onset of spoken language, and even raise their IQs.
All infants have the right to language socialization that prepares them to be suc-
cessful in their environments, including the globalized knowledge economy. Our
UCLA Sloan multidisciplinary study of middle-class U.S. family life, however,
reveals the cost of childrearing practices that privilege highly reflexive communica-
tion (Ochs and Kremer-Sadlik 2013). For a start, “the everyday” becomes intellectu-
alized. Tasks and routines are not taken for granted as the natural order but
instead are open to comment and exhausting negotiation. Explanations are
ubiquitous for minute actions. Practical knowledge entails “lessons” rather than
informal apprenticeship. Family relationships are subject to continuous examination,
as family members talk about their needs and feelings. Under these conditions, the
ideology of language as a signpost of knowledge is a burden, even as it is a catalyst
for success.
Invited Forum: Bridging the “Language Gap” 73
“Wordism”: Is There a Teacher in the House?
Susan D. Blum
–“What is that?”
–“Good job!”
By means of this exemplary exchange, parents are supposed to turn their infants
and toddlers into Ivy League college students and successful Americans. Parents are
expected to quiz their children, asking for names of items, in a way that matches the
wordism—the language ideology, or, as I might prefer, the ethno-ontology of language,
that regards language as made principally of units the size of words—that underlies
most commonsense Euro-American understanding of language. This ideology sug-
gests that
language is principally about units the size of words;
the more words the better;
naming objects in the world—the referential function of language—is its main
parents’ “job” is to ask such questions, the school question, where the answer is
known by the asker, unlike most questions in real life, where the point of a
question is to find something out.
Linguistic anthropologists have spent decades illustrating the converse of all these
ideological presuppositions. We have shown the importance of analyzing discourse,
units larger than sentences and far larger than words, with interaction the key com-
ponent. We have shown that for cognition and sophistication of thought (whatever
that means), the number of words—if they can even be counted—is irrelevant. We
have strenuously demonstrated the limits of the referential view of language. From J.
L. Austin (1962) through Michael Silverstein (1993), this has been one of the primary
research tasks of the field, showing that language does things in addition to reporting
about things. And we have shown the many goals accomplished by the asking of
questions, from implying ignorance to serving as a request or hint; only rarely is a
question asked when the answer is known in advance. But that is the testing function
of formal, Western education, where there is an answer key and students are
supposed to match their answers to those prefigured. So if parents want their children
to succeed in school, they have to act just like teachers, from day one: “Talk to Your
Child” like a teacher.
Americans generally regard the “word” as the primary unit of analysis for this and
many other educational efforts—indeed as the principal aspect of language in
general. From eliciting names of things (“What is that?” “Elephant!”) to spelling tests
to the SAT to the misuse of Boas’s example of “Eskimo” “words” for snow (causing
the misunderstanding of the linguistic relativity hypothesis; Martin 1986), to Google
Translate, to Words with Friends, crossword puzzles, and Urban Dictionary, the
dominant Euro-American way of grasping language is to focus on words. Every-
where we turn we can see evidence of this ethno-ontology of language. Yet linguistic
anthropologists and linguists have shown that the primary unit of analysis is inter-
action, within which one can identify sounds, sound patterns, signs, grammatical
patterns, and the many intended and unintended effects of the linguistic encounter.
Word play, politeness, language as identity—all these are constitutive of human
meaning and social interaction.
Children raised in multilingual households, for instance, may develop subtle
understanding of the contextual nature of linguistic codes. In settings where joking is
the common key of interaction, children may develop sophisticated tools for punning
and storytelling—traits highly valued in higher education, the arts, and even busi-
ness. Yet the focus on the number of words appeals to the brute positivism that
enables observers to identify one group that has more in contrast to which we may
pity (or denigrate) another group that has less.
74 Journal of Linguistic Anthropology
The Language Gap literature measures the number of words directed by the
principal caregiver—usually assumed to be a mother—at the child. Specialists in
(language) socialization have shown the many different forms of social interaction
within which a child may be raised, from being cared for by child nannies (Lancy
2015) to being strapped to a grandparent’s back to being hung on a wall in a
cradleboard to being passed from adult to adult (Hewlett and Lamb 2005). Even
within the United States, in some settings the very youngest children are held by
adults most of the day even if they are not regarded as conversational partners (Heath
1983; Ochs and Schieffelin 1984). Anthropological research shows, in fact, that
addressing the youngest children as conversational partners is extremely unusual in
the world. But the Language Gap programs such as Providence Talks or Talk to Your
Baby naturalize the middle-class Euro-American language socialization model as
though it were biologically and evolutionarily required. This is because the principal
caregiver is supposed to act as the child’s in-home teacher from before birth.
In the now-familiar Euro-American middle-class model, parents’ primary role is
as teachers, with middle-class parents already having imbibed the pedagogical and
didactic role of asking questions to which the answer is known, while in other
households questions are asked because the answer is not known (as Heath showed
so well, so long ago). Questions may have many effects—as hints getting people to
act (Is it cold in here?), finding out information (Where are my keys?), as encouraging
agreement (Shouldn’t we all wish Bruno a happy birthday?). But asking children to
demonstrate their knowledge out of context (What color is that? What does a dog say?)
is a peculiar speech act that demonstrates performance for a judging audience. This
is the principal didactic activity within schools—leading to learning-for-testing,
passivity, and many other things that are problematic in the ways children are
The Providence Talks effort is to teach parents to act as teachers, rehearsing and
pointing out school-rewarded aspects of the environment. (There are billboards
exhorting parents to teach their children about shapes and colors.) These linguistic
exchanges have no communicative function except to reward children with parents’
approval for passing the test. They do teach children to crave adult approval; to wait
passively for adults to initiate interaction; and to regard demonstration of known
knowledge as one of the primary goals of children’s speech. This notion of right and
wrong answers and of passively pleasing caregivers is, indeed, matched by school
testing, but it is problematic in school and equally problematic in homes.
Children everywhere learn their language(s) by rich involvement in the social life
of their families and communities, usually without direct instruction and without
testing except in the authentic environments within which language is used. Bringing
the worst of the teaching function into the heart of homes is the wrong direction; far
better would be bringing the multifaceted playful uses of multiple forms of language
into schools. The human values are persuasive enough for anthropologists; but sup-
posedly the 21st century requires workers and citizens who can do more than passively
jump in a single language when the word “jump” is directed at them. Reducing this
most human of faculties to a simplistic understanding of what language is serves no
one well.
Books as the Magic Bullet
Ana Celia Zentella
The author of a recent New Yorker article on “the word gap,” Margaret Talbot (2015),
recalled that she had read some picture books to her children so often that she knew
them by heart. I imagine that many readers nodded their heads nostalgically, and
might even have recited some stanzas of Cat in the Hat or another Dr. Seuss book that
they had read to their children, and/or that had been read to them. I only know these
books because there is a statue of the Cat in the Hat on the UCSD campus, and our
Invited Forum: Bridging the “Language Gap” 75
distinctive winged library, named after its author, Theodore Geisel, houses the
world’s largest collection of Seuss memorabilia. The first children’s books I ever saw
were in first grade at PS 39 in the south Bronx; they were about Dick and Jane and
Spot. We had none at home, and no one ever read to me. And there were no other
books or bookshelves either—no novels or histories or cookbooks. For most members
of the middle class, this is the portrait of a deprived household, and even of incom-
petent parents. Such views are buttressed by the pronouncements of teachers, pedia-
tricians, and psychologists who consider reading to children essential to their
personal and academic development. In one pediatrician’s opinion:
When I think about children growing up in homes without books, I have the same visceral
reaction as I have when I think of children in homes without milk or food or heat: It cannot
be, it must not be. It stunts them and deprives them before they’ve had a fair chance. (Klass
Parents who don’t read to their children are accused of risking their children’s
well-being, and reading is portrayed as a magic bullet, a way to guarantee success.
So how did I graduate from college with a Phi Beta Kappa key, and go on to earn
an MA and a PhD? This pediatrician and others who share her views, including those
supporting recent efforts to count the number of words spoken to a child and train
parents to read to their children, ignore the fact that in many homes where there are
few or no books, adults and older children foster literacy in other ways. Many
Mexican families I know in San Diego play “lotería” every week, and children learn to
read the names of all the picture cards. In a collection of studies that documents how
Latino families in diverse communities foster literacy by “building on strengths”
other than books (Zentella 2005), you find Dominican families in NYC creating their
own stories for children with special education needs, and preschoolers imitating
older siblings doing their homework (Rodriguez 2005). Some of the most productive
literacy events in other families are linked to religious activities, such as text expla-
nations in church or Bible study at home in Central American families in Los Angeles
(Ek 2005). Many Latino families pray every night, as I did, and children learn the
words to those prayers and the songs they sing in church. In my study of El Barrio
(Zentella 1997), one mother who never sat down with her children to read joined a
Spanish Bible study group where texts were read and discussed aloud; she took her
children twice a week. Also, everyone in that family was a Scrabble fanatic, playing
with English words for hours on end. When I was a child, I thought my Puerto Rican
mother invented Scrabble because she cut paper bags into squares and wrote a letter
of the alphabet on each; we sat on the floor and put words together. Mami also had me
copy and memorize long poems in Spanish and English; I recited them to visitors and
at my father’s Mexican society’s veladas (cultural soirées), where I learned formal
Spanish by imitating the guest speakers.
My teachers never knew that I had those abilities, and I doubt they would have
judged me college material if they had heard mami’s rants against too much reading
and reliance on books. In her view, too much reading would “volverme loca” (‘make
me crazy’’), and spouting book knowledge was like being a copycat; not as worthy
as “common sense” or being “original.” Some twenty years later, it was a book
about Puerto Rican families in NYC in the 1950s, by a renown Puerto Rican anthro-
pologist, that enlightened me; Padilla (1958:209) found that “it is held that too much
studying or reading is detrimental to the child’s health, because too much weakens
the brain and a person may go crazy from over studying.” But as I explained in the
introductory chapter to Building on Strength, neither my teachers nor Padilla
understood the connection between the centrality of the family in working class Puerto Rican
culture and parental fears of book related illness. Padilla (1958:209) noted that the East
Harlem parents she studied wanted their children to read and do homework assignments,
“since they keep the children busy and quiet in the home and are considered evidence that
they are learning.” My mother certainly insisted on only A level school work, but I now
76 Journal of Linguistic Anthropology
realize that a child who continually immerses herself in the solitary act of reading distances
herself from the shared activities of the family and shirks her duties towards its members.
Anyone who becomes severed from the core support group risks mental illness, as psycho-
therapists would agree. Parents who favor “common sense” and view too much reading
negatively may be carving out space for oral traditions and keeping children in the protected
bosom of the family.
Collective efforts like playing games, singing songs, and reciting prayers and poems
help unite the family as they encourage literacy. Ethnographies by Shirley Heath
(1983) and others prove that long-term immersion in impoverished families reveals a
variety of skills that are often ignored in formal academic settings, but which could
prove helpful in ensuring success at school if they were incorporated.
From the anthropolitical linguistic perspective that I advocate, language socializa-
tion research must unmask the ways in which one or more group’s ways of speaking
or raising children are constructed as inferior to the benefit of the continued domi-
nation of a powerful class, and it must challenge the policies that encourage and
enforce subjugation. Of particular concern is the construction of the most burdened
and vulnerable members of an oppressed community—mothers in poverty—as unfit
parents and consequently, unworthy citizens. Monolingual and bilingual communi-
ties are both affected because different languages as well as dialects of the same
language are invested with contrasting amounts of cultural capital, reflecting the
socioeconomic and racial status of their speakers; certain words count more than
Despite the importance of revealing the ways in which different cultural models of
literacy may lead to unfair judgments about appropriate parenting, one of the pitfalls
of language socialization research is that relying on home-versus-school conflict
models can obscure the more powerful role played by institutional inequalities and
racism. And study after study has documented the link between poverty and aca-
demic failure, regardless of cultural background. We are not against having parents
speak more to their children or read books to them, but if their ways of speaking
English, Spanish, or Spanglish are devalued, and their skin color and lower class
background construct them as inferior, their children may still encounter insur-
mountable barriers unless educators confront those biases first.
Hearing Language Gaps and Reproducing Social Inequality
Jonathan Rosa and Nelson Flores
During a recent professional development workshop that Nelson facilitated in a
Philadelphia elementary school, one of the teachers objected to the “Spanglish” usage
of her students, the majority of whom are low-income Latinas/os. She provided
“rufo” as an example of the linguistic deficiencies of these students, argued that
“techo” is the correct Spanish form for “roof,” and insisted that they had not learned
correct English or Spanish at home. Nelson explained that from a linguistic perspec-
tive neither term is more correct and suggested that as teachers we should work to
build on the linguistic practices students bring to our classrooms rather than viewing
them as deficient.
Nelson’s response was informed by a long history of linguistic research. Indeed, in
this teacher’s statements, one might hear echoes of the “verbal deprivation hypoth-
esis” that Labov (1972) debunked more than forty years ago. Focused on deficit
perspectives that stigmatize African Americans, Labov (1972:201) noted that while
“Black children from the ghetto area are said to receive little verbal stimulation, to
hear very little well-formed language, and as a result are impoverished in their means
of verbal expression,” these children actually “receive a great deal of verbal stimula-
tion and participate fully in a highly verbal culture.” If linguists disproved the verbal
deprivation hypothesis decades ago, then why did Nelson still have to present this
teacher with an argument similar to Labov’s?
Invited Forum: Bridging the “Language Gap” 77
One reason for this is the renewed attention from scholarly and popular audiences
throughout the United States devoted to the notion that children raised in low-income
homes suffer from a “language gap” or “word gap.” Millions of dollars in grant funds
have been invested in supporting language gap research and the various campaigns
that come out of it, which reflects widespread consensus about the linguistic deficiency
of children in low-income households. Psychologists at the forefront of language gap
research and public discussions thereof have emphasized that we should focus on
quality over quantity in the promotion of effective communication in childrearing
practices (Quenqua 2014). These efforts involve tracking the “quality” of communica-
tion in a given low-income household and tailoring a plan for improvement.
By locating these contemporary framings of the “language gap” in relation to the
history of linguistic critiques of their premises, we can see how stigmatizing views of
race and class have been repackaged in the category of “low income,” which none-
theless invokes similar populations. We must also note that this stigmatization per-
sists despite decades of rich linguistic anthropological research establishing the
legitimacy and dexterity of low-income racialized communities’ language socializa-
tion practices (Heath 1983; Zentella 2005). If, for many linguistic anthropologists,
proposed “language gap” interventions are clearly based on questionable assump-
tions about linguistic “quality” and “quantity,” then how might we disrupt the
communicative common sense surrounding the so-called language gap?
We suggest an approach that shifts the focus from the speaking practices of low-
income racialized speaking subjects to the hearing practices of listening subjects from
whose perspectives “language gaps” are perceived. We build from Inoue’s (2006)
theorization of the “listening subject” as a way of apprehending how modes of
linguistic perception are shaped by particular historical, political, and economic
circumstances. Extending this theorization to the linked histories of class stratification
and white supremacy in the United States, our approach begins from the premise that
the “language gap” is not based on the empirical linguistic practices that emerge from
the mouths of speaking subjects, in this case members of low-income racialized
communities, but rather from the racially and socioeconomically stigmatizing lan-
guage ideologies that orient the ears of listening subjects.
Redirecting attention from speaking subjects to listening subjects allows for an
alternative analysis of the comment about “Spanglish” noted above. In this scenario,
an institutionally sanctioned listening subject position shaped the perception of
“Spanglish” as deficient based on the racial and class positions associated with
low-income Latina/o language users. It is unlikely that a presumed normative mono-
lingual English user ordering “tacos” at a restaurant or discussing “haciendas” in a
history class would be marked in this way despite the fact that these forms have come
into use through similar processes of language contact. The problem is not with
linguistic practices but rather how racial and class positionings within our stratified
society shape the perception of these practices by listening subjects.
This shift in focus from the speaking subject to the listening subject can also lead
to alternative critiques of “language gap” ideologies. Rather than continually reiter-
ating the systematicity of low-income racialized communities’ linguistic practices, we
must reconsider the ways that the listening subject interpellates these communities as
linguistically deficient. By analyzing the listening subject, we ask not how low-income
racialized households’ language practices could be more accurately valued but rather
how “language gap” ideologies connect with broader processes of racial and socio-
economic population management.
Jonathan observed a ritual among a group of low-income, U.S.-born Mexican
siblings in Chicago that illustrates the consequences of these broader processes of
racial and socioeconomic population management. These elementary school–aged
children created a game they called “real people.” For this group of Spanish-English
bilingual siblings, playing “real people” involved producing what they described as
“proper” English, which primarily consisted of politeness routines, exaggerated
articulation, and pretending to write in cursive. When Jonathan asked them who “real
78 Journal of Linguistic Anthropology
people” are, they responded, “rich people, white people.” These children had inter-
nalized not only hegemonic views of race and class in general, but also the perspec-
tives of listening subjects who heard them to be engaging in deficient language
practices that made them less than “real people.” Indeed, the only way that they could
imagine themselves as “real people” was by pretending to be somebody else—a
phenomenon that too accurately characterizes the experiences of all low-income
racialized people navigating the white supremacist, capitalist U.S. status quo.
In the context of this status quo, claims that the language practices of low-income
racialized communities are just as, if not more, legitimate, complex, and valuable than
those of middle- and upper-class white communities will never be embraced. In
order to disrupt the linguistic reproduction of racialization and socioeconomic strati-
fication, we must move beyond asserting the legitimacy of stigmatized language
practices, focusing instead on interrogating the societal reproduction of listening
subject positions that continually perceive deficiency. By changing our analytical
strategy in this way, we can gain new insights into how the joint ideological construc-
tion of race, class, and language perpetuates inequality; we can also develop alterna-
tive frameworks that refuse to accept the terms of the debate proposed by “language
gap” researchers. After all, as linguistic anthropologists it is our job to note the
insidious nature of the suggestion that communities facing rampant inequality are
simply in need of more or “better” words.
Whose Language Gap? Critical and Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies as
Necessary Challenges to Racializing Hegemony
H. Samy Alim and Django Paris
Despite the plethora of research on cultural and linguistic diversity, researchers
continue to (unwittingly?) reproduce harmful public discourses that frame the lan-
guages and cultures of children and families of color as “deficient,” “less than,” or
“inferior” to a supposed gold standard—the norms of white, middle-class, monolin-
gual, monocultural America. These discourses are reproduced through appeals to
“science” and “data” that are often flawed from their very conception due to their tacit
acceptance of white cultural and linguistic hegemony.
As linguists have been pointing out for decades, white Americans in power have
long insisted on their particular varieties of English as the price of admission into
America’s economic mainstream (Sledd 1969; Smitherman 1977). Even many other-
wise liberal and progressive whites—researchers included—remain rigid and inflex-
ible when it comes to linguistic diversity. While some deny their complicity in this
kind of linguistic hegemony, others earnestly work toward convincing racial and
ethnic “minorities” that the journey toward upward mobility will be easier for them
once they drop their linguistic and cultural “baggage” and acquire what they uncriti-
cally refer to as “standard” English. So, despite widely professed values of egalitari-
anism, equality, and equity, linguistic hegemony is framed as beneficial to linguistic
“minorities” rather than harmful, and linguistic homogenization is presented as
preferable to linguistic diversity.
In this specific case, the language gap approach reproduces the harmful culture of
poverty argument that has been used over the past half-century, in various iterations
and across disciplines, to frame the languages and cultures of poor students of color
as needing to be fixed and replaced with “better” languages and cultures (Stein
2004). In the United States, deeply flawed research of this type not only upholds
what Alim (2004) has referred to as linguistic supremacy—the regressive, uncritical,
and sociolinguistically inaccurate language ideological system of beliefs that
assumes certain language varieties (and therefore, certain groups of people) to be
superior to others—but it is also sadly out of step with our new demographic
reality, what many scholars are now calling “the new America” (e.g., Chang 2014;
Taylor 2014).
Invited Forum: Bridging the “Language Gap” 79
Innovative research at the intersection of language, culture, and pedagogy rethinks
demographic and social change and counters the persistent and detrimental notion of
“gaps” (wherein poor folks and people of color are consistently positioned as
lacking). In fact, we posit that in this “new America,” rather than children of color
being framed in terms of “gaps,” the linguistic and cultural flexibility of many
children of color ideally positions them for success in a diversifying, globalizing
world. Researchers are encouraged to think forward, not backward, in ways that both
challenge hegemonic norms and support the flexibility that students will increasingly
need for access and opportunity.
Backward-thinking research, such as the “language gap” approach, is not only
flawed for the many reasons pointed out in the introduction of this forum, but it also
needs to be interrogated for the deeply discriminatory racial thinking that both gives
rise to this research and seduces the general public into buying its arguments. From
our perspective, these studies represent yet another form of the linguistic policing of
poor people and people of color. When examined critically, one can draw a straight
line through the covert racism of linguistic profiling (where poor folks, women, and
people of color are denied housing and other opportunities based solely on “the
sound of their voice”—see Baugh 2003), the persistent and commonly held language
ideological racism aimed at linguistically diverse students of color in our schools
(e.g., English only, the backlash against “Ebonics”), and the hegemonic racism asso-
ciated with researchers’ consistent framing of communities of color in terms of
“gaps” of all kinds, whether linguistic, cultural, cognitive, achievement, or otherwise.
All of these forms of linguistic policing, no matter how well intentioned, function as
forms of social control that reify linguistic supremacy. This regressive research, then,
has grave social, political, economic, and educational implications for communities of
color in the United States.
Forward-thinking research begins with a simple demographic fact: last year (2014)
marked the first time that children of color comprised the majority of students in U.S.
public schools (whereas in 1970, 80% of public school students were white). Unbe-
knownst to many well-intentioned educational researchers, including those who
claim “not to see race,” the majority of our students use a rich and diverse array of
cultural and linguistic resources that are currently vastly underutilized
and systematically devalued in our schools. Research, then, should not begin
with the all-too-often taken-for-granted premise that white, middle-to-upper-class,
monocultural, and monolingual norms are to be emulated. In fact, in this “new
America,” we might consider those children who bring no additional linguistic and
cultural resources to school as “deficient” and framed in terms of the discriminatory
discourse of “gaps.” Rather than taking white cultural and linguistic hegemony for
granted, forward-thinking research asks: What do these ongoing shifts mean for the
language education of the new American majority? What might it mean for the new
racial minority? These are precisely the kinds of questions taken up by our ongoing
projects of critical language awareness and culturally sustaining pedagogies (Alim 2004;
Alim and Smitherman 2012; Paris 2011, 2012; Paris and Alim 2014). In our work, we
consistently interrogate schools and researchers as agents of linguistic policing and
cultural homogenization. In response to restrictive policies and practices, we envision
teaching and learning as means to perpetuate and foster linguistic, literate, and
cultural pluralism. This vision of pluralism is seen as central to the democratic project
of schooling and as a needed response to demographic and social change.
While demographic change does not necessarily mean cultural or ideological
change in the short term, our work seeks to prepare both teachers and students to
disrupt hegemonic norms and create new, democratic and pluralist ones in their
place. Importantly, we must offer opportunities for our young people to explore and
critically interrogate the links between language, discrimination, power, and change.
While many have argued over the decades—and will undoubtedly continue to do
so—that “Language discrimination exists; it’s just the way the world works,” we will
continue to respond with, “Forcing people to speak just like you in order to gain
80 Journal of Linguistic Anthropology
access to material resources is not the way the world works. It’s the way hegemony
works.” Teachers, students, all of us, have a choice to either uphold or disrupt that
Forum Conclusion: Language Strengths, Not Gaps
As linguistic anthropologists, we recognize that children in poverty are more likely to
face obstacles that children from more affluent backgrounds rarely experience (e.g.,
accessing healthcare, affording tutoring, maintaining adequate nutrition). We also
acknowledge the stark academic disparities that exist between economically advan-
taged and disadvantaged groups. That said, we do not support concepts or research
like the Language Gap that cast blame on the language patterns of parents and
children who live in poverty. As the contributions to this Forum illustrate, the reason
for such widespread academic challenges is historically rooted and extremely
complex. The fact that the United States has the second highest child poverty rate
among all industrialized countries (UNICEF 2012) obligates us to renounce tradi-
tional views toward educating children from economically disadvantaged back-
grounds in favor of more culturally and linguistically informed approaches.
The range of papers in this Forum illustrates the underlying ideologies that
support Language Gap research, as well as the language policies that reflect and
perpetuate inequalities as a result (McCarty). By focusing on contextualized under-
standings of community language ideologies and practices, linguistic anthropologists
can call out the problematic assumptions on which the Language Gap concept is
based by questioning the circulating discourses among individuals, families, and
communities. As Heath notes, linguistic anthropologists need to work with a range of
stakeholders, including parents, teachers, and policymakers, to provide a richer set of
perspectives on these key issues. Unfortunately, many parents are appropriating a
discourse of inferiority based on the culture of poverty discourse (Ladson-Billings
2006b), which then shapes attitudes and actions in the home as attempts to match the
practices of unmarked families and communities.
Notions that motivate the Language Gap, like words are knowledge (Ochs and
Kremer-Sadlik), parents should be teachers (Blum), and books are the magic bullet
(Zentella), are in many cases unquestioned within these circulating discourses. Exam-
ining structural inequalities around power and poverty allows us to ask ourselves not
only who is doing the talking but also who the listeners are, and what their range of
subjectivities are (Rosa and Flores). This can reframe the conversation as a whole by
not allowing diverse communities to be cast as static, deficient entities in need of help.
We can then focus instead on what students have (and not what they don’t), recog-
nizing that they are ideally positioned to serve as resources that contribute to the
conversation in unique ways (Alim and Paris). This forward-thinking, progressive
disposition allows us to broaden the discussion with a social justice orientation.
Instead of intently focusing on modifying the language patterns of children who
struggle academically, we propose rethinking the way schools and other educational
programs engage students and families from linguistically diverse backgrounds such
that what is highlighted is not deficits but strengths.
Alim, H. Samy
2004 You Know My Steez: An Ethnographic and Sociolinguistic Study of a Black American
Speech Community. Durham: Duke University Press.
Alim, H. Samy, and Geneva Smitherman
2012 Articulate while Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S. New York:
Oxford University Press.
Aud, Susan, Mary Ann Fox, and Angelina Kewalramani
2010 Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups. National Center for
Education Statistics. Retrieved from
Invited Forum: Bridging the “Language Gap” 81
Austin, J. L.
1962 How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Baugh, John
2003 Linguistic Profiling. In Black Linguistics: Language, Society, and Politics in Africa and
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London: Routledge.
Bellafante, Ginia
2012 Before a Test, a Poverty of Words. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://
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2014 Selling the Language Gap. Anthropology News. Retrieved at http://www
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1996 The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell.
Chang, Jeff
2014 Who We Be: The Colorization of America’s Youth. New York: St. Martin’s.
Cummins, Jim
2007 Pedagogies for the Poor? Realigning Reading Instruction for Low-Income
Students with Scientifically Based Reading Research. Educational Researcher 36(9):
DeNavas-Walt, Carmen, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith
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2009 Pathologizing the Language and Culture of Poor Children. Language Arts 86(5):
Duranti, Alessandro
2009 The Relevance of Husserl’s Theory to Language Socialization. Journal of Linguistic
Anthropology 19(2):205–226.
Ek, Lucila
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... They have a strong personal and professional interest in their children's language development and invest a lot of time and resources to support them in becoming confident multilingual speakers. Language-centered practices as a central feature of family talk in middle-class families (Ochs & Kremer-Sadlik, 2015b) become even more prominent in the context of "mindful multilingualism". Here we can further explore how families create language and literacy environments where children develop metalinguistic awareness of different languages and their use in different situations very early. ...
... By illuminating heritage language-centered practices in three multilingual families, this study builds upon and seeks to contribute to family language policy research (King, 2016;Lanza & Vold Lexander, 2019) and language socialization work on family life in middle-class families across cultural contexts (Ochs & Kremer-Sadlik, 2013, 2015a, 2015b; see also Goodwin & Cekaite, 2018). ...
... In particular, middle-class parents have been shown to engage in enhancing children's language skills, enriching their vocabulary, and a reflexive communication capacity through practices that allow negotiations, explanations, and comments (Aronsson & Gottzén, 2011;Ochs & Kremer-Sadlik, 2013, 2015a, 2015bPontecorvo, Fasulo & Sterponi, 2001). Although present in monolingual families, metalinguistic talk appears even more frequently in multilingual families (Blum-Kulka, 1997). ...
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Situated within research on language socialization and family language policy, this thesis explores how young children (2–4 years old) learn their heritage language in multilingual, transnational families, and how multilingualism becomes an integral part of family life. It draws on video-ethnographic fieldwork in three bi/multilingual families in Sweden with preschool-aged children where the mothers speak Russian and the parents aspire to raise children multilingually. Using a multimodal interactional analysis, the three studies identify and examine recurrent language practices that promote the children’s use of the heritage language, Russian, in mother-child interactions. They approach heritage language maintenance as embedded in mundane activities such as home language lessons during collaboratively accomplished chores (Study I), conversational storytelling during mealtime (Study II), and co-narration during literacy events (Study III). The analyses focus on the interactional organization of language learning agendas and heritage language socialization environments that are initiated by the mothers to scaffold their children’s learning and use of Russian. In particular, this study illuminates various ways to engage the children in collaborative Russian speech production, including mutually enjoyable embodied performances. Moreover, it is shown in detail how high expectations of children as heritage language speakers and learners and educational efforts are interactionally balanced through relational work. The findings suggest that the realization of family language policy to support heritage language development relies not only on consistent language choice, frequency of language use, and parental strategies and ideologies, but also on how language choice and language use are embedded in the ongoing activity, how activity formats are organized and appropriated by the children, the position of the child as a speaker vis-à-vis the parent, and affective alignments. The study uncovers an interplay of educational, relational, ideological, and pragmatic dimensions of heritage language socialization in the home. In this way, the thesis contributes to a more nuanced understanding of family language policy and children’s emergent multilingualism as integrated in everyday family life.
... [2] The existence of a so-called word gap remains a matter of controversy (also referred to as a 'language gap', Johnson & Johnson, 2021), and the role of working class mothers' talk in explaining their child's 'impoverished' language development remains hotly debated (e.g. Avineri et al., 2015). However, the persistence of the debate itself suggests that motherhood is something to be endlessly worked on by academic research. ...
... Research in the areas of anthropology and language socialisation has raised concern about the emphasis on working class mothers, who are then held responsible for the apparent verbal deprivation of their children (Avineri & Johnson, 2015;Johnson, 2015;Miller & Sperry, 2012;Blum, 2017;Sperry, Sperry & Miller, 2019a;Dudley-Marling & Lucas, 2009). It has been argued, even within developmental psychology (Bishop et al., 2016;Pace et al., 2017), that any associations between maternal social class, maternal language features, and child language outcomes, may well be just that -associations rather than causal pathways: ...
The role of working class mothers’ talk in explaining their child’s ‘impoverished’ language development and the resulting ‘word gap’ between social classes is hotly debated. Academic research in this area spans decades, crosses continents, and gathers up a wide range of disciplines and positions, ranging from research seeking to intervene in and optimise mothers’ talk, to research that vigorously criticises any attempt to do so. Through an extended analysis of Jacques Donzelot’s seminal study The Policing of Families, and Michel Foucault’s concept of a ‘regime of truth’, we explore how motherhood is constructed by academic debate as something to be endlessly optimised. Academic debate functions by (i) reducing expectations concerning the role and remit of experts so as to place the onus on mothers to implement findings which the former will facilitate, (ii) complicating the contributing factors to language delay, thus avoiding apportioning blame too directly whilst giving endless cause to do further research, and (iii) committing mothers to a permanent labour in which they are expected to better themselves as measured by the manifest language development of their children. Its strongest critics remain within the constraints of this regime of truth to the extent that they argue for humility of expertise, for recognition of broader sociocultural factors, and for the importance of privileging the expertise and agency of mothers. This paper considers how all parties are, in effect, obliged to declare the truth of motherhood and will find themselves implicated in its governance.
... They were also concerned about the overall quality of English classes, and the lack of opportunity for using and learning English and getting teachers' feedback. However, the reasons for reliance on private education and parents' economic and English abilities were ranked low, although these factors had been considered to be significant in creating and perpetuating linguistic and educational inequalities in the existing literature (Avineri et al., 2015;Graham et al., 2018;Piller, 2016) ...
... (2) Schools must be held accountable to standards, in this case, especially students' linguistic and academic proficiency (ideology of standardization). (3) There is an achievement gap in this country; specifically, we have a 'language gap' (Avineri et al., 2015) that negatively impacts the education of Black and low-income children (ideology of languagelessness). Comparing discourses that represented these ...
This special issue features applied linguistics scholarship that cultivates relationships for justice. The collection of papers in this special issue challenges the field of applied linguistics to move beyond an acknowledgement of social inequities (through observation, analysis, and critique) toward cultivating relationships for justice (CRJ) - in order to undo past harms and collectively imagine more just futures. The authors/collaborators demonstrate how building systemic social change involves decentering the individual researcher’s interests and instead foregrounding processes of collective solidarity (Martinez et al. 2021), demonstrating how justice is relational and aspirational. In this editorial, we discuss the particular contributions of each paper, alongside thematic connection points across the articles. Our intention in including an editorial, commentaries, and a range of papers is to create space for multi-vocality and diverse genres as part of CRJ. We conclude with an aspirational call to action for members of our applied linguistics academic community.
This paper draws on 3 years of ethnographic research with young children and their families in a northern English town, employing a more‐than‐human lens to pay attention to what, beyond humans, might be involved in the emergence of children's literacies. The paper focuses on the role of the body and place in the emergence of young children's vocalisations and talk. In particular, the paper rethinks the dominant assumption that children's language is primarily for the purpose of transparently conveying meaning. It does this by drawing on posthuman and decolonial scholarship on childhood and language, and particularly on the work of Glissant on opacity and difference, in order to interrogate the relationship between expression, understanding and power. Thus, the paper outlines how an understanding of the relationship between body, place and talk might inform pedagogy by highlighting the need for space to embrace divergent, complicated, irrational, playful and non‐functional language practices in early childhood, rather than looking for rapid, straight line development.
By troubling notions of time-as-progress and human exceptionality, this paper considers what shifts in conceptualisations of children’s literacies and futures might be possible in the context of faltering of capitalist logics of progress. The paper draws on a 3 years ethnographic study with families and young children in northern England, which asked what might be learnt about young children’s literacies by starting with the everyday in communities. Arguing for the interconnection between notions of human exceptionalism, human/planetary relations and literacies and language, the paper offers some alternative directions for sorely needed imaginaries about the role of literacies in how young children relate to their worlds.
Educational linguists across England and the USA have long critiqued deficit-based language ideologies in schools, yet since the early 2010s, these have enjoyed a marked resurgence in England’s education policy in discourses, funding, and pedagogical materials related to the so-called ‘word gap’. This article conceptualises the word gap as a realisation of raciolinguistic ideologies in which the language practices of racialised, low-income and disabled speakers are characterised as deficient, limited, and indeed, full of ‘gaps’ because they fail to meet benchmarks designed by powerful white listeners. With a genealogical approach, I trace how word gap ideologies and interventions are tethered to colonial logics and have (re)intensified in England’s education policy in recent years. I draw on a cluster of data, including education policy documents, Hansard records, political discourse, textbooks for teachers, research reports, media coverage and the work of Ofsted, the schools inspectorate. I discuss the durability of the word gap ideology in England, newly marketed under seemingly benign guises of scientific objectivity, social justice and empowerment – despite decades of criticism exposing how it perpetuates racial and class hierarchies whilst blaming marginalised speakers and their families for their apparent failure to use the right kind of words.
This chapter focuses on inclusive access to dual language immersion (DLI) programs and the obstacles that emergent bilinguals with disabilities (EBWDs) and their families encounter to enter the programs and remain in them. Focusing on California's context, this chapter discusses educators' legal framework and experiences in multiple positions related to decision making and the provision of services in the EBwDs' learning trajectories. The authors argue for a multilevel reframing of local and state policy, educator preparation, resource allocation, and family engagement based on current research findings. Notably, this chapter calls for a critical examination of the dual language purposes and assumptions. In order to support current educators providing instruction to multilingual students, there must be evidence about effective practices and, most importantly, detailed and formalized guidance on how to implement those practices.
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Workplace democracy. Empowerment. Team leaders. Knowledge workers. This is the language of the new work order promoted by todays management, which promises more meaningful and satisfying work, greater respect for diversity, and more democratic distribution of knowledge.But Gee, Hull, and Lankshear find startling contradictions in this brave new workplaceescalating inequality between individuals, nations, and even continents. They show how newly created alliances between business, educators, and psychologists may point to a hidden capitalist agenda more interested in preserving the status quo than establishing a new work order. This book offers a compelling and controversial account of global capitalism in the information age and the ways it affects language, literacy, learning, and life chances. It will be of particular interest to students in education, business, sociology, sociolinguistics, and communication studies.
Cambridge Core - Sociolinguistics - Ways with Words - by Shirley Brice Heath
This chapter explores the history, development, and role of ethnographic research in understanding de facto and de jure language policies. With its roots in anthropology, ethnography is characterized by the contextualization of cultural and linguistic phenomena and close attention to participants’ point of view. This chapter begins by framing ethnographic research in terms of its distinct ontological, epistemological, and methodological assumptions. The chapter then locates ethnographic approaches to language policy in the complementary fields of educational and linguistic anthropology and socio-educational linguistics. This is followed by an examination of key issues and findings emanating from these disciplinary fields and an exploration of core areas of new research, including critical ethnographic, sociocultural approaches to language education planning and policy, and ethnographic studies of educators as de facto language policymakers. Final sections address the implications of this work for pedagogy, policy, and praxis. Returning to Hymes’s (1980) call for an ethnographic science that is reflexive, critical, and democratizing, the authors argue for ethnographic research that engages and works to dismantle persistent linguistic inequalities in education.
Called "the most unusually voyeuristic anthropology study ever conducted" by the New York Times, this groundbreaking book provides an unprecedented glimpse into modern-day American families. In a study by the UCLA Sloan Center on Everyday Lives and Families, researchers tracked the daily lives of 32 dualworker middle class Los Angeles families between 2001 and 2004. The results are startling, and enlightening. Fast-Forward Family shines light on a variety of issues that face American families: the differing stress levels among parents; the problem of excessive clutter in the American home; the importance (and decline) of the family meal; the vanishing boundaries that once separated work and home life; and the challenges for parents as they try to reconcile ideals regarding what it means to be a good parent, a good worker, and a good spouse. Though there are also moments of connection, affection, and care, it's evident that life for 21st century working parents is frenetic, with extended work hours, children's activities, chores, meals to prepare, errands to run, and bills to pay.