Tuesday, January 05, 2010

First word hurdles

There's quite a bit of coverage in the media of a recent survey on children's early language development, with the main focus being on the story that (according to The Times) some children are "reaching the age of 3 without being able to say a word" and that "boys are almost twice as likely to struggle to learn to speak as girls".

The average age for a baby to speak their first word is 10 to 11 months. However, a significant minority (4 per cent) of parents reported that their child said nothing until they were 3. Toddlers between the ages of 2 and 3 should be able to use up to 300 words, including adjectives, and be able to link words together, according to I CAN, the children’s communication charity. Late speech development can lead to problems, such as low achievement at school or mental health problems.

The BBC reported it yesterday in this news story, but in a slightly less alarmist way.

What makes me feel a bit sceptical about the alarmist tone of The Times article is that the whole piece is based on a YouGov survey, which would seem to indicate that parents are self-reporting what they claim to have heard or not heard. This is problematic for a couple of reasons: a) self-reporting is not a particularly accurate methodology for assessing what actually happens, just someone's perception of events ("I'm sure my son said daddy just then" or "I don't really see much of my kids because I work all week, but I reckon they can say 50 words..."); and b) it can be heavily influenced by demand characteristics ("If I don't say that my daughter can say 50 words, people will think I'm a bad parent.").

So the truth might well be that things are just as they always were: some kids speak very early and others relatively late, but it's only a very small minority who have genuine difficulties (sometimes those on the autistic spectrum).

We'll come back to looking at the whole issue of children's first words and the role of environment and interaction in the next few weeks, and I'm sure we'll return to this story and some of the arguments around it.

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