Anne Fernald: Poverty, Inequality, and Language Development

Tuesday, February 4, 2014 - 5:00pm to 7:00pm
5pm reception, 5:30pm talk

CERAS Learning Hall, Stanford

Anne Fernald is the Josephine Knotts Knowles Professor of Human Biology at Stanford University. As director of the Language Learning Lab in the Department of Psychology, Fernald has developed new approaches to studying the early development of skill in language processing by English- and Spanish-learning infants. In longitudinal studies with children from advantaged and disadvantaged families, this research reveals the vital role of early language experience in strengthening children’s skill in real-time speech processing, which in turn facilitates vocabulary growth and language learning. Fernald is also conducting research in West Africa, examining speech to children in relation to children’s language learning in rural villages in Senegal. A central goal of this research program is to help parents understand that they play a crucial role in providing their infants with early linguistic nutrition.


SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months

Anne Fernald, Virginia A. Marchman and Adriana Weisleder ,2013

This research revealed both similarities and striking differences in early language proficiency among infants from a broad range of advantaged and disadvantaged families. English-learning infants (n = 48) were followed longitudinally from 18 to 24 months, using real-time measures of spoken language processing. The first goal was to track developmental changes in processing efficiency in relation to vocabulary learning in this diverse sample. The second goal was to examine differences in these crucial aspects of early language development in relation to family socioeconomic status (SES). The most important findings were that significant disparities in vocabulary and language processing efficiency were already evident at 18 months between infants from higher- and lower-SES families, and by 24 months there was a 6-month gap between SES groups in processing skills critical to language development.

Press Release: Language gap between rich and poor children begins in infancy, Stanford psychologists find

Talking to Children Matters: Early Language Experience Strengthens Processing and Builds Vocabulary

Adriana Weisleder and Anne Fernald, 2013

Infants differ substantially in their rates of language growth, and slow growth predicts later academic difficulties. In this study, we explored how the amount of speech directed to infants in Spanish-speaking families low in socioeconomic status influenced the development of children’s skill in real-time language processing and vocabulary learning. All day recordings of parent-infant interactions at home revealed striking variability among families in how much speech caregivers addressed to their child. Infants who experienced more child-directed speech became more efficient in processing familiar words in real time and had larger expressive vocabularies by the age of 24 months, although speech simply overheard by the child was unrelated to vocabulary outcomes. Mediation analyses showed that the effect of child-directed speech on expressive vocabulary was explained by infants’ language-processing efficiency, which suggests that richer language experience strengthens processing skills that facilitate language growth.

Press Release: Talking directly to toddlers strengthens their language skills, Stanford research shows