For the past 12 months, my colleagues at the Hungry Mind Lab and I have been listening back to stories mothers told about their children 25 years ago. Their compelling tales of fear, excitement, exhaustion, and pride were recorded on crackly cassette tapes, complete with the muffled sounds of their children causing chaos whilst their backs were turned. We are analysing these stories to understand the language children heard at home when they were growing up. We want to find out if the language mothers use correlates with their children’s later academic success.

When telling a story, we don’t often consider the complexity of the language we use. Rather, we focus on whether what we are saying is funny, interesting, or meaningful to the listener. We speak in a way that comes naturally to us, using familiar words and language structures that we feel comfortable with. For some people, this means short, simple sentences, whilst others may use more complex speech with multiple clauses, different tenses, and a wide range of vocabulary.

“Using complex language is not so much a choice as it is a consequence of our experiences.”

Many of the differences in how we tell our stories relate to socioeconomic background – our education, occupation, and income. Using complex language is not so much a choice as it is a consequence of our experiences. In our lab, we are researching how mothers’ language complexity might influence their children’s development. We want to better understand the role language plays in perpetuating family background inequalities across generations. 

Does the way mothers talk matter for their children?

When starting school, children need to have a grasp of sophisticated language to understand what they are taught, to learn to read, and to communicate effectively with their peers. Children from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds struggle more often in school than their advantaged classmates. This may be due in part to differences in their early-life language experiences, prior to starting school.

Children who hear more sophisticated language during infancy tend to develop more advanced cognitive and linguistic skills. It is not clear whether this link is causal – meaning that early language exposure predicts language development – or merely correlational. Creating a supportive language environment for a child requires economic and social resources that are not equally available to all, such as the money and time needed for reading books, playing games, and attending activity groups. This contributes to a ‘language gap’ – a difference in the language abilities of children from privileged backgrounds and the abilities of children from families with limited income and resources. The language gap emerges long before children enter the education system; it can be observed as early as 18 months of age.

More on early language exposure’s impact on brain development
Talking to babies may have a positive impact on their brains

For many years, child development research held parents, particularly mothers, responsible for differences in children’s abilities and behaviours. While parents do contribute to the development of their children, there are many broader factors which influence a child’s chances of success. Children who feel more comfortable using shorter sentences and simpler words may be misperceived by educators as less educated or lacking in ability in other subjects, too, even those not directly related to language. Unfairly, these children may have less chance of academic success and access to further education. Through our research, we want to highlight the wider, systemic issues that lead to inequality in education, and the need for additional support and resources for children who enter school at a disadvantage.

Does language help to perpetuate inequality across generations?

We are using the crackly cassette tapes of almost a thousand mothers’ stories to help us answer this question. All of these mothers gave birth to twins in the UK in 1994-1995. They are participants in E-Risk, a large study consisting of families from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, representing the distribution of wealth across the UK population. Researchers have regularly collected data from the twins as they have grown up, making this an ideal sample for child development research. While the twins are almost 30 years old today, their mothers’ speech was recorded in interviews 25 years ago, when the twins were just 5 years old. This allows us to go back in time and listen to the language their parents used when the children were at a critical stage of language development.

Thanks to funding from the Nuffield Foundation, we are analysing the characteristics of the mothers’ language. Each mother was asked, “What has it been like having twins?” We had the recordings transcribed and used a language analysis software to determine how many different words mothers used, how sophisticated these words are, and how the mothers structured their speech. Although the cassettes were not originally intended to be analysed in this way, the mothers’ stories tell us about the language their children likely heard at home.

“Children who hear more sophisticated language during infancy tend to develop more advanced cognitive and linguistic skills.”

We now intend to look at the twins’ abilities across several domains: cognition, language, reading, and general academic performance, from school entry to the age of 12. This will allow us to test the links between the mothers’ ways of speaking and their children’s abilities over the course of their development. Finally, we will look at the mothers’ education levels, occupations, and household incomes at the time when their twins were born. This will help us to understand the influence of socioeconomic background on the mothers’ language and thus on their children’s language development and educational success.

We predict that our research will demonstrate the importance of early language experiences for child development. We also expect to find that differences in early language experiences relate to socioeconomic status, and that these language differences help to perpetuate inequality in educational outcomes across generations.

Our research is still underway, so these remain predictions for now. Many factors contribute to the cycle of inequality, and we cannot yet say how significant the contribution of language is compared with other factors. But in the meantime, online resources are available to help children who have fewer language development opportunities. The BBC’s ‘Tiny Happy People’ and the National Literacy Trust’s ‘Words for Life’ both contain free activities to help parents boost their children’s language skills at home.

More work is needed to overcome barriers to equal opportunity in education. We hope our research using the fascinating stories mothers told 25 years ago will draw attention to the language gap and prompt action from policymakers and educators. All children should start school with equal chances of academic success, regardless of their family backgrounds.


A special thanks to the Nuffield Foundation for funding this research. This blog post was written with help from Anna Brown and Sophie von Stumm at the Hungry Mind Lab at the University of York.

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