Wednesday, May 1, 2013

language arts

The New York Times has an online blog called Fixes that explores solutions to social problems. They recently ran an article about child language acquisition called The Power of Talking to Your Baby. Its main thesis is that children who grow up in poor households in America hear significantly fewer words than their middle and upper class counterparts which in turn stunts verbal development and delays reading and educational progress. If you are interested, you should read the article for yourself (found here: The Power of Talking to Your Baby ) I decided to write some of my thoughts down because:

      a)    I’m feeling particularly nerdy today and pining for a return to my collegiate life, and

      b)   living in a poor village in a poor country has offered some insights into this very American dilemma.

Ergo, I feel compelled to share. (Check back next week if this is boring and you just want pics of cute babies. Just kidding.)

It was interesting that this article included a confession, namely that while research has documented the connection between wealth and words in a child’s home, no one is sure why the correlation exists.  Nevertheless, being the solution finding folks that they are, the Fixes writers highlighted a new program to educate mothers. The initiative includes sending social workers and nurses and other professionals into homes of poor families in order to teach the mothers the importance of talking to their children. To be honest, I didn’t really care until I read about the millions of dollars being poured into this one-on-one mother education. And that’s when I said out loud, “they should have done their research in Africa.”

I therefore humbly submit my own observations, drawn from my dear neighbors.

Knowledge is not sufficient to produce behavior change amongst poor moms… or anyone else. Many, many mothers that I talk to know full well the right things to do, but for reasons unbeknownst to them, feel incapable of following through. Example: I went on a speaking tour to tell women not to feed their babies porridge before six months and was shocked that every woman already knew this information. I later found out that the women simply prioritized sleep more than the fattening up of their babies. The information alone was not enough. Simply telling American mothers that they should talk to their babies more is probably not enough either.

Furthermore, priorities dictate actions more than time, money or support. The poor women in our village arrange their lives according to life-sustaining priorities. Fields, clothes, food, sleep. Their thought life is oriented around taking care of first things first and that which is not deemed totally essential must wait. Furthermore, the mental preoccupation of top priorities has the ability to preclude focusing on anything else. I’ve seen women sit and do nothing all afternoon when they could be planting a vegetable garden or teaching their kids to read or some other non-priority activity. But what I’ve noticed is that they just sit there and wait for dinner-time to come because that’s where their minds are. The few, but very important tasks, consume their thoughts and limit the carefree exploration of what else they could be doing. A poor mother in America may be consumed with paying bills with limited funds, running errands using public transport, or sustaining relationships that are under stress. She may very well have plenty of time to talk to her kids, but if her mind is elsewhere and thinking about those essentials, talking about mozart may be a stretch.

So how do poor Zambian mothers overcome barriers of behavior change and competing priorities? The answer is quite basic: they live in community. This is the single reason why I believe that Zambian children in rural villages could probably out-talk the majority of poor three year olds in the States. They are around their neighbors constantly. In America’s isolationist culture, each family tends to do their own thing. Their day does not start with a field trip to the neighbors house to get hot coals and comment on the weather. Most meals are not eaten with a group of other people. Americans do not find their entertainment in sitting and shooting the breeze for hours and hours, day after day. Zambian culture is oriented around the community as a whole – discussion, interacting, listening, responding. Poor kids in tattered clothes sit on our front stoop and talk about everything under the sun (and moon!) until hunger strikes and they shift their chatty-kathy convo around the nshima bowl. Their mothers, when tired of playing with the little ones, give the toddler to another mother who will talk to her, play with her, show her objects and ask her to do funny things. Babies get around. Toddlers get around. Little kids are movious (that’s Zamlish for “moves a lot” – not a word, but it should be.) As a result, they are exposed to different people talking to them all the time.

Bronwyn has benefitted greatly from this environment. Homegirl never shushes up. She sometimes grabs her fathers face with two hands, pinching his cheeks while she delivers a long and persuasive soliloquy. I think she’s speaking klingon, but the point is, she talks – she’s verbal, wordy, expressive.

She provides an interesting contrast to the American kids mentioned in the article in that she is technically growing up in a poor household. By the (American) numbers, we are not anywhere close to middle class. And yes, the fact that her mother reads the New York Times may have some impact on her verbal abilities. But I honestly contend that the number one contributor to Bronwyn’s obsession with communication is that she has a whole tribe (literally) of people, big and small, that talk with her. Like, all. the. time. Arthur Chanda stops by almost every morning to ask Winnie how she slept and what she is eating for breakfast and what form of pink she is going to wear that day. Bana Robert comes by to ask her if she wants to come and play and whether she has started running and to see if she has heard the latest village gossip. Her preschool friend Eliza and Beauty and Chiti sit with her for hours every afternoon and talk two inches from her face “Stand up! Stand up! Head, shoulders, knees and toes Winnie! Stand and sing of Zambia proud and free, land of work and joy in unity. Sing Winnie!” We may have to wean her of certain pronunciation flaws and remind her not to use words like movious when she is in America, but the point is that she hears language and therefore uses language. Your average American child, especially if growing up in poor household is probably hanging out with mom and a tv, and not a gazillion other people on a daily basis.

Spending millions to verbally tell mothers “talk to your kids so that they have higher IQs,” may be well intentioned, but Zambia has taught me that knowledge is not enough, poor mothers are thinking about other priorities, and life is best lived in community. What if we were to spend the time and resources in other ways – connecting families and helping mothers find social networks and tearing down fences and making play dates? I have a gut feeling we’d see more than verbal improvement amongst our economically challenged toddlers. We’d see a societal revolution! Now there’s a fix worth pursuing!

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant!!! We are created to live and thrive in community!