I’ve just read an account in the Detroit Free Press, about a program where young kids are being given data-gathering bracelets that keep track of how many words they speak or hear in a given day. This new technology has emerged out of findings that the number of words a child speaks or hears during the first four years of life is directly correlated to higher achievement levels in school, and that children growing up in poverty areas speak far fewer words than wealthier kids.
This sounds to me like one of those well-intentioned but ultimately flawed interventions in early childhood development. Yes, it’s good, and even vital, to get kids talking and engaging in more conversations with their caregivers. And the program that these bracelets are being used for does have a parent training component that includes innovative ways of reading to kids, having conversations, and otherwise engaging kids with the richness of language.
That’s all good. But, I’m just thinking about the potential abuses. Some possible scenarios: A parent saying to a child: ”Okay, you’re not getting dessert until you produce 500 more words on your watch!” Or ”Com’on honey, just 3000 words to go and we’ll drive to MacDonald’s,” Or, ”speak a million words, Susan, and we’ll take a trip to Disneyland.” Or simply a parent standing in front of a child and saying: ”Okay, Joseph, talk!”
Now you might say that the parent training should take care of these kinds of abuses, but there’s still something very troubling about the datafication of language, especially in the early years. If the child grows up with this sense that what’s really important is cranking out enough words, not enjoying language or experiencing the magic of communication, or loving reading (”Now honey, we’re reading the Wall Street Journal because there are more words in it!”), or playing around with and having fun with words, then I think something vital is being lost.
This goes along with the general push to get children to do things at earlier and earlier ages. Already our preschools and kindergartens look more like first and second grades. Do we really want to have our kids believing that their worth as an individual may in some subtle way be tied to the quantity of words they generate in a day? I don’t think we do, and so I caution parents and educators who might think this is a good idea. Instead, better to keep the part of the training which encourages and teaches parents many different ways of engaging their kids through language, and leave the ”language bracelets” alone.