Sample Paper on Socio-Economic Status (SES) to Language Acquisition

The Effects of Socio-Economic Status (SES) to Language Acquisition


Socio-Economic Status (SES) is the social class of a group or individual. It is defined by the occupation, income level, and education attained (Hartas, 2011). In this paper, SES is defined in terms of parental occupation, parental education, and parental income. Low-SES refers to a socially disadvantaged group or individual with low education level and low income. Low income in this case refers to insufficient income to meet the needs of a dignified lifestyle. The information in the current literature shows a positive relationship between the socio-economic status of a family and the rate of language acquisition in young children (Hoff-Ginsberg & Tian, 2005; Enz, Vukelich, & Christie, 2008; Letts et al., 2013; Hartas, 2011; Hoff-Ginsberg, 1991). Children born and raised by parents with higher education level are more likely to have high language acquisition rate with rich vocabulary as compared to those born and raised by parents with low education levels (Hoff-Ginsberg & Tian, 2005). This paper examines how educational levels, parental income level, and parents’ jobs can affect language acquisition and vocabulary development in young children. The paper also reviews behaviorist and interactionist theories and their implications for language acquisition. The material of this paper can be used as a framework of reference for educators in developing effecting teachings methods for children with low language acquisition born from low socio-economic status families.

Behaviorist theory of language acquisition

According to behaviorist theory, language acquisition takes place the same way other human behaviors are acquired. The responses of caregivers (otherwise role models) to the behavior of young children serve as a motivation for the learning and retention of that behavior. According to Skinner (1938), a child is motivated to repeat and learn a new word if the effort is given positive attention by the parents. Thus, the parent’s attention and praise of the child’s effort in learning new words acts as a motivation for the child to repeat the same word (Enz et al., 2008). Subsequent sections of this paper applies behaviorist theory of learning in explaining how children acquire and develop language including complexity of their vocabulary and syntax

Interactionist language learning perspective

Interactionist perspective considers the relationship between one’s in-born ability and external factors in human behavior development. The basic idea of this learning approach is how the social interaction between young learners and their immediate environment affect their language acquisition. According to this theory, the experience of parents and interactions with children reinforces the children’s ability to learn new language vocabularies (Enz et al., 2008). Interactionist learning perspective can be used to explain the differences in the style of language seen and heard in young children coming from different social classes. According to Hart and Risley (2003), children at the age of three years do not have their own social experience outside their homes. Their view of the external world including language is acquired from the experience of their parents.  Hoff-Ginsberg (1991) also observes differences in the language styles and complexity of vocabulary in children from different social classes. Children from a high socio-economic class use more developed vocabularies and complex  sentences in their communication as compared to those from lower socio-economic class (Hoff-Ginsberg, 1991). Interactionist learning theory is used to explain the differences in the language of children from different socio-economic groups.

How SES of parents effect language acquisition

As pointed out earlier, the socio-economic status (SES) of parents or caregivers influence their children’s language acquisition rate. According to Hoff-Ginsberg (1991), a language is acquired through exposure to vocabularies and conversation between children and their caregivers. Young children do not have their own social experience of the world outside their homes. What they know about the world is learned from the experience of their parents (Hoff-Ginsberg, 1991).Through imitation process; they reproduce words and sentences heard from their parents. Therefore, a parent has an influence on language acquisition and social experience of his child. Children born and raised in low- SES families have language difficulties, are slow learners, and use few vocabularies in their communication (Hoff-Ginsberg, 2003; Letts et al., 2013; Parks & Smeriglio, 1986). One of the reasons for this observation is that high-SES families are more likely to engage in storytelling and reading with their children that helps to develop their languages as compared to low-SES families (Enz et al., 2008). Another explanation is the quality and quantity of time parents spent with their children. Hoff-Ginsberg (1991) observes that high-SES parents spent more time in child-directed conversation with their children as compared to parents from low socio-economic backgrounds. Child-directed helps the child to learn and acquire a language and new words. The effects of low-SES to the acquisition of language and vocabulary can be prenatal influence, parental care or environmental cognitive stimulation (Thomas, Forrester, & Ronald, 2013).

Low-SES and pre-natal care as a language acquisition factor

The work of Thomas and his colleagues (2013) links low socio-economic status with increased likelihood of impaired fetal growth, pre-mature birth, high infection rates, high stress levels and poor nutrition during pregnancy. The above listed factors affect the early brain development process, which also affects the learning ability a child in later years. The work of Wild  et al. (2013) establishes a positive relationship between pre-term birth and low language acquisition at todler stage. Their  work also shows that high stress levels and poor nutrition during pregnancy are the main causes of pre-term birth.  Several factors can be cited for the cause of high stress levels as it relates to socio-economic status. Single parenting is higher in low socio-economic status groups as compared to high socio-economic groups. Single mothers experience a high strenious life working fo their needs and the needs of their children as compared to those who are married. Stress levels is even higher when the single parent is doing a hard low-skilled job. Mothers from low- SES backgrounds also have difficulties in getting diets with sufficient nutrients (Thomas et al., 2013). Coupled with parenting responsibilities, poor nutrition results in high stress that can result in pre-mature birth. Poor nutrition also impaires cognitive development of the child which causes  slow and poor language acquisition.

Low-SES and Parental care as a factor in language acquisition

Parental care is seen in terms of discipline, parental sensitivity to the child’s needs and verbal communication between a child and a parent (Hoff-Ginsberg, 2005).  According to Hoff-Ginsberg (2005), the quality of parental care given to young children has an influence on their language acqusition. The education level of the parent (caregiver) (Parks & Smeriglio, 1986), income level (Hoff-Ginsberg, 1991), parent’s job and the general social environmental are positive influencers of the quality of care given to children (Hoff-Ginsberg , 2003). In this section SES is broken down into its dimensions to capture its effects on the quality of parenting and how it affects language acquisition in leaners.

          Low level of parental education: The level of education attained by a parent (usually a mother) affects the quality of care given to children (Parks & Smeriglio, 1986).  The level of education affects the  parent’s knowledge about parenting. Parks and Smeriglio (1986) shows that low level of parental education causes  poor parental care of the children. Parents (especially mothers) with low education levels have little knowledge about their role in the language acquisition of their children. They do not initiate a parent-child verbal communication and if any, then it is mainly for purposes of giving directions to the child and not asking questions for the sake of developing a learning conversation with the child (Parks & Smeriglio, 1986).

Hoff-Ginsberg (2003) establishes a relationship between the mother’s level of education and the vocabularies used by the child. Children born and raised by mothers who have college education use a language with complex vocabularies and complex sentences as compared to children born and raised by mothers with low education level. This is because of the vocabularies used by educated mothers in when talking to their children. According to Huttenlocher and his colleagues (2010), children raised by parents with college education have highly developed vocabularity because they often hear long and complex utterances from their parents as compared to children born and raised parents with low education level. Huttenlocher  et al. (2010) observe that educated parents have a high diversity in their life experiences and this experience is easily copied by their children in normal child-parent interactions. According to behaviorist and interactionists learning theories, children acquire languages and vocabularies through interaction with their caregivers and thus, hearing complex utterances helps them expand their vocabularity and complex sentences.

The level of education attained by the mother is related with the complexity of the language used by a child. A child raised by a mother who uses many complex sentences in child-parent conversation has a high likelihood of developing and using a larger variety of complex sentences (Huttenlocher et al.,  2010). According to Huttenlocher and his colleagues (2010), structural complexity of a parent’s language depends on the level of education attained. Educated parents use a variety of complex vocabularies to describe things for their children either to create emphasis or to clarify meaning. On the other hand, parents without formal education  are blunt in their communication and mostly use straight instructions that causes their children to have few vocabularies and simple sentences in their communication.

Environmental cognitive stimulation

Environmental cognitive stimulation is concerned about the relationship between socio-economic status and the availability of things that aid in language acquisition and development. Such things include books, electronic computers, trips and communication between a parent and a child (Hoff-Ginsberg, 2003). Exposure of children to the above listed learning things depends on the income and education level of the parent.

The research work of Hart and Risley (2003) reveals a shocking statistics about the relationship between socio-economic status of parents and children’s language acquisition. According to their research, at four years, children from professional families would accumulate an average of 45 million words experience as compared to those children from average working-class families at 26 million words (Hart & Risley, 2003). This findings contrast sharply with a 13 million words experience of an average child in a welfare family. Several factors play out in the 30 million words difference between a child raised in a professional family and a child raised in a welfare family. Before children gain their social experiences of the world outside their homes, they copy their parents’ experiences including language and vocabularies. Therefore, just as a professional parent is likely to have a high and vocabulary-rich language than his average working-class counterpart, so are their children.

Professional parents have a high exposure to different experiences of life than those parents in welfare families. When with their children, professional parents initiate parent-child conversations about many different topics and aspects of life that equip the children with complex vocabularies and sentences as compared to parents on welfare programs. According to the work of Hoff-Ginsberg (2003), low-income parents spend less time for mutual play and conversation with their children than high-income parents. The difference in the amount of time spend in mutual conversation between professional high income parents with their children and average income working-class parents with their children explains the difference in word experience of the two groups .

According to the work of Scott (1996), a person’s occupation in life depends on the level of education acquired. Low-income jobs are largely low skilled menial tasks that require low or no educational qualification. Such jobs are demanding and leave the involved parents with less or no time with their children. High income professional jobs cause low physical stress levels when compared to the low income occupations which are menial at best (Scott, 1996).The low stress levels of high income professional jobs leave parents in question with sufficient time to engage in child-parent conversations required in language acquisition and development. According to Parks and Smeriglio (1986), parents with high education levels have high parenting knowledge and would respond to the children’s learning sensitivity. Despite occupation pressure, an educated parent with a high parenting knowledge knows the importance of appreciating a child’s effort and would try to give the child an attention.

The second argument is based on income as a means of buying language learning aids for the children. High income parents can afford to buy computers and books for their children which are instruments for learning and language development (Huttenlocher et al., 2010 ;Hoff-Ginsberg, 2003). High income educated parents are also likely to guide their children through story telling and home  reading as compared to low income parents without formal education. Home-based reading and story telling causes the different between the rate of language acqusition in children from low SES and High SES families (Parks & Smeriglio, 1986).

Exposure of a child to different enviroments is also helpful in language acquisition and development. High income parents have the means to take their chidren out for trips and outdor acvitities that allow them to meet and interact and learn from other children. This exposure plays an important role in language and vocabulary acquisition. Exposure to different environments also help children to ask and and engage in child-directed conversations with their parents (caregivers), an act that improves their language acquisition and vocabularity.

Another argument that explains the differences in vocabularity and language complexity of young children from low SES and high SES backgrounds is the type of social conversation between a child and a parent/caregiver. Pre-school children are generally inquisitive and would inquire on various aspects of their parents’ lives including education. In this case, a high income parent with college education would more likely talk to his child about his/ her career and various other careers out there than the low income parent without formal education.  Hart and Risley (2003) found out that children from professional families are able to explain the careers and occupations of their parents as compared to those children from welfare families. Similarly, children from professional families were more likely to explain their career interests in life and other available options as compared to those from low SES backgrounds (Hartas, 2011). This explains that the type of child-parent conversation influences the vocabularity and  language complexity of the children.


Socio-economic status is an important influencer of the language acquisition and vocabulary development in young children. Two theories, behaviorist and interactionist perspective explains how socio-economic status influences the way children learn languages. According to these theories, the language is acquired in a similar way other human behaviors are learnt through interaction with the social environment. Described in the paper are evidences in literature that links socio-economic status to language acquisition and development in young children. There are three factors through which socio-economic status influences language acquisition: prenatal influence, parental care, and environmental cognitive stimulation. Prenatal influence as a factor of language acquisition is based on the relationship between low socio-economic status with impaired fetal development and pre-term birth that affects the cognitive development of children. High stress levels and poor nutrition during pregnancy are associated with low socio-economic status.

Parental care as a factor in language acquisition is based on the arguments that low education level, low income level and occupations affects the quality of parental care given to young children that consequently influences their language acquisition. High income is a means of acquiring learning aids such as computers and books, which are influencers of the language and vocabulary of young children. Similarly, parental education level determines the complexity of child-parent conversations. Through social interactions, children imitate the language of their parents. College parents are more likely to use a complex and high vocabulary language in mutual conversation with their children as compared to parents without formal education. This aspect of parent-child communication influences the vocabulary of the infants’ language.


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