The Effects of Education & Socioeconomic Status on Language

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

If you are interested in learning more about how language works, you might wonder what factors can influence language acquisition and use. This lesson focuses on the impact of education and socioeconomic status on language.

Socioeconomic Status, Education, and Language

Think about the last time you had a conversation with a person from a really different background than your own. Specifically, think back to a conversation with someone who came from a different socioeconomic background, or different level of income and cultural capital.

You might also think about a conversation with someone who had access to more or less education than you have. What did you notice about this conversation? You can probably pinpoint some differences in the way you and the other person communicate through language.

One of the reasons for the differences you note has to do with the ways that education and socioeconomic status impact language. This lesson discusses various ways that people's linguistic abilities and styles are influenced by these factors.

Impacts on Language Acquisition

The first level on which education and socioeconomic status affect language has to do with language acquisition, or how infants and young children learn language in the first place.

In general, children who come from homes with lower socioeconomic status acquire language at a slower rate from those from homes with a higher socioeconomic status. Specifically, studies have shown a vocabulary gap that suggests that at age three, children in wealthier environments have been exposed to up to 30 million more words than counterparts in poorer settings.

Overall, children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and whose parents have less formal education, are spoken to less and are slower to internalize complex syntactical structures as well. Children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds are read to more frequently and develop language at a faster rate; though in recent years, educational and policy advocates have made substantial efforts toward closing these gaps.

Impacts on Language Development and Expression

Socioeconomic status and education can also impact how language develops over time as well as people's patterns for expressing themselves. We usually learn to talk and otherwise communicate in the context of our home culture. Families with a great deal of education tend to prioritize language and verbal skills over other kinds of communication. As a result, children growing up in these families develop more verbal skills and are more inclined to express themselves through language.

Linguistic style and means for expression can really vary from one socioeconomic norm to the next. Anthropologists and psychologists have noted that people who live in socioeconomically specific enclaves, or community where people of similar backgrounds live together that is distinct from surrounding communities, sometimes develop ways of speaking that are foreign outside of their socioeconomic status.

Across languages and language groups, people with more access to education tend to use more formal language, proper grammar, and complex vocabulary than people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Accents and types of slang can also vary depending on socioeconomic status.

However, it is important to understand that these are broad generalizations, and plenty of individuals and families in all socioeconomic and educational circles use language in a variety of ways and with a variety of skill level.

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