Dissociating Socioeconomic Influences on Maternal Language Input and Child Language Outcomes
Author:Klaudia Kulawska ’21
Faculty Mentor(s):Rachel Romeo, Stress and Development Lab, Harvard
Early language development is associated with children’s socioeconomic status (SES). Specifically, children from lower SES backgrounds, on average, exhibit slower language development compared to their peers from higher-SES backgrounds. Even though SES is a multidimensional construct, research often relies on a single dimension or a composite measure when studying child language development. In this article, I investigate four dimensions of SES, including maternal education, income-to-needs ratio, financial security, and neighborhood SES. Specifically, I examine whether the quantity and quality of maternal linguistic input mediates the relationships between dimensions of SES and child receptive language skills. Mothers and their 36-40 months old children (n=276 dyads) were video recorded during a 15-minute free play session. Three measures of maternal linguistic input were derived from verbatim transcripts, including one quantitative measure (number of words spoken) and two qualitative measures (lexical diversity and syntactic complexity). Children’s concurrent receptive language skills were measured by a standardized measure of children’s ability to receive, process, and execute oral instructions of increasing syntactic complexity. Results revealed that maternal education was the strongest predictor of both maternal linguistic input and child receptive language outcomes. Syntactic complexity of input was the only measure that mediated the relationship between maternal education and child receptive language skills. These findings critically identify which early environmental factors are mechanistically related to SES disparities in children’s language development and provide implications for interventions to reduce these disparities.