Effects of Poverty on Language Development

Updated April 17, 2017

Poverty has many obvious adverse effects on children, but one that is often less obvious is a delay in language development. Poverty has long been known to be a direct contributor to disadvantages in many areas of life, but the link to language delays is indirect, and its impact is still the subject of much study.


Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience have found a disturbing gap between the language acquisition rate of middle-class children and those of lower socioeconomic status, according to USA Today. According to one study, middle-class three-year-olds demonstrated approximately twice the vocabulary of same-aged children from lower income families. The delay stems from conditions that affect their ability to remember details, make and follow plans, and attend to tasks. Most alarmingly, a study at the University of California-Berkley shows that the brains of some children from lower income families show deficits in problem-solving and higher level thinking skills controlled by the prefrontal cortex that mimic the effects of a stroke.


Several factors contribute to the drastic effect of poverty on language development. The most obvious is malnutrition; other circumstances tied to income level also take a toll. These include toxic elements in the environment due to poor living conditions, higher than usual or constant stress levels, and illiteracy on the part of parents. According to the National Institute of Health, this is intergenerational, meaning that it carries over from grandparents to parents, to the now-affected children.


Fortunately, the adverse effects of poverty on development of language can usually be reversed. Education professor Susie Neuman at the University of Michigan states that "incredibly intensive interventions" are required for children to break the poverty barrier. According to Minority Report, the first step for parents of a child with language development delays owing to poverty is to consult a speech-language pathologist, who can perform an assessment, plan appropriate intervention strategies and provide follow-up support.


Any intervention for children with language delays will be long-term, according to the University of Chicago, since the consequences of the delays are so far reaching.These children are at risk of academic underachievement and possible behavioural and language-oriented learning disorders. For group interaction, children with language delays can benefit from preschool, or programs such as Head Start. In the classroom, activities focusing on communication and social skills, self-expression, or small groups work well. Interventions for language delays often take a team approach to address non-academic (such as emotional) needs, as well.

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About the Author

Cathy Moeschet has been writing since 1988. Credits include a public affairs show for WLFL-Channel 22 in Raleigh, N.C., a video for the Handicapped Student Services Office at North Carolina State University and short fiction in Jackhammer II and Planet Relish e-zines. She holds bachelor's degrees from NCSU and Western International University. She is pursuing a Master of Education from Grand Canyon University.