The Vocabulary Marathon

Thirty Million Words (is that a lot?)

There has been a lot of chatter recently as to the discrepancy between children of families in higher Socio-Economic Statuses (SES) and those of lower SES and the amount of words they are exposed to during their first three years, with children in wealthier families getting around 45-million words and children of poor families getting exposed to around 15-million, giving us the 30-million word gap.

Lets start by putting this in perspective.  If learning vocabulary was like a marathon, here are a few mile-markers on your way to exposing your child to Thirty Million Words (all records come from my favorite research tool…Google):

The fastest talking humans can max out at around 650 words per minute (which by talking continuously they could reach 30-million in about 32 continuous days) By the way, an average-speed speaking human gets around 125 words per minute (about 167 continuous days of speaking – no eating, some breathing – to get to 30-million).

In literature, The Rotters’ Club, by Jonathan Coe (which Wikipedia has apparently read but not I) has a single sentence containing nearly 14,000 words, which you would have to read about 2143 times to reach 30-million.  War and Peace, Tolstoy’s iconic benchmark (yes, I also have yet to read this one too) totals just under 600,000 words.  Read that just 5 times and you are at 30-million.


Ok lets get back to reality here, reading War and Peace 5-times to your child isn’t going to be all that helpful or engaging for your child’s language development.  The average adult (male or female – argue about who says more later) says about 16,000 words in an average day. To get to 30-million would take you about 1875 days.  That’s 5-years and 1-month of talking to your child for the average of your full day from birth to 5, and that’s only to close the gap.  Add 15-million words or 50% to that timeline to get to what the top SES kids are getting and subtract 50% to get the bottom level.  This causes a problem because the research sited says that these numbers are reached by age 3.  So, already you have to talk 40% more than you naturally do in your average speaking day when you have a child.  And then, tack on to that percentage the amount of the day that you are at work, the amount of times your child is napping, etc. and this IS starting to look more like a marathon than a casual stroll through early child development.

But, guess what…YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO IT!   Now, I’m not saying don’t speak to your kids.  I’m saying focus on quality over quantity.  USE A TON OF WORDS, but use words with meaning, and excitement, and at your child’s level, and at a speed that mere mortals can digest…we are talking birth to 3 after all. Plus, if you focus on quality over quantity, you won’t have to worry about the numbers, cause the quality will speak for itself…slow and steady wins the race right.

How do I know?

Well it happens all the time in “normal” development…one study of 42 families (Hart and Risley 1995 – quick public link) which got this started is not the end-all be-all of language development indicators.  And, not every child develops on a “normal” time-line.  The children I work with at SZ therapies and in previous settings in my career have deficits in speech or language or other areas beyond the issue of socio-economic status and vocabulary exposure.  If vocabulary were the only difference, then dust-off Tolstoy and hop to it!  The fact is that every child develops speech and language in their own way and at their own natural pace.  Exposure to vocabulary is one great way to help kids be successful communicators.  I don’t want to minimize that fact.  Vocabulary exposure is essential, but it’s not the only show in town.

Here’s a short list of strategies that you can use to add quality to your 30-million word goal:

Read to your child (maybe not Tolstoy).  Read in a way that emphasizes key words, point at the pictures to create visual associations, give them time to grasp that what you are saying has meaning, show them with your lips how it’s made…connect the dots.

Show them their world (please not in 14,000 word sentences).  Be excited about the ball that your child has been drooling on for the last 20-minutes.  Tell him or her that “it’s a ball! WOW! BALL!” Roll it and be descrpitive, “ball rolls!” Bounce it and say “ball bounce” or “up and down”.  Put down the iPhone and get engaged in the simplicity of your child’s world.

When you don’t know what to say, make it up! Have conversations with your child about…well anything.  Whatever you want. If you’re burned out and feel you’d rather watch paint dry, then talk about how paint dries…a 3-year old isn’t likely to know that one.  Pretend with them that you just painted the wall, covered the little bumps – after such point the bumps say “thank you” – and, when finished marvel at your accomplishment and how the little bumps are now happy in their newly painted world with happy little clouds.


The point is, early development is definitely a marathon rather than a sprint, but rather than getting caught up in how many words you have to use, think about how you can maximize the benefit of those words by making them meaningful, engaging, and enjoyable for your child.  Feel free to contact me for additional suggestions or if you feel that your child may have some other issues with development that I may be able to help.

Want to learn more and make a difference, read this report and get involved.  FYI, Dr. Dana Suskind is speaking in Denver at the Rocky Mountain Early Childhood Conference in March.