Junior can’t talk. Everyone panic!

I hardly know where to start with this one. The BBC has an article claiming that one in six children has trouble learning to speak and suggesting that it is crucial for these kids to get help right away. Since the BBC doesn’t exactly have a reputation for great linguistics reporting, it’s not terribly surprising to see a public opinion poll of a thousand parents treated as evidence (though admittedly, this appears in the Education section, not the Science section, and no one is claiming it’s a scientific result).  I’ll leave it to Language Log to make fun of the linguistics, which I’m sure they’ll get around to in the next day or so, and just point out this little gem:

“Our ability to communicate is fundamental and underpins everything else. Learning to talk is one of the most important skills a child can master in the 21st Century,” [“Communication Champion” Jean Gross] said.

In the 21st Century? The 21st Century?! Does she mean the 21st Century BCE? Learning to talk has always been one of the most important skills a child could master. It’s one of the things that defines us as human and makes human society possible. I’m willing to bet that parents in the 21st Century BCE didn’t run off to a speech therapist if little Bobby (or maybe that should be Adam) didn’t produce his first word until 13 months. Kids learn to talk at different ages. We all know that. But the important thing is that virtually all of them will learn to talk, and, as far as I know, learning to talk a few months late will not hinder your ability to be a successful human being (especially if your parents and teachers don’t make a huge deal out of it and start treating you as though you have a problem). I could be wrong about that last part, but I don’t know of any research showing an effect.

Sure, there have always been a few kids with serious disabilities who really do have trouble learning to talk. In the 21st Century BCE, these kids probably didn’t make it to adulthood or else led really miserable lives. It’s wonderful that today those kids can get help from speech therapists and special education programs. That’s one of the great things about living in the 21st Century CE. But the point is, those kids are few and far between, maybe one in 1,000, or one in 10,000, or one in 100,000, not one in six, and speech therapists should be helping those kids, not working for panicked helicopter parents whose kids are a few months late with their first word. Whether there is such a trend in parenting, I don’t know, but the BBC and Ms. Jean Gross sure seem to be trying to start one.

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