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Journal of Cross-Cultural and Interlanguage Communication

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Volume 28, Issue 4 (Jan 2009)


Class and categories: What role does socioeconomic status play in children's lexical and conceptual development?

Jennifer Bloomquist
  • Corresponding author
  • Assistant professor of linguistics and the coordinator of the Africana Studies Program at Gettysburg College.
Published Online: 2010-01-18 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/mult.2009.015


At one time, academic inquiries into the relationship between socioeconomic class and language acquisition were commonplace, but the past 20 years have seen a decrease in work that focuses on the intersection between class and early language learning. Recently, however, against the backdrop of the No Child Left Behind legislation in the United States (which has been criticized as a culturally biased education policy that, through high-stakes testing and broad-based, uniform curricula, discounts the value of non-standard home language varieties largely spoken by working-class children), there has been renewed interest in the relationship between class, language use, and the assessment of academic achievement in the field of education. Despite the inroads that have been made over the past 40 years by linguists in establishing the contrary, recent educational and language policies have served to reignite the difference vs. deficit debate largely attributed to the early work of both Basil Bernstein and William Labov. Unfortunately, much of the language acquisition work upon which policy-makers are relying is founded on outdated information and misrepresentations of the varieties under consideration (African American English in particular); and still the scholastic performance of these children is measured according to class-based rubrics. In order to address the lacuna in the field, in this study, working- and middle-class adults and children aged two through six were shown a series of pictures including ‘normal’ referents (e.g., a cat), and unfamiliar combinations (e.g., a clock with wheels), which they were asked to identify. There were both age and class dependent differences in terms of naming behaviors (e.g., the number of words and morphemes and linguistic construction types). The older and middle-class participants used more sophisticated linguistic strategies (such as descriptive phrases) than the younger participants, and the working-class children showed a greater reluctance to engage in naming strategies beyond one-word overextensions. These disparities suggested that the participants not only employed different strategies by age, but that there was also a class-linked difference in their understanding of the task. When these results are interpreted in light of the deficit/difference debate, it is clear that linguists and educators continue to face the same issue: non-standard varieties are linguistically adequate, but there remains a societal insistence on furthering the primacy of middle-class linguistic structures and language behaviors which serves to maintain a cycle of educational failure for working-class children.

Keywords:: acquisition; semantic categories; naming; socioeconomic status; achievement gap

About the article

Correspondence should be directed to: Jennifer Bloomquist, Box 2541, Gettysburg College, 300 North Washington St., Gettysburg PA 17325. e-mail:

Published Online: 2010-01-18

Published in Print: 2009-11-01

Citation Information: Multilingua - Journal of Cross-Cultural and Interlanguage Communication, ISSN (Online) 1613-3684, ISSN (Print) 0167-8507, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/mult.2009.015. Export Citation

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