The importance of rich speech

You can only transmit the emotional values of a language in your own language… if you start with English there is bad and good, and the ten nuances in between drop away. And in Dutch I have those nuances… transmitting my limited English to the children would be limiting their general development.

Dutch mother living in Christchurch 

In recent years, several studies have highlighted disparities in children’s language abilities when starting primary school, while arguing that highly-developed language skills are an important predictor of schooling success (Fernald et al., 2013; Hart & Risley, 2003). These types of studies typically also show a negative correlation between socioeconomic status and language development, such that children from lower socioeconomic families tend to also have less well-developed language skills by school-starting age. This phenomenon has been referred to as the ‘Word Gap’, and parents have been encouraged to attempt to close this gap by increasing the total amount of talking they do with their young children (Hart & Risley, 2003).

More recent research has drawn an important distinction between the quantity and quality of parent-child language patterns, however, showing that quality of speech in fact plays a far greater role in language development than does quantity (Rowe, 2012). The current emphasis is therefore on encouraging ‘rich speech’ at home, such as by having involved conversations about things beyond the here and now, for example.

This has important repercussions for bilingual families in New Zealand, most particularly for parents with low English proficiency. It is much easier for parents to have rich, fluid, and varied conversations with their children in a language in which they feel confident and comfortable, and therefore more realistic to expect that this will be the language they use to build strong linguistic foundations for their children (Unsworth, 2015).

Well-meaning professionals occasionally suggest or encourage speaking only English at home for immigrant or other minority language speakers in New Zealand, particularly if they feel the children’s English proficiency needs a boost. Evidence suggests that increasing the use of English in the home for minority language-speakers does not increase children’s English proficiency (Hammer et al., 2009; Paradis, 2011), however, making any such recommendations misinformed and likely to be very detrimental to the development of the minority language.


Fernald, A., Marchman, V. A., & Weisleder, A. (2013). SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months. Developmental Science, 16(2), 234–248.

Hammer, C. S., Davison, M. D., Lawrence, F. R., & Miccio, A. W. (2009). The Effect of Maternal Language on Bilingual Children’s Vocabulary and Emergent Literacy Development During Head Start and Kindergarten. Scientific Studies of Reading : The Official Journal of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading,13(2), 99–121. 

Hart, B. & Risley, T. (2003). The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3. (2003, spring). American Educator, pp.4-9.

Paradis, J. (2011). Individual differences in child English second language acquisition: Comparing child-internal and child-external factors. Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism, 1, 213-237

Rowe, M. (2012). A longitudinal investigation of the role of quantity an quality of child-directed speech in vocabulary development. Child development, 83(5), 1762-1774.

Unsworth, S. (2015). Quantity and quality of language input in bilingual language development. In Nicoladis, E., & Montanari, S. (eds.) Lifespan perspectives on bilingualism. (pp. 136-196). Mouton de Gruyter/APA.

Additional resources on the importance of rich speech: