Speaking the Language of Silence: Revealing the language-development blind spot in building early-childhood resilience

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“Childhood is a crucial moment in the development of individuals. Childhood is also a critical issue for societies and economies, as it determines the formation of human and social capital. Inequality in childhood means inequality across the life-cycle”. With these inspiring words Gabriela Ramos, Leader of the OECD Inclusive Growth Initiative, puts well-being of children right where it belongs: at the heart of inclusive growth. The OECD’s leadership is much needed to underpin the argument that the success of any society, no matter the context, depends on the success of its children. 

OECD Inclusive Growth Initiative

Focusing on the development and well-being of young children – from the womb to about four years old – provides the best return on investment a country can make. The question is: what does it take for a country to develop coherent strategies concerning children as its most valuable asset? The timely OECD report Changing the Odds for Vulnerable Children provides an invaluable contribution to this end. It eloquently and comprehensively describes the disadvantages and extreme circumstances that shape the lives, development and self-image of still too many children. Countries should take the many excellent recommendations to heart and act on them, so as to structurally improve the lives and future of millions of children.

Read the full OECD report Changing the Odds for Vulnerable Children: Building Opportunities and Resilience or the executive summary

Changing the Odds for Vulnerable Children: Building Opportunities and Resilience

It is against this ambition that I want to explore a blind spot with you in our societal thinking about early childhood development. It concerns all babies and young children and in particular the role of their parents to get it right: language development as a precondition for success later on in life. All science points to its importance. Yet none of the early childhood services structurally put this solid body of evidence into practice, which hampers the impact of many interventions.

We know that the quantity and quality of interaction between parents and children is crucial for healthy brain development of the child – from the womb to the moment a child goes to school. 

Understanding the roots of this blind spot starts with unraveling the very notion of vulnerability. As the OECD states, vulnerability is one of the hardest concepts to define. We know that we have to look at adversities in the child’s surroundings, the family situation and the level of personal resilience that a child may have. But vulnerability is not just about the socio-economic context. Or the difficult situation of the parents. Or the inner strength of the children themselves. As the OECD points out, all aspects influence the level of well-being of a child, now and in the future.

Find out more about the OECD's Child Well-Being Portal

Yet too often, policies solely focus on the first two “visible” aspects of vulnerability: the socio-economic context and situation of the parents. If we do so, we run the risk of overlooking large groups of children that are also potentially vulnerable. 

Children who grow up in family situations we assume to be healthy.

Children who invisibly and unnecessarily struggle to keep up.

Children no one expects to fall behind.

Children who suffer in silence.

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Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain's Underclass by Darren McGarvey, Author

If we want to create opportunities for all children, the level of personal resilience of the child is crucial to take into account. The leading Dutch foundation Kansfonds, working on preventing exclusion of vulnerable people, has developed a powerful instrument for measuring this through four different types of capital: 

Human capital concerns the quality of a child’s own physical, mental and aesthetic elements.

Social capital revolves around the emotional and instrumental support that children get within their (social) network.

Economic capital addresses the quality of education and financial means.

Cultural capital highlights the importance of language, communication and digital skills. 

Thinking of a child in terms of their personal capital helps us to determine what they truly need to feel self-confident, develop competences and become resilient.

Get more facts and compare your country on the the OECD Child Well-Being Data Portal

OECD Child Well-Being Data Portal

Our blind spot concerning the importance of language development runs across all four of these types of capital. We know that the quantity and quality of interaction between parents and children is crucial for healthy brain development of the child – from the womb to the moment a child goes to school. The more they share and connect, the better it is for the development of the cognitive, emotional and language skills needed for success in today’s complex world. 

We urgently need to start including language development as a basis of our thinking and policies about early childhood development.

Talking is the unlocking factor for this interaction to take place. Every time a parent points out an object and names it, the brain makes new connections and takes a mental picture of that object. Research in the United States shows a gap of 30 million spoken words between a “chatty” versus “non-chatty” family by the time the child is four years old. The more mental pictures, the more advanced the child’s vocabulary. A rich vocabulary stimulates a child’s self-confidence, which in turn is an enabling factor for openness and learning, and together with semantics and syntax provides the basis to learn to read and write. The easier this becomes, the more time is left to develop, for instance, 21st century skills such as media literacy, collaboration and social skills.

    Get more facts and compare your country on the OECD Education Data Portal

Talking…it seems like such a basic human act. And it is. In fact, it is so basic that we overlook its importance. And another wrong assumption is that language development will happen automatically. Digitalisation exacerbates this alarming situation. An example: in her powerful book Reclaiming Conversation, the power of talk in a digital age, MIT professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology Sherry Turkle pleads to reclaim just that: talking. She describes a study by pediatrician Jenny Radesky (2010) in which she observed parents and children having dinner together: “The results: Across the board, the adults paid more attention to their phones than to the children”.

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Forum 2019 Reflections: Social Media & Identities by Stilyana Tasheva, Former OECD Forum Programme Intern, OECD

The importance of talking with unborn babies and young children almost sounds too easy to be highlighted as a serious intervention. But if we acknowledge the alarming figures of children starting their school career without adequate language skills, we should. We know that catching up from then onwards is a struggle – if not impossible – for most children. We urgently need to start including language development as a basis of our thinking and policies about early childhood development.

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The good news is, we know what needs to be done and it is not too complex. We need to bring back talking as one of the basic needs of a child at a structural level. We need to inform parents and caregivers of their crucial role in the development of their child’s brain – and thus language skills – at a structural level. Tell multi-lingual parents that they should use whatever language they feel most comfortable with – as long as they talk and connect with their child. 

I have myself become aware of this blind spot as part of my search for successful interventions to truly prevent illiteracy, when I realised that no system or ministry is wholly responsible for making sure all children start school at the right language level. I have convened all the crucial players in the ecosystem surrounding a young child and its parents. They acknowledge that all their language related interventions are about signaling language deficits, not about informing parents on the need to talk with their children as a way to show love, as a way to give them attention and to form a basis for them to learn to read and write when they enroll in school later on. 

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Jobs of the Future: How do young people’s career aspirations compare to projected workforce demands? by Nick Chambers, Chief Executive, Education and Employers

Encouraged by their enthusiasm, and together with top-notch scientists, we are now developing an action plan with all the players to put this right – from midwifes to paediatricians, from speech therapists to medical services and from childcare to policy makers. Our shared ambition: to ensure all 170,000 children born in the Netherlands each year start elementary school with adequate language development. 

The interest in developing intervention programmes for young children has increased over the past decades – there’s even global awareness in the UN Sustainability Development Goals. However, broad awareness on the enormous importance of language during the first four years of life and its relation with the development of the brain is lacking. The fact that all children are potentially vulnerable makes it even more urgent to address. 

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I am delighted that the OECD is open and willing to be a trusted and credible partner in the journey to put this right. Its report about resilience of vulnerable children provides a powerful platform to discuss the issues at hand, including the blind spot of language development. Let’s make this a shared mission for all children around the world. I’m convinced we can succeed.

Related Topics

Child Well-being
Future of Education & Skills Health

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Go to the profile of HRH Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands

HRH Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands

Chair of the European Commission’s High Level Group of Experts on Literacy; Special Envoy on Literacy for Development, UNESCO

HRH Princess Laurentien has been active in promoting literacy since 2001. Stichting Lezen & Schrijven (the Reading and Writing Foundation) was set up on her initiative in May 2004 to prevent and reduce functional illiteracy. In 2009 Princess Laurentien was designated UNESCO Special Envoy on Literacy for Development. In this capacity, she acts as an advocate for the cause of literacy all over the world. In February 2011 the Princess was appointed Chair of the European Commission’s High Level Group of Experts on Literacy. The Group published its Final Report in September 2012. In November 2017 Princess Laurentien resigned as honorary chair of Stichting Lezen & Schrijven, but she continues to closely follow issues surrounding illiteracy in the Netherlands and abroad through her UNESCO role.

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