There has been a serious issue highlighted recently by Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, regarding children of primary school age with profound language deficits. Typically a child of four or five will have a vocabulary of approximately 1500 to 2000 words. Some children are arriving at their first school with as little as 30-50 words, approximatley that of an 18 month old infant. He believes this is the result of parents spending less time playing and talking with their children. A perfect storm of busy work lives and a constant stream of new technology (with its seemingly endless ability to fruitlessly entertain young minds) has come together to negatively delay language acquisition. A computer game cannot, at least today anyway, duplicate what emerges when a parent and a child engage in an activity together. This is not mere supposition. A ten year research project by Usha Goswami, a professor of Cognitive Developmental Neuroscience at Cambridge University has revealed that activities such as dancing, singing and reciting nursery rhymes are instrumental in aiding language development. Her work suggests that dyslexia, for example, was not a matter of reading words incorrectly but rather it was tied to an inability to hear the rhythm of words when they were being spoken. Rhythmic learning, such as putting words to music, clapping and games help synchronise spoken words with the internal rhythm of the brain which significantly aids the retention of speech sounds and their meaning.
Connected with the ubiquitous presence of technology is an apparent rise, (at least according to one eminent Oxford educated psychiatrist, Ian McGilchrist) in autistic characteristics. He makes a fairly bold assertion, claiming that empathy among the young population is on the decline. He cites virtual environments as the principal cause of this. Games are realistic, but they do not, he argues, deliver the intricacy, nuance and subtlety of human communication. Indeed, even the interaction required for a simple game of hide and seek in the park is predicated on complex cooperation during which one interprets and predicts behaviour, understands and responds to social cues, utilises empathy, negotiation and so on. Without these key skills a child’s ability to translate and act on social prompts is profoundly impaired. In a social species like ours, an inability to predict or understand behaviour is a massive disadvantage….it leaves one socially blind.
The decline of empathy, if it is to be believed, is particularly worrying as it is arguably the single most important thing to our society…to any civilised society. An ability to mirror each other and understand ourselves through one another allow for collaboration and the completion of projects that go far beyond anything that could be achieved in isolation. However, that being said, I don’t think we’re in the world of Mad Max just yet. Consider the case of a Tottenham school that appeared in the Times recently. Its head teacher claimed that 57 out of 60 pupils arrived on the first day of school with almost no English whatsoever. Although alarming, it is perhaps significant that over thirty of these pupils had English as a second language. Language is usually acquired by such pupils in as little as 6 months. Clearly this is a problem, but it’s one of integration rather than a generational problem with our young. This example may also provide some counterbalance to the point regarding empathy. It has been suggested that contrasts in culture may account for differences in the ways that social behaviour is understood. So what can seem like blind ignorance or a failure to respond appropriately is really cultural selectivity. Again, in this case the problem is one of integration or at least inter-cultural understanding.
Nevertheless, to minimise this issue is a dangerous path to take. The amount of children with behavioural issues and language deficits is on the increase. Perhaps it is not on the scale that McGilchrist suggests but it is certainly on the rise and this is worrying. Many of these behavioural and emotional troubles are being subsumed under broad behavioural diagnosis and one can’t help but feel that labels such as Pervasive Development Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD NOS) are being used as a convenient way to brush broader societal issues under the rug. Indeed, if one considers the case in Tottenham there were still 25 children that had no language at all. It’s difficult to fully understand the reasons for this without looking to their home lives. These surely have a significant role to play.
Whatever the reasons, if these are markers for what’s to come then Britain is a country in decline and we need to act before it is too late.