Closing the word gap

“The evidence shows that the difference between children who get bedtime stories and those who don’t, the difference in their life chances, is bigger than the difference between those who get elite private schooling and those that don’t.” – from the book The Enchanted Hour by Meghan Cox Gurdon.

There’s several studies about this topic. And they come to the conclusion that there’s a difference in the amount of words different children are exposed to. And that that difference makes a significant difference in their life chances. Some studies put that „word gap” at 3 million words, others at 30 million. And their predictions in life chances sound equally dramatic.

I can’t say how many million (or billion) words I’m behind. When I was two years old my parents had to give me to my aunt for a couple of months. She had a big house with a big garden. It was a safe place. But there was not much time to attend to me. Therefore there were not many words to be collected there. For me the environment was strange, I didn’t know the people. At that time the world moved away from me like I was floating in double-walled bubble. Nobody thought anything of it. Later, as a teenager, I simply was the one who didn’t speak much. And later, as an adult, I became a Software Engineer and finally wasn’t blamed anymore for being socially distant.

For me this bubble started to disappear in the year 2000, at that time I was 26 years old. There was a series of cathartic events, seminars, journeys, encounters. Over a period of 12+ years I learned to connect with people. “But that’s another story and shall be told another time”, to quote Michael Ende.

I discovered the book The Enchanted Hour by Meghan Cox Gurdon in mid December 2020. It was referenced in a blog post somewhere. The title of the book seemed strange to me at first, but after having read the first couple of chapters I understood. The Enchanted Hour. It’s the time of story telling and conversations between parents and children. It made sense. A time of magic, enchanted hours.

After having finished the first chapters of that book I made a big change to my life: I switched from reading in silence to reading out loud.

After a week of daily reading out loud (for one to two hours per day) I started to be able to question our compulsory schooling system on a whole new level. Common practices like studying seated, motionless, and in silence, as well as „Speed Reading”, that is priding oneself of „reading” several dozens of books per month, suddenly turned from being a display of supreme accomplishment and intellectual superiority into a sign of being at least partially traumatised, or having been indoctrinated by an oppressive system.

After a month of reading aloud non-fiction in the English language I decided to improve my own native tongue, the German language. I read aloud the recent autobiography of the famous German entertainer Thomas Gottschalk. I enjoyed it wildly at first. I even purchased his audio recording to compare my reading to his. Much to my shame I have to admit, because here we have someone with billions of spoken words under his belt.

Close to the end of his book, after about 8 hours of reading aloud, I discovered its „german-ness”. My original plan was to continue with his previous autobiography, but found something better: my own language, Austrian German. I found a fabulous author, Wolf Haas, and read out loud through his first novel Die Auferstehung der Toten. I felt more grounded, more filled with meaning and purpose, and „having arrived at something” with my new reading practice.

On a side-note: I’m Screen Mirroring my iPhone’s Apple Books onto my living room’s TV. This means less strain on my eyes, I don’t have to hold a device in front of my face,  and I can walk up and down gesturing wildly while articulating the more dramatic passages.

I was trying to read Watching the English by Kate Fox for years already, but had problems with focusing and understanding her humorous and well versed phrasing. In merely two months of reading aloud I went from stuttering from sentence to sentence to being able to read her chapters fluently. Of course not in the correct English English, but fluently nonetheless.

I did some math: All volumes of Harry Potter add up to 1,084,170 words. At the moment I’m giving Steven Fry the honour to read them to me. „We” are already at the last chapter of The Philosophers Stone. Looking forward to hear what happens next, and who „The man with two faces” really is.

Wikipedia says: ”the average child in a professional family hears 2,153 words per waking hour, the average child in a working-class family hears 1,251 words per hour, and an average child in a welfare family only 616 words per hour. In four years an average child in a professional family would accumulate experience with almost 45 million words, an average child in a working-class family 26 million words, and an average child in a welfare family 13 million words.”

45 million words in 4 years, that’s 11+ million words per year.

I’m still trying to figure out how to arrive at a staggering 2,153 words per waking hour. It almost seems like looking at Elon Musk’s wealth, and trying to figure out how to get there.

Reading this blog post, you have read 1,021 words.

Hopefully not in total silence.