Language and Friendship

I know Twitter gets a lot of flack as a cesspool of polarization and facile debate, but I have to say that if you are a nerd like me and follow lots of other nerds, it’s a veritable goldmine for nerdy indulgence. Case in point, I recently came across this fascinating paper shared on Twitter:

To be clear, I have NOT reviewed the full paper myself, just pulling this off of Chow’s (lead author’s) summary and the abstract. In this study using social network analysis, they found that:

  • Children’s language skills were significantly associated with friendship centrality and reciprocity
  • In kindergarten, kids who enter school with lower language skills have fewer peers who nominate them as their friend
  • Children at risk for specific language impairment (SLI)/developmental language disorder (DLD) were less central to their classroom networks
  • The odds of a reciprocal friendship tie was more than 50% lower than peers not classified at risk
  • And of children with or at risk for SLI/DLD, girls were significantly more central than boys, suggesting gender may play a role in friendship development in early elementary school, especially for children with lower communication skills

It really got me thinking, and also reminded me of a recent article on NPR about the experiences of ML/ELLs during remote learning, in which a quote from a researcher caught my attention:

“Having one friend who speaks English well is a very, very good predictor of your grades,” says Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, who has spent years researching immigrant youth. Now the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston, Suarez-Orozco previously co-authored a study with his wife about the process of learning English.

“Very few youth in our study could say they had one friend who was an English dominant speaker.”

–“Millions Of Kids Learn English At School. Teaching Them Remotely Hasn’t Been Easy” by Kavitha Cardoza

Now, as to WHAT study exactly it was that provided this data point is completely unclear, as apparently some articles don’t feel the need to provide citations, and I couldn’t figure out which of Suárez-Orozco’s many writings might have provided it (his wife’s name is Carola Suárez-Orozco, if you want to try and sleuth it yourself). But if accurate, this seems like a highly critical point to consider alongside of the findings of that paper, both in terms of the needs of students learning a new language, as well as for students who may struggle with language due to a disability.

As a former special education teacher who served some students who struggled in coping with their emotions, with language, and with relationships, I well know how important relationships are for students, and furthermore, how central relationships are to the culture of a school, and this all brought me back to that.

For students who are developing language skills, having dynamic discussions and peer interactions is so powerful, and it makes complete sense that social relationships are interconnected there. Some of this includes not only knowing the language of academic discourse and the language of written texts, but furthermore the language that names emotions and identity. There is a “hidden curriculum” of school that relates to social norms, and all students benefit from explicit naming–and active co-construction of–those norms.

What can schools do to foster positive peer interaction and friendship for those students who need it the most?


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