Talk to Children | Article

Key Takeaways for Caregivers in Communicating with Children

  • Baby girls tend to have more vocabularies than baby boys, but that’s not because of parenting practices.
  • Parents talk more with children after the children speak their first words, regardless of whether the child is a boy or a girl.
  • Caregivers can be supportive language development by talking and responding to their babies, regardless of their child’s sex, age, or language ability.

Why are girls more advanced in language development than boys?

On average, girls have better language skills than boys. Researchers have found that Girls tend to say their first words earlier, say more words, and combine words into sentences earlier. Where does this gender difference come from?

Perhaps caregivers talk more or differently to girls than to boys methods that support first language development. While this could explain gender differences in early language skills, previous studies examining this possibility have yielded conflicting results, so it is unclear whether early language input differs by gender.

Although caregivers seem to talk more to women than men, they talk more to talkers than non-talkers.

Another possibility comes from evidence that caregivers are sensitive and responsive to their children’s language skills. example caregivers are more likely to respond to speech-like vocalizations (such as “bababa”) than non-speech-like vocalizations (such as crying or laughing). This means that parents can communicate better with children who have better language skills. Because girls have better language skills than boys on average, it is difficult to know whether the differences are due to the children’s gender or their language skills.

Study of gender differences in children’s language environments

To break the gender roles and early language skillsmy colleague at Duke University, Elika Bergelson, and I conducted a study which asks: How do infants’ language experiences differ depending on their gender and their language skills?

Our study used data from a year-long examination of children in first language environments called SEEDLINGS. We followed the language development of 44 children from the age of 6 to 18 months. The children grew up in the United States and learned English, and most were White from middle-class families.

Photo: Yan Krukau. Pexels.

When babies are 6 months old, they haven’t started talking, but they are starting to understand words. Many babies speak their first words around the time of their first birthday, and most become chatty babies within a year, at 18 months. By investigating infants in this age range, we obtained changes in children language environments over time.

In our study, we collected monthly audio and video recordings from each family. We listened to the recordings and analyzed the nouns (such as “apples” or “shoes”) that the children heard and the nouns that the children SAYS. In total, our study analyzed more than 250,000 instances of nouns from more than 2,000 hours of recordings of children’s language environments.

Girls have more vocabularies than boys

We found that girls have more vocabularies than boys. On average, the girls said 29 different nouns by the end of the study, while on average, the boys said only 11 unique nouns. This gender difference in vocabulary also increased over time, meaning that women’s vocabularies grew faster than men’s.

Children play an active role in their language development – they influence their own language learning environments as they grow by interacting with their caregivers.

After replicating the finding that girls have more vocabulary than boys, we asked: Is this gender difference due to parents speaking differently or do girls talk more than boys? That is, does caregivers’ speech make gender differences in children’s vocabularies? To answer this question, we analyzed how many nouns the children heard, depending on their age, gender, and whether they had spoken their first word.

Caregivers communicated more with talkers, regardless of the children’s gender

Caregivers did not say more to girls than boys in our study. Usually, children hear 122 nouns per hour in the recordings, but it did not differ by the gender of the children. However, both girls and boys hear more nouns after they start talking. On average, the babies heard 106 nouns per hour in the recordings before they started talking, but after they said their first word, they heard an average of 140 nouns per hour.

These findings suggest that women have an early advantage in language skills caregivers may not be encouraged to talk more or differently with girls than with boys. Instead, the children’s first words led to dramatic changes in what they heard: Caregivers communicate more with talkers. Remember, girls tend to start talking earlier and have a larger vocabulary than boys. That means that while it may look like caregivers are more communicative women rather than menthey really talked spokespersons more than those who do not speak.

parents talking to their child

Photo: William Fortunatus. Pexels.

We still don’t know why girls have more vocabularies than boys. Perhaps this difference in language skills is driven by other differences in parental behavior, such as touch or eye contact. On the other hand, biological differences may explain the language advantage of women. For example, some research suggests that the levels of sex hormones in infants influence the development of brain regions related to language. Researchers should explore these possibilities.

How can parents support their children’s early language development?

Our study found that women’s vocabulary advantage may not be the result of gender differences in caregivers’ speech to their infants. However, we discovered that children’s language environments change as soon as they begin to speak.

What does that mean for parents? The results of our study show that children play an active role in their language development – they influence themselves language learning environments as they grow through conversations with their caregivers. However, caregivers also play an important role. To support their children’s language development, caregivers can talk to and be responsive to their children, regardless of the children’s gender.

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