Gender Differences in Language Development
Supporting Language Learning in Young Boys and Girls
It is commonly believed that, on average, girls develop language and speech skills earlier than boys. Several reasons contribute to these differences.
Consider these questions:
How do you, as a parent, interact with your boys? Do you maintain similar interactions with your girls, or do you alter your behavior depending on the child’s gender?
Most people believe that girls are more sensitive and emotional than boys. Consequently, they tend to use different interaction methods where they may be gentle with girls and more playful with boys. Also, as a parent, you are more likely to unconsciously focus on skills that you believe resonate with your child’s gender. For example, you are more likely to encourage the boy to engage in physical activities such as sports or structuring buildings.
On the contrary, you may find yourself encouraging the girl to engage in social and domestic forms of play, such as playing with dolls. These differences can have a significant impact on a child’s language development. For instance, playing with dolls encourage the girl child to speak and imitate adult activities they see around the house. This practice is more likely to contribute to faster language acquisition and development in girls than boys.
Biological evidence shows that language development for girls is more abstract and sensory for boys. This implies that language for boys must be taught visually, e.g., with a book, and orally, e.g., through conversations to aid their comprehension, whereas either method can be used when teaching girls.
Hormones could be causing the differences…
Various studies have connected fetal or early postnatal sex hormone levels to communication and language development. For instance, researchers from the University of Western Australia in Perth found that a higher testosterone level in the umbilical cord for boys resulted in language deficits, communication, fine-motor function, and personal-social skills delays at the age of 3. However, high testosterone levels among female children reduced the likelihood of language delays at the same age. This shows that while this hormone is a risk factor for boys, it is a protective factor for girls.
Similarly, another research found that high testosterone levels;
- Can negatively affect a child’s social development, language development, and empathy. High testosterone levels
- Correlated with smaller vocabulary for boys at age 2
- Negatively correlated with babbling at 5 months
Language difficulties for boys vs. girls
Although the percentage of boys and girls affected by language difficulties seems to vary by age, more boys are more likely to be ‘late talkers.’ They are more likely to start speaking late and use fewer words and fewer word combinations compared to other children their age. Research estimates that there are approximately 2.5-3 boys for every 1 girl with late language emergence. Although about 60% of these late talkers tend to catch up with their female counterparts by age 5, 40% continue to have below-average language and speech capabilities. Despite the delays, studies have not found consistent gender differences in the severity of language impairment.
However, it is crucial to understand that children whose language skills do not progress may be diagnosed with developmental language disorder (DLD), which is more common in boys than girls. Boys between 2 and 5 years are 1.7 times more likely to receive language therapy services than girls. However, evidence shows a lack of significant differences in severity in DLD symptoms among boys and girls, arguing that the problem in boys is often magnified by the difference in social behaviors and strengths and weaknesses in language.
From the evidence provided, it is evident that while girls perform better in vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, speech comprehension, processing of sentences, and nonce words at a young age, most boys catch up by school-going age. However, paying close attention to your child is advisable to ensure that you do not miss any potential risk factor that may lead to language impairments.
What can you do to help your child?
Parents play a critical role in language development, regardless of the child’s gender.
Here are some ways you can use at home;
- Use everyday situations to encourage your child to speak: for example, you can explain what you are doing in the kitchen when you cook a meal, name products in the grocery store, and point at objects in the house.
- Prioritize communication: talk with your child and encourage them to imitate your gestures or repeat your words. You can also consider singing and encouraging them to imitate the sounds.
- Read with your child: Reading is an effective way to develop your child’s speech and language. Reading not only allows you to socially and emotionally connect with your child, but it also provides them with stimulating visual scenes and language experiences.
Both boys and girls can develop speech and language problems.
- Adani, S., & Cepanec, M. (2019). Sex differences in early communication development: behavioral and neurobiological indicators of more vulnerable communication system development in boys. Croatian medical journal, 60(2), 141-149. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6509633/#:~:text=During%20the%20first%20years%20of,words%20(21%2C22).
- Mrunal (2021). Gender Differences in Speech Development in Toddlers. https://parenting.firstcry.com/articles/gender-differences-in-speech-development-in-toddlers/
- Women’s Health Research Institute. Why boys talk later than girls: hormones? https://womenshealth.obgyn.msu.edu/blog/why-boys-talk-later-girls-hormones#:~:text=Studies%20have%20shown%20that%20language,is%20associated%20with%20language%20delay.
- Amy Wilder, MS. Gender Differences in Language Development and Disorder. https://dldandme.org/gender-differences-in-language-development-and-disorder/#:~:text=Late%20language%20emergence%20is%20much,developmenal%20language%20disorder%20(DLD).
- McGregor, K. K., Oleson, J., Bahnsen, A., & Duff, D. (2013). Children with developmental language impairment have vocabulary deficits characterized by limited breadth and depth. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 48(3), 307-319. https://pubs.asha.org/doi/10.1044/2020_LSHSS-20-00003
- Kristen Secora. Benefits of Reading to Children. https://walkietalkiespeechtherapy.com/benefits-of-reading-to-children/