Talking to babies: Babies hear more talk from caregivers once they begin talking themselves

Key Takeaways for Caregivers on Talking to Babies

  • Baby girls tend to have bigger vocabularies than baby boys, but that might not be due to gendered parenting practices.
  • Parents talk more to babies after the babies have said their first words, regardless of whether the baby is a boy or a girl.
  • Caregivers can support language development by speaking with and responding to their infants, regardless of their child’s gender, age, or language abilities.

Why are baby girls more advanced in language development than baby boys?

On average, baby girls have better language skills than baby 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?

Maybe caregivers talk more or differently with baby girls than with baby boys in ways that support early language development. While this could explain the gender difference in early language skills, prior studies investigating this possibility have yielded conflicting results, so it is unclear whether early language input differs by gender.

While it may look like caregivers talk more to girls than to boys, they are really talking to talkers more than to non-talkers.

Another possibility comes from evidence that caregivers are sensitive and responsive to their children’s language skills. For example caregivers are more likely to respond to speech-like vocalizations (like “bababa”) than to non-speech-like vocalizations (like crying or laughing). This means that parents might talk more to babies with better language skills. Since girls have better language skills than boys on average, it is difficult to figure out if differences are due to children’s gender or their language skills.

Studying gender differences in babies’ language environments

To untangle the roles of gender and early language skills, my colleague at Duke University, Elika Bergelson, and I conducted a study that asked: How does babies’ language experience differ depending on their gender and their language skills?

Our study used data from a year-long examination of children’s early language environments called SEEDLingS. We followed the language development of 44 children from ages 6 to 18 months. The children were growing up in the United States and learning English, and most were White from middle-class families.

father talking to his baby

Photo: Yan Krukau. Pexels.

When babies are 6 months old, they have not begun to talk, but they have started to understand words. Many babies say their first words around the time of their first birthday, and most become chatty toddlers within a year, by 18 months. By investigating infants across this age range, we captured changes in children’s 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 (like “apple” or “shoe”) that the babies heard and the nouns that the babies said. In total, our study analyzed more than 250,000 instances of nouns from more than 2,000 hours of recordings of babies’ language environments.

Baby girls had larger vocabularies than baby boys

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

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

After replicating the finding that girls have bigger vocabularies than boys, we asked: Is this gender difference due to parents talking differently or talking more to girls than to boys? That is, could caregivers’ speech drive the gender difference in children’s vocabularies? To answer this question, we analyzed how many nouns the babies heard, depending on their age, gender, and whether they had said their first word yet.

Caregivers talked more to talkers, regardless of babies’ gender

Caregivers did not talk more to baby girls than to baby boys in our study. On average, babies heard 122 nouns per hour in the recordings, but this did not differ by children’s gender. However, both girls and boys heard more nouns after they began to talk. On average, 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 girls’ early advantage in language skills may not be driven by caregivers talking more or differently to girls than to boys. Instead, babies’ first words led to significant changes in what they heard: Caregivers talked more to talkers. Remember, girls tend to start talking earlier and have larger vocabularies than boys. That means that while it may look like caregivers talk more to girls than to boys, they are really talking to talkers more than to non-talkers.

parents talking to their baby

Photo: William Fortunato. Pexels.

We still do not know why baby girls have bigger vocabularies than baby boys. Perhaps this difference in language skills is driven by other differences in parents’ behavior, like touch or eye contact. Alternatively, biological differences may explain girls’ language advantage. For example, some research suggests that infants’ levels of sex hormones influence brain development in language-related regions. Researchers need to investigate these possibilities.

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

Our study found that girls’ vocabulary advantage might not be the result of gendered differences in caregivers’ speech to their babies. Instead, we discovered that babies’ language environments change when they start talking.

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

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