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Researchers find first evidence of a sex difference in language in early gesture

Tuesday, October 19, 2010 – Jeremy Craig, University Relations

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ATLANTA - Gesture provides the first reliable sign that boys are likely to lag behind girls in producing their first sentences, according to research by a Georgia State researcher and her colleague.

Seyda Özçaliskan, assistant professor of psychology at GSU, and her colleague, Susan Goldin-Meadow of the University of Chicago, have found that differences between boys and girls in language learning first appear in gestures.

"On average, boys produce their first sentences later than girls in speech," Özçaliskan said. "We were curious as to whether this was true in their early gesture and speech combinations, and that's what we found."

In the study, Özçaliskan and Goldin-Meadow found that boys not only produced combinations of two spoken words three months later than girls, but also used gesture-speech combinations conveying similar sentence meanings three months later than girls.

For example, boys produced a sentence such as 'eat cookie' three months later than girls. Interestingly, boys also produced the gestural precursor to this sentence, namely saying 'eat' while pointing at cookie, three months later than girls.

The study is part of a long-term research project, where the researchers observed the children from 14 to 34 months of age in their homes with their parents.

"What it showed us is that if boys are going to lag behind girls in the onset of their first sentences, we'll first find evidence of this in gesture," Özçaliskan said. "Gesture is thus a reliable sign of children's burgeoning language abilities.

"There are several possible explanations as to why this occurs," Özçaliskan said. "One explanation could be that parents of boys and girls differ in the types of words and gestures they use with their children. Another could be that boys on average use gestures more than girls possibly due to differences in their fine motor abilities."

They found no evidence for either of these explanations. Boys and girls did not differ in how often they themselves gestured or in how often their parents gestured to them.

"Still another explanation could be that there are differences in how boys and girls think about the semantic relations between objects and/or actions." Özçaliskan said. "And this is something that we need to explore further in future studies."

The study is published in the September issue of Developmental Science, a leading journal in the field of developmental psychology.