Gender Differences in Child Language Development

Updated February 21, 2017

Are there real differences in the development of language skills between boys and girls? Is a babbling toddler most often a girl and do the 'little boy wiggles' in school signify more than just high energy? Why do girls consistently score higher on tests of verbal ability, read earlier, speak in more complex sentences and understand abstract ideas faster than boys? Research over decades, today using sophisticated medical imaging devices, is pointing to differences in brain development and activity to explain anecdotal gender differences in children's language development as scientific fact.

Girls develop language skills sooner than boys.

Girls experience the cognitive changes that affect language acquisition at age 14 to 20 months while boys exhibit these changes later, between 20 and 24 months of age. This can explain why girls often speak sooner than boys, use larger vocabularies and speak in multiple-word sentences or phrases.

Related studies compiled by the University of Michigan Department of Psychology in "Children and Primary Language Acquisition," show that fathers tend to play physically with their boys but talk and otherwise communicate socially and verbally with their girls, which may contribute to age differences in language skills.

Girls use different parts of the brain to process language.

In controlled tests, brain-scanning MRIs show that girls use the abstract thinking and language areas of the brain very actively when processing language either verbally or visually. Boys, however, show increased brain activity in visual areas when seeing words and in auditory areas when hearing words.

Researchers from Northwestern University and Haifa University who conducted a joint study on gender differences in brain activity proposed that the distinctions may date to early human history. The evidence of early civilisations indicates that men relied on a limited, immediate signal to make instant fight-or-flight decisions while women used context and abstract thinking in decision-making, skills that are still highly relevant in contemporary culture.

Girls' brains develop earlier and are larger than boys'.

According to an article published in Educational Leadership 2004, the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that controls expression, verbal skill, cognitive and social behaviour) in adolescent girls develops earlier and is larger than that of adolescent boys. The neural connectors in girls' brains that facilitate communication between the right and left brains are 25 per cent larger in adolescent girls. This means better focus, better listening skills, better memory and better multitasking--in short, more areas of the brain devoted to the skills required for reading and writing and verbal fluency.

Cite this Article A tool to create a citation to reference this article Cite this Article

About the Author

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .