VIRTUAL Linguistics Colloquium: Ben Munson (University of Minnesota) – “The Development of Gendered Speech in Children: Patterns and Predictors”

October 9, 2020
3:00 pm - 4:00 pm
Zoom conference

“The Development of Gendered Speech in Children: Patterns and Predictors”

Hosted by the WashU Linguistics Program.

For inquiries contact

Abstract: Phonetic differences between adult men and women are pervasive, and are due largely to sexual dimorphism in the larynx and vocal tract [2,5]. This dimorphism does not appear reliably until puberty [1,6]. It is surprising, then, that naive listeners provide different ratings for the content-neutral speech of prepubertal children assigned male at birth (AMB) and assigned female at birth (AFB) on scales that range from “definitely a male” to “definitely a female” [4]. Acoustic analyses of children’s productions suggest that gendered speech is achieved not through global emulation of adult male and female ways of speaking, but by selective learning of salient gendered phonetic variants in the ambient language [3]. The nature and extent of this selective learning is a model for understanding how children’s emerging sense of self focuses their language acquisition, both in naturalist learning, and in clinical and educational settings. This study reviews the results of a recently completed longitudinal study of the development of gendered speech in children. In this study, we collected speech data from 55 AFB and 55 AMB children at age 3 and age 5. For a subset of these productions, adults provided gender. Our analyses focus on (a) determining the age at which AFB and AMB children produce speech that is perceptually different from one another, and whether developmental changes in gender-marking are equally strong for AFB and AMB children, (b) which acoustic parameters characterize children’s nascent gender marking, and (c) whether any conventional, clinical measures of speech and language predict individual differences in the extent to which children’s speech is rated to sound male or female. Throughout the talk, two themes will be emphasized. The first of these is the importance of understanding the inherently socially selective nature of language acquisition, with the acquisition of gendered speech being an example of a (nearly) universal social selection. The second is the need for psycholinguistics researchers to capitalize on the scholarship from critical gender studies. Constructs from that field allow psycholinguists to apply a more nuanced, socially and culturally informed understanding of gender and society to our work, and to move away from the conflation of gender differentiation and sexual dimorphism that has characterized work in our field historically.

[1] Barbier, G., Boë, L., Captier, G., & Laboissière, R. (2015). Human vocal tract growth: A longitudinal study of the development of various anatomical structures. Interspeech-2015, pp. 364–368.
[2] Fitch, W. T., & Giedd, J. (1999). Morphology and development of the human vocal tract: A study using magnetic resonance imaging. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 106(3), pp. 1511–1522.
[3] Foulkes, P., Docherty, G., & Watt, D. (2005). Phonological variation in child-directed speech. Language, 81(1), pp. 177–206.
[4] Perry, T. L., Ohde, R. N., & Ashmead, D. H. (2001). The acoustic bases for gender identification from children’s voices. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 109(6), pp. 2988–2998.
[5] Titze, I. (1989). Physiologic and acoustic differences between male and female voices. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 85(4), pp. 1699–1707.
[6] Vorperian, H. K., Wang, S., Schimek, E. M., Durtschi, R. B., Kent, R. D., Gentry, L. R., & Chung, M. K. (2011). Developmental sexual dimorphism of the oral and pharyngeal portions of the vocal tract: An imaging study. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 54(4), pp. 995–1010.