The Emergence of Gender Associations in Child Language Development

Cogn Sci. 2022 Jun;46(6):e13146. doi: 10.1111/cogs.13146.

Abstract

Gender associations have been a long-standing research topic in psychological and social sciences. Although it is known that children learn aspects of gender associations at a young age, it is not well understood how they might emerge through the course of development. We investigate whether gender associations, such as the association of dresses with women and bulldozers with men, are reflected in the linguistic communication of young children from ages 1-5. Drawing on recent methods from machine learning, we use word embeddings derived from large text corpora including news articles and web pages as a proxy for gender associations in society, and we compare those with the gender associations of words uttered by caretakers and children in children's linguistic environment. We quantify gender associations in childhood language through gender probability, which measures the extent to which word usage frequencies in speech to and by girls and boys are gender-skewed. By analyzing 4,875 natural conversations between children and their caretakers in North America, we find that frequency patterns in word usage of both caretakers and children correlate strongly with the gender associations captured in word embeddings through the course of development. We discover that these correlations diminish from the 1970s to the 1990s. Our work suggests that early linguistic communication and social changes may jointly contribute to the formation of gender associations in childhood.

Keywords: Child speech; Gender association; Language and gender; Language development; Social change; Word embedding.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Child Language
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Language Development*
  • Language*
  • Linguistics
  • Male
  • Speech