Gender differences in non-adjacent dependency learning: investigating the small female advantage in language development
Setten, L. van
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Theories about the advantage for girls in language development are well known, but not always sufficiently backed up by empirical evidence. The purpose of this study is to determine whether there is a difference between the learning and language abilities of boys and girls at a young age, focusing on pattern learning and the generalization of these word patterns. This study investigated whether 18-month-old infants are able to generalize non-adjacent dependency patterns to novel contexts, and whether we can identify gender differences in the performance on this task. The looking behavior of 21 infants was measured in an Artificial Grammar Learning experiment using the Headturn Preference Procedure. The Dutch version of the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventory (N-CDI) was used to assess children’s productive and receptive vocabulary. In contrast to the predictions there were no significant differences between the N-CDI scores of boys and girls. In the Artificial Grammar Learning experiment, infants were overall not able to distinguish correct from incorrect dependencies, but we did find a significant effect of gender on the ability to discriminate correct from incorrect dependencies when looking only at the first four trials. Although the N-CDI data does not support a gender distinction, the behavioral data suggest an advantage for girls in distributional learning, which collaborates with the theory that girls have an overall advantage in language development.