Amy Wilder, MS
The University of Utah
Aren’t girls naturally better at language than boys? Does this explain why fewer girls than boys receive speech-language therapy? Researchers have been looking into gender differences in language development and risk for language disorders for a long time. The story turns out to be more complicated than “girls are naturally better at language.”
Gender differences in children with typical language
It is true that, on average, young girls acquire language faster than young boys. Between the ages of 10 and 24 months, as a group, girls are ahead of boys in using gestures. They also use more words and combine words sooner than boys. These gender differences occur in many different languages and cultures. This gap between girls and boys increases from age one to two years but may not last. Girls remain ahead of boys between ages three and six years, but the gap starts to decrease. In some studies, by age nine, boys and girls perform equally well on vocabulary measures and, by age ten, the gender advantage in vocabulary switches. However, other studies show a continued advantage for girls’ vocabulary through tenth grade. Outside of vocabulary, differences might remain. For example, elementary school-age girls have performed higher than boys on storytelling tasks. In some studies, girls also outperformed boys in social language use.
There are several possible explanations for these differences. Language development may be influenced by children’s social environment. For example, boys and girls may use language differently within their peer groups. Adults might also treat boys and girls differently. There may also be sex differences that are biological in nature. The neuronal connections for language in the brain may be different in boys and girls. Hormonal differences might also explain some of the language development differences.
Gender differences in children with language delay and disorder
Just as we see gender differences in children who are growing at a typical rate, we also see gender differences in children with language delays and disorders. The percentage of boys and girls who have language difficulties varies by age. Children ages 24-36 months with delayed language development are often referred to as children with ‘late language emergence’ or as ‘late talkers’. Late talkers include children who start late, use fewer words, and fewer word combinations than other children. These children may have a delay in the number of words they use or the number of words they understand. Studies indicate up to 13% of children would be considered late talkers. Late language emergence is much more common in boys than girls. There are around 2.5-3 boys for every 1 girl. Around 60% of late talkers will catch up by age five, while about 40% continue to have below-average language skills. These children may later receive a diagnosis of DLD. We do not know exactly how or why some children with late language emergence catch up to their peers. We also do not know why other children do not catch up. Some research suggests having a family history of language and learning problems is part of the story.
Around 7-11% of children at school entry have DLD. Similar to children with typically developing language, the gender difference for children with language disorder narrows as children reach school age. DLD affects males and females at a nearly similar rate, 1.3: 1. There do not seem to be differences between boys and girls in the severity of their DLD symptoms, either. This is different from children with language disorders who also have a medical diagnosis (ADHD, autism, Down syndrome, etc.). In these groups, males are affected at a much higher rate than females (around 3 males for every 1 female).
Receipt of Services
Although the prevalence of DLD is similar between boys and girls, the rate of receiving services is not. Speech-language pathologists’ caseloads often have more boys than girls. Between the ages of two years and five years, boys are about 1.7 times more likely than girls to receive language therapy services. In kindergarten, boys with DLD are 1.5-2 times as likely as girls with DLD to receive services. This gender discrepancy for receiving services is not due to differences in severity levels, as studies have not found consistent gender differences for severity of language impairment. It may be partly due to unconscious biases held by teachers and other professionals. The gender discrepancy for services could also be due to behavioral differences between boys and girls. For example, boys and girls might react differently to the frustrations of trying to understand and be understood by others. As a group, boys with DLD might be more likely to act out aggressively or become the class clown. In contrast, girls with DLD, as a group, might be more likely to become shy and withdrawn in social and academic settings. These differences in behavior may lead to DLD in boys getting more attention from their teachers and girls being overlooked. Another reason may be that teachers and parents have different communication expectations for boys and girls. A recent study found teacher rating scales identified DLD in boys twice as often as in girls. Yet, independent testing showed an almost equal number of boys and girls with DLD. Unfortunately, this difference suggests that many girls with DLD are not receiving the services they need to succeed.
Your child may seem quite different than the boys or girls described in this article. Researchers show gender differences in the language and behavior of children with DLD based on average group performance. However, it is important to keep in mind that every child with DLD is unique.
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