Jenny Saffran, PhD – Slide of the Week

Jenny Saffran, PhD - Slide of the Week

Title: Toddlers make use of speaker’s genders while listening to words

Legend: Toddlers viewed pairs of familiar objects selected to be prototypically male or female. As they listened to words referring to these objects, we tracked their eye gaze. Toddlers were faster to fixate prototypically-gendered objects when they heard a voice from the same gender ask for them; for example, they looked more quickly to a prototypically-female shirt when they heard “Can you find the shirt?” in a female voice than a male voice. These results suggest that well before toddlers can accurately label people or objects with genders, they are sensitive to gender categories in both voices and objects, and track the relationship between them.

Citation: Bacon, D., & Saffran, J. (2022). Role of speaker gender in toddler lexical processing. Infancy: the official journal of the International Society on Infant Studies, 27(2), 291–300.

Abstract: Adults and children utilize social category information during incremental language processing. Gender is a particularly salient social category that is often marked both in speakers’ voices and the visual world. However, it is unknown whether toddlers exploit gender cues to draw connections between language and other aspects of their environment. The current study investigates whether toddlers use gender cues available in voices and objects during real-time language processing. 22- to 24-month-old toddlers (N = 38) were tested in a looking-while-listening paradigm. On each trial, toddlers viewed two highly familiar objects designed to be prototypically masculine and feminine (via color and patterns) and heard either a male or female speaker label the target object. Lexical processing was facilitated when the vocal gender matched the gender of the target object. This work demonstrates that toddlers consider both object-feature information and inferred speaker gender (based on speaker’ voice) during online language processing. 

About the Lab: In the Infant Learning Lab, we study how infants discover the structure of their environment, especially language. In the Little Listeners Lab, we study how autistic toddlers learn to understand language.

Investigator: Jenny Saffran, PhD

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