PhD Candidate Priscilla Fung with baby participant

Child Speech

Carla DeMarco

The voices of children are often music to people’s ears with their light patter reflecting a confluence of what they see, wonder, and are learning about the world.

Those voices are of particular interest for PhD candidate Priscilla Fung but for entirely different reasons: working with Professor Elizabeth Johnson’s lab in the Department of Psychology, their team further examined when adults can detect gender differences in children’s speech, and it turns out it’s much earlier than previously thought.

“Past studies indicated that boys and girls sound distinct enough to tell them apart by about 4 years of age,” says Fung. “However, our study, which asked adults to classify if they were listening to a boy or a girl, showed that gendered speech emerges at around two-and-a-half years old.”

What set Fung’s study apart from previous research is that she introduced a new element by examining how language experience plays a role in classifying children’s gender and also enlisted the expertise of UTM Professor Jessamyn Schertz from Language Studies.

Their findings “The development of gendered speech in children: Insights from adult L1 and L2 Perceptions” were just published in the journal JASA in January 2021.

“No other study has asked whether listeners are more accurate at identifying speaker gender in speakers of their own language community than speakers from another language community, or whether listeners’ sensitivity to gender in child speech is modulated by language experience.” says Fung.

These gender differences are thought to be learned within a particular speech community through socialization because children’s voices are mostly distinguishable before adolescence or prior to any significant anatomical differences between the sexes emerge, including lower pitch and formant frequencies in adult male voices versus adult female voices. The work undertaken by Fung and her team also demonstrate the role of language experience in speech production and perception.

“These findings generate many hypotheses and potential future studies about the sociolinguistics of early speech acquisition,” says Fung.

“This work also has broader implications regarding communication and development in linguistically diverse communities.”

See the Infant and Child Studies Centre newsletter for more information and this video about Online Studies at the CLASS lab.