Toddler study finds girls have larger vocabulary than boys, but parents say personality and parenting bigger factors

Autumn Vis, 3, and Millar Johnson, 3 during a music and movement class run by Mainly Music.

Autumn Vis, 3, and Millar Johnson, 3 during a music and movement class run by Mainly Music.

Three-year-olds Autumn Vis and Millar Johnson have plenty of words in their vocabularies.

It is something their parents put down to books, conversation – and singing in the car. 

While a study of more than 6000 New Zealand toddlers has found a language gaps between girls and boys, Autumn and Millar's parents believed personality and parenting played a bigger role. 

Prof Elaine Reese of the University of Otago says it is important parents encourage boys to talk after a study of ...

Prof Elaine Reese of the University of Otago says it is important parents encourage boys to talk after a study of toddlers found girls, and children from affluent areas, have larger vocabularies.

The study – part of the Growing Up in New Zealand longitudinal study – found at 2 years old, girls' vocabulary was 8 per cent larger than boys'.

It found children growing up in poorer neighbourhoods used 12 per cent fewer words than children growing up in more affluent neighbourhoods.

Pregnant mothers from three DHBs, in Auckland and Waikato, were selected for the study. The children were born in 2009/10.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Child Language, found at age 2, 87 per cent of children were combining words into simple sentences in at least one language, which was an important marker of their language development.

Nearly all, 96 per cent, of the children in the sample spoke New Zealand English, while 10 per cent spoke New Zealand English and Māori.

Fiona Johnson said she encouraged Millar's vocabulary through reading books, conversation, singing and "old school" games like I spy. 

"The more you talk to children, the more they learn," she said. 

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"Singing is something he loves and learns from. We often sing in the car."

When she and her partner spoke to their son, they used correct words and terms and did not talk to him in a "baby-like" way. 

She felt it made a difference. 

"He said to me the other day, 'you're distracting me mummy, I'm trying to concentrate on my colouring'," she said. 

One of Millar's girl playmates talked "a huge amount more" early on, but Johnson believed "every child is different and I think it's how you parent". 

Laura Vis took a similar approach with Autumn – "lots of conversation and lots of reading". 

"We've always been huge book readers – five at bedtime and books during the day.

"We just try to have conversations with them. If they're struggling with words we urge them to use the proper sound.

"If you speak it back to them, they hear the difference," Vis said. 

Vis believed personality had more of an impact than gender on how much a child talked.  

Autumn could "really talk your ear off", but was just as happy to communicate through a "cuddle with mum".

Professor Elaine Reese, of the University of Otago's Department of Psychology, said some of the findings were concerning.

She hoped New Zealand would not have a gap between rich and poor, but was not surprised by it as "we are seeing it all around the world".

It was important parents did everything that could to encourage boys to talk, she said. 

"You don't have to read books if books aren't readily available, you can have a conversation about anything," Reese said.

Reese said the longitudinal study would look at the benefits of being bilingual at a later date.

* Additional reporting by Joelle Dally




 - Stuff


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