We often hear the popular common belief, “Mas madaldal ang mga batang babae,” or “Mas mabilis matutong magsalita kapag babae”.
This belief was recently debunked by iScience, a Washington-based academic science journal. On May 31, 2023, iScience published a study stating that “Females are widely believed to have an advantage over males in language, yet first year boys produced more speech-like vocalizations than girls”. The said work was the largest study ever done about infant vocalizations with 450,000 hours of data. This means baby boys babble or 'talk' more than baby girls.
The study’s authors, led by D. Kimbrough Oller of the University of Memphis, Tennessee recorded 450,000 hours of non-stop audio from 5,899 infants using an iPod-sized device for over two years.
Oller said, "This is the biggest sample for any study ever conducted on language development, as far as we know." The authors used an algorithm to study the large volume of data.
In the study’s summary, the authors’ focus is the vocal activity in the first two years of life, following up on recent research that unexpectedly showed boys produced significantly more speech-like vocalizations (protophones) than girls during the first year of life.
While babies don’t technically ‘talk’, they produce sounds collectively called ‘protophones’ or pre-speech vocalizations—growls, squeals, blowing raspberries, and other sounds like ‘ma’, ‘pa’, ‘ba’, ‘ga’.
The common belief that girls acquire language faster than boys has been the reason for the authors’ surprise with the study’s result. Their study's results showed that boys made 10% more ‘protophones’ in the first year of life before the girls caught up and made 7% more sounds by the second year.
The difference in the result showed up even though during the study, caregivers spoke more to girls than to boys across the years.
The study’s summary also stated, “We now bring a much larger body of data to bear on the comparison of early sex differences in vocalization, data based on automated analysis of all-day recordings of infants in their homes. The new evidence, like that of the prior study, also suggests boys produce more protophones than girls in the first year and offers additional basis for informed speculation about biological reasons for these differences. More broadly, the work offers a basis for informed speculations about foundations of language that we propose to have evolved in our distant hominin ancestors, foundations also required in early vocal development of modern human infants.”
The theory behind the results
At first, their theory for the study was that male infants were more vocal because they were more active in general. As the data showed different results, the authors suggest that the findings might fit an evolutionary theory. Since higher male vocalizations gave way to females around the 16-month mark, higher physical activity did not.
The theory further states that infants make sounds in order to communicate their needs and well-being to their caregivers, who then give them attention then attend to their needs.
Compared to girls, boys have higher mortality rates in their first year of life, according to a broad body of research. With this, it may be concluded that more vocal baby boys in the distant past were more likely to survive and pass on these genes.
However, by both girls and boys’ second year of life, death rates have dropped dramatically and "the pressure on special fitness signaling is lower for both boys and girls," said Oller. Oller’s team plans to research more on how caregivers respond to baby talk.
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