“It’s only been recently that we’ve started looking at why boys and girls sound different from one another so early in life,” Ben Munson, a professor of speech and hearing sciences at the University of Minnesota, who has studied this phenomenon over the past 14 years, told Fatherly. “What kind of selective learning are they doing that would predispose them to this? And what are the consequences of sounding boy or girl like that early in life? That’s where we sit right now.”
The research comes at a critical moment in the study of both science and gender. Fatherly sat down with Munson to discuss how gender and identity can impact language development.
What sort of work have you been doing in your lab over the past decade?
We’re interested in not just why boys sound different from girls, but how individual speech aligns with their gender identity and how the way they produce speech aligns with gender norms for adult men and women, or fails to align. We’ve collected a lot of data from boys whose parents identify them as not meeting their interpretation of society’s expectations about how boys should behave — in terms of their toy preferences, peer preferences, how they dress. These boys had been given the label of gender identity disorder up until recently, which has gone away and been replaced by the label gender dysphoria.
Why are you looking at boys with this diagnosis specifically?
This is a model for understanding how individual variation in gender development can predict other behaviors, like speech and language behaviors. We’ve looked at boys with the gender dysphoria label along with girls and boys without it, and what we’ve found across a variety of types of analysis is that the boys with the gender dysphoria label are rated as sounding less prototypically boy-like than boys without the label. That’s been the tactic we’ve taken in a series of recent studies. This idea that we look at speech and language features in boys and girls with diverse gender expression.
I know you’re studying speech and language patterns specifically, but is this label problematic?
Absolutely. Whenever we present this data and we present the diagnostic label of gender dysphoria, we’re sort of propping up the importance of the label. But it was never about the pathology to us. It was always about finding kids that varied maximally in the way that gender way expressed in how they were speaking.
That makes sense, but seems like a difficult balance to strike, no?
For me, I went into this project saying I was agnostic about the notion of whether this was pathological, but when you work with a population that’s defined by a label in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, that’s playing into that hand. And at that age, the problem is in the community’s reaction and not the behavior itself. There’s nothing intrinsically harmful about a person playing with a particular set of toys, or wearing a particular set of clothes, or identifying with a particular gender. It’s when society says, “No that’s not the way it should be because your biology dictates a certain set of interests.” That’s when it’s problematic.
So how is the work you’re doing potentially helping people move away from this?
When you look at speech differences between adult men and women, English speakers in North America, if somebody says “you’re a man and you sound effeminate when you shouldn’t,” I would quickly point out that the speech of men who are judged as effeminate is usually more easily understood in the presence of background noise than the speech of men who sound masculine. So the notion that there’s something inherently wrong with that effeminate adult male speech is a value judgment.
And how does this translate to the research on kids?
Girls speak more clearly than boys. This is a pretty well-established finding. Girls acquire speech more quickly than boys and speak more clearly than boys. In that sense, if a boy is sounding more girl like, whatever your negative evaluations of that might be, the chances are that boy is speaking more clearly and is going to be more easily understood.
So based on your current research, can you detect gender from speech before puberty? Is this even disputable at this point?
People can make pretty reliable and consistent judgments on the genderedness of children’s speech early in life, by four or five years of age. And whatever these differences are, they’re learned and learning always takes place in a particular social situation. So they’re learned, and like all things that are learned, they’re culturally specific.
And that’s what this seems to all circle back to — how kids learn. Why is this so important to gain a better understanding of?
This is such an understudied area and we know so little about it, and yet we all have a sense that the way that children are appraised, and I used that generic term pretty intentionally — the way they’re graded by teachers, the way that they’re interacted with by their peers and caregivers — has so much to do with the persona they project. So simply understanding the diverse way children project their personalities through spoken language helps us understand all this variation across children in how they navigate social structures that they find themselves in. Part of is that this is such untouched territory, and for so long people thought of language acquisition as something that happened reflexively almost. My generation of scholars and my students’ generation of scholars are showing that people are doing a lot of socially and culturally specific and guided learning really early in life.
How can understanding gender better potentially help kids learn more effectively?
The fact that there are boys out there who emulate one set of adults that they hear and there’s a different set of boys who emulate a different set of adults that they hear, and one group of boys sounds more like adult men and another group sounds less like adult men. That finding in itself suggests that children learn differently from different people they encounter during language acquisition and that has all kinds of implications for how children learn differently from different teachers, for example. So whether or not your readers are interested in gender, I’d look at this as a case study of whether children selectively learn from adults they encounter during development.
What’s the danger of diagnosing speech this way as opposed to better understanding it?
The biggest risk in my mind is an opportunity cost. This of what a limited resource environment education already is these days. The teacher to student ratios are ridiculous, the amount of special educators does not meet the need for special education. So anytime you take normal variation and treat it as pathology you’re taking resources away from the kids who have legitimate learning disabilities and social communication problems, like autism. The risk here is you’re wasting people’s time by treating something that should never have been treated in the first place and your denying services from kids who really need them.