Gender Differences in Language Are Biological

Article excerpt

Although researchers long have agreed that girls have superior language abilities as compared to boys, until now no one has provided a clear biological basis that accounts for their differences. For the first time--and in unambiguous findings--researchers from Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill., show that areas of the brain associated with language work harder in girls than in boys during language tasks, and that boys and girls rely on different parts of the brain when performing these tasks.

"Our findings--which suggest that language processing is more sensory in boys and more abstract in girls--could have major implications for teaching children and even provide support for advocates of single-sex classrooms," says Douglas Burman, research associate in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers measured brain activity in boys and in girls aged nine to 15 as they performed spelling and writing language tasks. They found that girls still show significantly greater activation in language areas of the brain than boys. The information in the task got through to girls' language areas of the brain--those associated with abstract thinking through language--and their performance correlated accuracy with the degree of activation in some of these zones. To their astonishment, however, this was not at all the case for boys. In young males, accurate performance depended--when reading words--on how hard visual areas of the brain worked. In hearing words, boys' performance depended on how hard auditory areas of the brain worked. If that pattern extends to language processing that occurs in the classroom, it could inform teaching and testing methods.

Given boys' sensory approach, they might be evaluated more effectively on knowledge gained from lectures via oral tests and on knowledge gained by reading via written tests. …