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Gender representation in language: The onset of grammar-stereotype interplay in toddlerhood

English title Gender representation in language: The onset of grammar-stereotype interplay in toddlerhood
Applicant Gygax Pascal
Number 135271
Funding scheme Project funding (Div. I-III)
Research institution Département de Psychologie Université de Fribourg
Institution of higher education University of Fribourg - FR
Main discipline Psychology
Start/End 01.07.2011 - 30.06.2012
Approved amount 88'457.00
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Keywords (9)

Gender; Language; Grammar; Cognition; Bias; Discrimination; Toddlers; Development; Acquisition

Lay Summary (English)

Lay summary

explicitly and formallyTheaim of this proposed project is to investigate the interplay betweengrammar and stereotype in gender representation of role names inpre-school children (i.e., toddlers), well before learning grammatical gender. To ourknowledge, this project constitutes the first attempt to demonstratethat some relatively complex language processes are implicitlyacquired at a very young age. Ifthe results indicate only moderate effects of both grammar andstereotypicality, it would suggest that the mechanisms underinvestigation emerge only at a later stage. In fact, it may suggestthat the mechanisms under investigation may be the result of anexplicit learning process, opening interesting possibilities on thedifferent strategies to counter the biases found in previousresearch. Future research may therefore concentrate on the differentearly strategies to alter the anchoring factors at the base of mentalrepresentations of gender. If the results do indicate that themechanisms under investigation are due to implicit learning throughsimple exposition, future research may concentrate on the strategiesto counteract these implicit mechanisms. Thecurrent project is the first endeavour in the investigation of genderrepresentations by toddlers. It most crucially extends the existingcollaborations on adults’ representation to psychology laboratoriesinvestigating young infants. 

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 21.02.2013

Responsible applicant and co-applicants

Scientific events

Active participation

Title Type of contribution Title of article or contribution Date Place Persons involved
British Society Annual Conference 18.04.2012 London
Invited talk at the Centre for Research in Infant Behaviour 16.04.2012 Brunnel University, London
Division of Educational & Child Psychology Annual Professional Development Event 13.01.2012 Stratford-Upon-Avon, England
Invited talk at the Laboratoire Dynamique du Langage 16.12.2011 University of Lyon II

Communication with the public

Communication Title Media Place Year
Media relations: print media, online media Le Genre Idéal Universitas German-speaking Switzerland Western Switzerland 01.03.2012
Media relations: radio, television Un "labo bébé" à l'Uni de Fribourg pour étudier la représentation du genre Radio Suisse Romande Western Switzerland 04.06.2012

Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
124624 Gender representation in language: Learning to interpret the masculine form as generic 01.09.2009 Project funding (Div. I-III)
143573 Gender representation in language: The onset of grammar-stereotype interplay in toddlerhood 01.11.2012 Project funding (Div. I-III)
118301 Gender representations in Language: A project on the interaction of the generic masculine and stereotypical information in constructing a mental representation of gender 01.11.2007 Project funding (Div. I-III)


The aim of this proposed project is to investigate the interplay between grammar and stereotype in gender representation of role names in pre-school children (i.e., toddlers), well before formally and explicitly learning grammatical gender. With reference to the literature on adults and young adults, in English where role names are usually not grammatically marked for gender, gender representation is based on stereotypical cues (e.g., Garnham, Oakhill, & Reynolds, 2002). In French, as well as other gender-marked languages, when a group is composed of both women and men, masculine forms are to be used in a generic way. However, the use of the masculine form has been shown to be problematic as its generic meaning can hardly supplant its specific one, inevitably leading readers towards male-biased representations. In Norwegian, a particular language also investigated in this project, gender representations of role names have been shown to be (1) stereotype-biased with female (e.g., dancerne, i.e., dancers) or male (e.g., politifolkene, i.e., police officers) stereotyped role names, like in English, but (2) male-biased with neutral-stereotyped role names (e.g., musikerne, i.e., musicians), like in French (Gabriel & Gygax, 2008).Whereas the interplay between grammar and stereotype in gender representation has mostly been studied in adults, the acquisition of gender representation has not yet been investigated in toddlers that are not literate but that already have the prerequisites for allowing grammar-stereotype interplay, with respect to language structure. Both grammatical gender labeling (Zosuls, Ruble, Tamis-LeMonda, Shrout, Bronstein, & Greulich, 2009) and some knowledge of gender stereotype activities (Hill & Flom, 2007; Serbin, Poulin-Dubois, & Eichstedt, 2002) have been reported in toddlers as early as 24-months. Additionally, 36-month-old toddlers have been shown to be sensitive to morphophonological marks of role names in French (danc-eurs or -euses). In this project, we will investigate the mental representation of gender constructed by French-speaking Swiss, English and Norwegian toddlers when hearing role names in their native language. Based on the notion of an implicit acquisition of grammar and stereotype, we mostly expect 36- but not 24-month-old toddlers to exert similar grammar-stereotype interplay when building a gender representation of role name as adults do with respect to language structure.To test this hypothesis, a series of six experiments will be conducted in toddlers. All experiments will be conducted using the innovative preferential looking paradigm, enabling us to access toddlers mental representations. Two different ages (24 and 36 months) will be targeted as well as three different languages: English (gender-unmarked language), French (gender-marked language), and Norwegian (gender-“neutralized” language). We postulate that 36- but not 24-month-old toddlers will exhibit similar biased mental representations of gender for role names as adults in French, a gender-marked language, documenting the implicit acquisition of the dominant specific interpretation of the masculine form. In English, 36- and 24-month-old toddlers should exhibit representations based on early stereotypicality acquisition, and in Norwegian we expect 36- but not 24-month-old toddlers to mirror adults’ mixed grammar-stereotype interplay. In all, if this project aims at filling a important gap in our knowledge on the construction of a mental representation of gender, it most importantly will provide us with valuable insights into the way language implicitly creeps into perception at very young ages.