Lay summary

The aim of this proposed project, which represents a modified version of Project 100014_135271 13, mostly based on our SNF funded Pilot study, is to further 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 and on our Pilot study, we mostly expect 48- but not all 36-month-old toddlers (our Pilot study seemed to signal a possible but not certain shift in the way 36-month-old toddlers ground their representation of the world) 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 (36 and 48 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 48- but not 36-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, 48- and some 36-month-old toddlers should exhibit representations based on early stereotypicality acquisition, and in Norwegian we expect 48- but not all 36-month-old toddlers to mirror adults’ mixed grammar-stereotype interplay. Most interesting will be to determine what factors may contribute to the onset of biased representations (grounded in own exposition, stereotype norms or grammatical features) from the age of 36 months to 48 months.  

In all, if this project aims at filling an 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.