The Brain And Differences In Boy/Girl Language Learning

December 2008 - Research from Northwestern University and the University of Haifa published earlier this year in Neuropsychologia showed that areas of the brain associated with language work harder in girls than in boys during language tasks, and boys and girls rely on different parts of the brain when performing these tasks. Researchers explain that although girls' superior language abilities have long been acknowledged, this study is the first to provide a possible biological explanation for the differences.

According to lead author Douglas D. Burman:

"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."

The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity in 31 boys and 31 girls aged nine to fifteen years as they performed spelling and writing language tasks delivered in two sensory modalities:

  • visual (words read without being heard) and
  • auditory (words heard but not seen)

Using a complex statistical model, researchers adjusted for age, gender, type of linguistic judgment, performance accuracy and method of presentation. They found that girls showed significantly greater activation in language areas of the brain - associated with abstract thinking - than boys. Girls' performance accuracy correlated with the degree of activation in some of these areas. By contrast, accurate performance in boys depended on the degree of activation of visual areas of the brain when reading and auditory areas when hearing words.

Researchers argue that if this finding is replicated in language processing in the classroom, it could inform teaching and testing methods. Boys might be more effectively evaluated on knowledge gained from lectures via oral tests and from reading via written tests. These different methods would appear unnecessary when evaluating girls.

Douglas Burman commented:

"One possibility is that boys have some kind of bottleneck in their sensory processes that can hold up visual or auditory information and keep it from being fed into the language areas of the brain. This could result simply from girls developing faster than boys, in which case the differences between the sexes might disappear by adulthood.

Or, an alternative explanation is that boys create visual and auditory associations such that meanings associated with a word are brought to mind simply from seeing or hearing the word.

While the second explanation puts males at a disadvantage in more abstract language function, those kinds of sensory associations may have provided an evolutionary advantage for primitive men whose survival required them to quickly recognize danger-associated sights and sounds.

If the pattern of females relying on an abstract language network and of males relying on sensory areas of the brain extends into adulthood - a still unresolved question - it could explain why women often provide more context and abstract representation than men.

Ask a woman for directions and you may hear something like: 'Turn left on Main Street, go one block past the drug store, and then turn right, where there's a flower shop on one corner and a cafe across the street.'

Such information-laden directions may be helpful for women because all information is relevant to the abstract concept of where to turn; however, men may require only one cue and be distracted by additional information."