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Science  22 Dec 2006:
Vol. 314, Issue 5807, pp. 1845d
DOI: 10.1126/science.314.5807.1845d

The use of irregular verbs such as “run” or “bring” reveals how boys and girls employ slightly different strategies in language-learning, say psychologists at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

As tots learn new words, they tend to “overregularize” verbs—that is, apply the past tense “-ed” even to irregular ones, saying “holded” instead of “held,” for example.

To see whether the sexes differ, Michael Ullman and colleagues analyzed transcripts of utterances by 25 children—10 girls and 15 boys—between the ages of 2 and 5. Because girls learn words faster and are more verbally fluent than boys, Ullman's team suspected that the girls would be better at irregular verbs. But they found that the girls overregularized more than three times as often as did the boys.

By comparing how the tots handled words that sound similar, the researchers claim they could distinguish whether the children were using associative strategies or following rules in deciding verb endings. When boys overregularize, they are more likely to use rule-governed, or “procedural,” memory, the researchers report in the November issue of Developmental Science. But girls are more likely to go with associations—for example, because the past tense of blink is blinked, sink would become “sinked.”

Harvard University cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker says that although the study is small, it adds to evidence that males and females sometimes use “different mixtures of underlying processes” to arrive at the same results. He calls regular and irregular verbs “a good model organism for contrasting the roles of computation [rule-following] with memory [association] in cognition.”

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