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Speaker Sex Affects Listener Processing of Gendered Words

When the sex of the Spanish word and the talker differed, Spanish-speaking listeners took longer to process and act on the verbal information. Karen Hopkin reports.

Gato.

Lata.

Fajo.

Mora.

Pelo.

Risa.

Confused?

Uh-huh.

Well, you should be. And not just because we’re suddenly speaking en Español, but because each word has a grammatical gender that we purposely mismatched with the sex of the person who said it. Such verbal incongruity can slow our ability to process language, according to linguists writing in the journal PLoS One. [Michael S. Vitevitch et al., Speaker Sex Influences Processing of Grammatical Gender]

When we listen to the spoken word, we take away more than its meaning. We also learn something about the speaker, like where he or she comes from and whether he or she is a he or a she. But some psychologists think that we strip away all that extraneous information when our brains process what we hear.

To test that assumption, researchers asked 20 native Spanish speakers to listen to a list of Spanish words. Half the terms were masculine—they ended in "o"—the other half feminine, ending in ‘a’. And when the sex of the word and the talker differed, listeners who were asked to identify the word’s gender took longer and made more mistakes.

The opposite effect did not take place. Listeners were able to identify the sex of the speaker con no problemo.

—Karen Hopkin

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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