Researcher in Profile: Ellie Chestnut on Children’s Sensitivity to Word Orders

By Chia-wa Yeh, Head Teacher and Research Coordinator 

Are horses like zebras or are zebras like horses? Can girls do math as well as boys or vice versa? How does the order of the nouns communicate information to adults and children? 

Ellie Chestnut, a 5th-year graduate student in developmental psychology at Stanford, has been investigating what message is being inferred as people hear sentences like “Girls can do math as well as boys.” While the speaker may intend to promote gender equality, the sentence may imply the opposite, thus unwittingly affirming the prevailing bias that girls are less skilled in math than boys. (Research has shown that there is no gender difference in math abilities.) 

The psychology of language—how language interacts with cognition, how the way we talk about the world can influence how we think about it—is at the heart of Chestnut’s research. She has conducted research at Bing over the past four years; approximately 400 children have participated in her studies. 

Chestnut grew up in Montclaire, New Jersey, with her parents and older brother and has long been interested in language, having studied Spanish and Hebrew throughout her school years and Latin in high school. She graduated from Pomona College with a B.A. in linguistics and cognitive science. After college, she worked for David Barner at the University of California, San Diego, Language and Development Lab for two years before coming to Stanford to pursue a doctorate. Chestnut loves sports and played soccer and softball for 10 years growing up and was on the track and field team competing in the javelin and hammer throws in college. 

Following is an interview with Chestnut about her research. 

What is the topic of your investigation? 

Over the past four years, my advisor, Professor Ellen Markman, and I have investigated the ways individuals implicitly communicate information through language. Specifically, I have focused on the way the framing of a sentence can shape the sentence’s meaning. For instance, adults strongly prefer to say “The bike is next to the building” rather than “The building is next to the bike,” or “A zebra is like a horse” rather than “A horse is like a zebra.” But these statements involve symmetrical predicates—if a bike is next to a building, then a building is also next to a bike. So why should adults have these preferences? One proposal is that the subject position of sentences is for less typical, less prominent items, while the complement position is for more typical, more prominent items, hence serving as a reference point. So, adults prefer to say “A zebra is like a horse” because we usually think of horses as the more typical, well-known animal. 

In addition to reflecting our beliefs about the relative typicality and prominence of items, sentence structure may also teach a listener about these features. For example, upon hearing, “A blicket is like a toma”—a sentence with two made-up words—adults will infer that the toma is more important than the blicket. So, I have been interested in whether children are also sensitive to the implications of word order, and whether they also assume that the item in the complement position is more typical and important than the item in the subject position. 

Tell us about the studies you conducted at Bing. 

In my studies at Bing, I would introduce 4- and 5-year-olds to a puppet named Bart that is from a different planet and speaks an alien language. I would then ask the children to help me figure out what the puppet’s words meant. For example, I would show children a picture of a zebra and a horse while the puppet said “A blicket is like a toma.” Children were asked to figure out what the puppet’s words meant by pointing to the blicket in the picture and then pointing to the toma. From this, we could infer whether children would prefer to say “A zebra is like a horse” or “A horse is like a zebra.” We found that children, like adults, prefer to compare less typical things (e.g., zebras) to more typical things (e.g., horses), suggesting that they, too, are sensitive to the implications of word order in these kinds of statements. The results of this series of studies is published in the journal Child Development this year in the March/April issue. 

What are your next steps? 

We are planning to investigate whether children make inferences about gender categories (i.e., girls and boys) from the way statements of equivalent ability are framed. Here, the puppet will tell the child about girls and boys from his planet. He will say sentences like, “Boys are as good as girls at snapping,” and then we will ask the child to identify who likes snapping more, who does snapping more, or even who is naturally better at snapping. If being typically good at an activity means doing the activity more and being naturally better at it, then the second gender mentioned in the statement (here, girls) should be associated with these features. 

What got you interested in studying implicit messages about boys’ and girls’ abilities? 

I’ve always been interested in how we implicitly communicate norms and biases, especially about gender. We use male generics in language all the time (e.g., mankind), but what several studies have shown is that these kinds of words frame maleness as the norm, or typical gender. In fact, whenever “he” is used generically, people often assume that it refers only to men, and not to women, despite the intention of the speaker. 

I think that there are many ways in which we implicitly communicate differences in status or typicality between genders, and I think that these are particularly important topics to investigate because they might really undermine our efforts to promote gender equality in society. 

What would you suggest parents say to their children to promote true gender equality? 

Honestly, I think that gender should be left out of domains where it’s not actually relevant. In academia, for example, we are finding time and again that there are no gender differences in math ability. So why do we keep bringing up gender when it’s not relevant? It could be that the mere act of talking about gender makes it a relevant and salient way of categorizing people for children, and could, in fact, suggest to them that there are gender differences in these domains— otherwise, why would we mention it? 

Do you have any anecdotes you’d like to share about doing research at Bing? 

Oh, a ton. But if I had to choose a “best” moment, it was when a 7-year-old child actually recognized me while I was collecting data at a local museum. I hadn’t seen her since she was 4—so three years had passed. She came up to me while I was recruiting parents to have their child participate in the study and said, “Hi, did you used to go to Bing?” She then asked if I was still playing games with my puppet, which I was. I couldn’t believe it, but it really showed the lasting impression teachers at Bing can have on their students.