The Relationship between Child Temperament & Conversational Language Laura DeThorne, University of Illinois & Kirby Deater-Deckard, Virginia Tech University ABSTRACT This study of approximately 170 twin pairs from the Western Reserve Reading Project examined the association between children’s conversational language use and three key aspects of child temperament: surgency, effortful control, and negative affect. Although preliminary analyses using hierarchical regression revealed a significant 3-way interaction between language, surgency, and sex, the interaction term was no longer significant when focused on the current larger sample size. Current findings revealed that only one facet of surgency, shyness, was negatively correlated with commonly-used conversational language measures but the effect size was small. Results suggest that conversational language sample measures are not substantially confounded by child temperament.

BACKGROUND Conversational language measures, such as mean length of utterance and number of different words, offer a lowpressure means of examining children’s language use within a naturalistic context. However, concerns remain regarding the extent to which such measures are confounded by aspects of child temperament, such as their degree of talkativeness/extraversion. Consequently, alternate measures, such as ‘D,’ attempt to control for talkativeness/volubility have been proposed (cf. Malvern & Richards, 1996). Of interest, however, measures that control for volubility may be less sensitive to differences between children with language impairment and those without (Owen & Leonard, 2002; DeThorne et al., 2008). Few if any studies have directly examined the relationship between conversational language measures and key aspects of child temperament.

PARTICIPANTS --Approximately 170 same-sex twin pairs (~60% girls) from the Western Reserve Reading Project (WRRP), a longitudinal population-based study of reading and related cognitive abilities. --Children were in first or second grade (M = 7 yrs, SD=.70) during the second home visit (HV2), with the third home visit (HV3) occurring approximately one year later.


1. To what extent is variance in conversational language attributed to differences in child temperament, specifically surgency and effortful control. 2. Do observed relationships vary as a function of child sex?

SRCLD, 6/5/09

Table 1. Means and standard deviations for the individual conversational language measures at home visit 2 (HV2) and home visit 3 (HV3) MLU NDW NTW TNC

Conversational Language Sample – a 15-minute exchange between examiner and child while the two played with modeling clay; collected both at HV2 & HV3 Conversational Language Composite: Measures of Mean Length of C-Unit (MLU-C), Number of Total Words (NTW), Number of Different Words (NDW), and Total Number of Conjunctions (TNC) were converted to z-scores and averaged into a composite Measure D (D; Malvern & Richards, 1997) was examined separately due to its reported independence from volubility Children’s Behavior Questionnaire-Short Form (QBC; Putnam & Rothbart, 2006) – Completed by children’s primary caregiver between the twins’ second and third annual home visit. Items load on 3 primary factors, each with individual facets. See Fig. 1 for an example.

High Intensity Pleasure



HV2 5.66 (1.21) 191 (28) 526 (106) 37 (19)

HV3 5.83 (1.45) 199 (29) 547 (118) 41 (20)


Consistent with the decision to form the conversational language composite, correlations across all language measures, except D, were strongly correlated, ranging from .68-.92 at HV2 and from .75-.95 at HV3. To address the specific study questions, each member of the twin pairs was put into a separate sample to serve as a form of replication; the samples will be referred to as sample 1 and sample 2 respectively. Effortful Control and Negative Affect– Neither factor nor their individual facets correlated significantly with the conversational language composites at HV2 or HV3 in either twin sample. The same null result was true for boys and girls. Surgency – Only one facet of Surgency, Shyness, was significantly correlated with the conversational language composite across the two samples, and that was only in girls at HV3. See Table 1 for specific coeffecients by sex.

HV2 Lang Comp. Sample 1 Sample 2

Low Shyness

Girls Boys Activity Level

Figure 1. An illustration of Surgency as a primary factor, composed of its four individual facets.

-.11 (.23) .05 (.65)

-.21* (.02) -.11 (.34)

*Denotes significance at .05

As specified in Table 2, the negative correlation between conversational language and shyness in girls suggests that the more shy the girl, the less sophisticated her conversational language use as measured via MLU, NDW, NTW, & TNC. Despite the replication across samples in HV3, the effect size is small, accounting for only about 5% of the overall variance. Boys demonstrate a similar trend in sample 2, but it does not replicate in sample 1. In contrast to the Conversational Composite, Measure D did not correlate significantly with Shyness or with any of the temperament factors and their individual facets.

Table 2. Correlation between Shyness and the Conversational Language Composites at HV2 and HV3 by Sex

PURPOSE This study directly examined how language sample measures relate to broad aspects of child temperament through the following specific questions:


HV3 Lang. Comp. Sample 1 Sample 2 -.24* (.02) .03 (.83)

-.22* (.02) -.25* (.03)

In sum, temperament factors did not account for differences in children’s conversational language use. The one exception was the tendency for shy girls to show less complex conversational language skills, but effects were small, accounting for approximately 5% of language variance. Results suggest that conversational language measures are not significantly confounded by aspects of child temperament, including surgency (i.e., extraversion). Consequently, attempting to control for volubility in language sample measures may be unnecessary and in some instances even counterproductive.

REFERENCES Owen, A.J. & Leonard, L.B. (2002). Lexical diversity in the spontaneous speech of children with specific language impairment: Application of D. JSLHR, 45, 927-937. DeThorne, L.S., et al. (2008). Genetic effects on children’s conversational language use. JSLHR, 51, 423-435. Malvern, D.D. & Richards, B.J. (1997). A new measure of lexical diversity. In A. Ryan & A Wray (Eds.), Evolving models of language: Papers from the Annual Meeting of the British Association of Applied Linguists (pp. 58-71). Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters. Putnam, S.P. & Rothbart, M.K. (2006). Development of short and very short forms of children’s behavior questionnaire. J. of Personality Assessment, 87(1), 103-113.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS Funding for this project came from the NICHD (HD38075, HD46167), the American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation New Investigator Award, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Advancing Academic-Research Careers (AARC) Award, the UIUC Campus Research Board, and the Children Youth and Families Consortium at Penn State University. Thanks to participating families all research staff. Contact can be directed to [email protected]

The Relationship between Child Temperament ...

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