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The Effects of Gender

Running head: THE EFFECTS OF GENDER

The Effects of Gender on First and Second


Language Use and Acquisition
Susan Hugar
Niagara University

The Effects of Gender

Many factors, both internal and external, influence the acquisition of a language.
These variables can be physical, social, cultural, or a combination of all three. One
particularly interesting variable is gender. It is interesting to both sociolinguistics and
second language acquisition specialists because this variable affects both first and second
language development and use. A number of studies have been completed to analyze the
influence of gender on language acquisition, but much work remains to be done. The
findings are particularly interesting for ESL teachers because they help teachers to better
understand the variation found between their students, therefore making language
learning more effective.
When examining the role of gender on the acquisition of language one must
consider that there are numerous ways in which it can affect language use and
development. Gender is a variable that can affect language use and acquisition as a result
of biological differences between the two sexes, psychological effects, or socio-cultural
influences. Currently there is a lack of research on the role of gender on language,
particularly about the influence gender has on language development from a biological
standpoint. In order to fully understand the role the gender plays in the acquisition of a
second language one must first understand the role of gender in the use and development
of the first language.
It has been proven that men and women speak very differently from each other.
This is true in virtually all cultures and languages. However, the way in which their
speech differs varies considerably in degree and manner in each culture. There are two
main categories, sex exclusive and sex preferential, that can be used to categorize the
ways in which men and women differ linguistically. In a sex exclusive language men and

The Effects of Gender

women often have separate distinct vocabularies and even grammar. Many words and
forms are restricted to a certain gender (Finch, 2003). The differences between the
linguistic features are normally small distinctions in pronunciation or morphology
(Holmes, 2001). This occurs mostly in traditional conservative cultures where there is
little opportunity for changes or crossovers between male and female roles. This type of
differentiation is rare in European cultures and languages. A language changes from sex
exclusive to sex preferential when social roles become less rigid and more mobile in the
society. In a sex preferential language there are preferred models and forms of gender
related speech. The language of men and women differ in terms of how frequently they
use certain forms. This is very common and occurs in all western languages. It implies an
unequal distribution of social power between men and women. This is most likely a result
of the long history of patriarchy and male dominance in many western societies (Finch,
2003).
There are many features of speech that are more associated with one sex than the
other. In Western Societies especially it is generalized that women tend to use more of the
standard or overtly prestigious form, while men are more likely to use more of the
vernacular, or nonstandard form. Women tend to choose language that is more
linguistically polite, while men more often choose language that is not admired or
accepted as proper by society. This pattern is evident starting at a very young age with
boys and girls as young as six showing the beginnings of gender influenced speech
(Holmes, 2001). It was also found that men interrupt others more than women do and that
women give more encouraging feedback to their conversational partners than men do.
It has been suggested that women are socialized from a very young age to expect and

The Effects of Gender

accept being interrupted. As a result, many women think little of giving up the floor to the
man or woman who interrupted them. Connected to this is the fact that women tend to be
better cooperative conversationalists than men are. Women give almost four times as
much feedback as men do in everyday conversation. Men on the other hand tend to be
much more competitive conversationalists, challenging others and offering less support
(Holmes, 2001). Men, more often than not, dominate in both public settings and in mixed
sex conversations (Doughty, 2003).
There are many socio-cultural reasons why women use more standard language.
Women may be more likely to use more prestigious language because she serves as a
speech model for her children. Society seems to expect girls to behave better and more
properly than boys. Another explanation is that women often belong to subordinate
groups in society and subordinate groups must be polite (Holmes, 2001). Women are
often less socially secured and want to signal their status through prestigious speech. This
is especially true in many societies because women are often judged on their appearance
and how they talk and act not by their occupation or values (Finch, 2003). Also,
nonstandard speech is often seen as vulgar and masculine. Men tend to use it more
because it conveys masculinity and toughness. If a female were to use the same speech
she would be seen by society as promiscuous and unladylike (Holmes, 2001).
Adding to the differences between the speech of males and females are the many
characteristics that are associated much more with women than with men. There are a
number of linguistic features that are associated with female speech. It was found that
womens speech was characterized by lexical hedges or fillers, tag questions, rising
intonation on declaratives, empty adjectives, precise color terms, intensifiers such as

The Effects of Gender

just and so, hypercorrect grammar, super polite forms, avoidance of strong swear words,
and emphatic stress (Holmes, 2001). While these characteristics are most likely not
caused by any biological difference in females, they are most likely the result of
psychological and socio-cultural influences. These influences would be present in women
in any language environment, whether it is a womans first or second language. This is
why it is important for linguists and well as second language acquisition specialists to
analyze the role that gender plays in language use and development.
There are many reasons why women use different linguistic features more
commonly than men. Women tend to use language that expresses their own uncertainty
and a lack of confidence. The language women use also tends to express an excess of
politeness and submissiveness. For example, women tend to use a lot of tag questions.
Tag questions are questions that are added on at the end of an utterance, which weakens
the force of the statement. These questions are often used test listeners approval or
confirmation (Finch, 2003). This trait and many of the others can be attributed to a lack
of confidence in women. This results in a reinforcement of an insubordinate status.
This is in issue that all teachers should take into consideration when considering
the question of how to best help their students. A teacher wants all of their students, male
and female both, to have the best opportunities for learning. Being conscious of the
complexity of womens language will help teachers to give their female students the most
beneficial assistance. While helpful for all teachers, this information is extremely relevant
for ESL teachers. Many of the students in ESL classrooms will be coming from cultures
very different then that of the United States. Because of this, they may be less
comfortable participating and conversing in class. The status of women may be

The Effects of Gender

drastically different in these cultures. It is important to make all students feel


comfortable, confident, and to make sure they realize that their opinions are valued. In
both mainstream and ESL classrooms in the United States males receive more class time
and talk and participate more than their female classmates. This occurs in all grade levels
from kindergarten to college. Research has shown that as a result of this gender-bias
girls achievement and self-esteem is lowered. Conversation and interaction is essential to
all learning, especially in ESL instruction where input is necessary for acquisition
(Doughty, 2003). Teachers must be aware of this tendency and monitor their classrooms
appropriately. Many of the features that make up the style of women are due to a lack of
confidence. Teachers must due their best to improve the confidence of all of their students
and to make sure that everyone has their opportunity to speak uninterrupted.
Recently the topic of the role of gender in second language acquisition has been
researched greatly by ESL and language specialists. However, this topic was not explored
to a great extent in the past, and as a result there is still an overall lack of research on how
gender influences acquisition. There do appear to be some differences in the processing
and acquisition of language between the two sexes, however there is not enough research
to be certain (Saville-Troike, 2006). There has not been much significant research
produced by studying gender as a biological factor influencing second language
acquisition. However, studying gender as a social and cultural variable has produced a lot
of helpful information on the subject (Doughty, 2003).
In his journal article Gender differences and equal opportunities in the ESL
classroom, Ali Shenadeh discusses his findings regarding the role of gender on the
macquisition of a second language. He found that many of the effects that gender has on

The Effects of Gender

the use of a first language are similar to the many of the effects that gender has on
learning a second language. In his study he wanted to test the 1986 findings of Gass and
Varonis. Shenadeh (1999) describes their basic findings to be that, Men took greater
advantage of the opportunities to use conversation in a way that allowed them to produce
a greater amount of comprehensible output, whereas women utilized the conversation to
obtain a greater amount of comprehensible input (p. 258). The men participated more in
the conversation and had more control over where the conversation was going.
In order to test these findings, Shehadeh conducted a study to compare the
interaction between ESL students in same-gender and mixed-gender groups. Twentyseven adult ESL subjects from a variety of backgrounds and countries were asked to
work in pairs or groups to perform a variety of communication tasks. His findings
supported the findings of Gass and Varonis, as they showed that the males appeared to
use the conversation in a way that allowed them to retain the turn, enjoy a greater amount
of talk, and thus produce a greater amount of comprehensible output than women (p.
258). Men dominate the conversation and often have more control than the females
involved in ESL classrooms. This gives male students the advantage over females in
mixed-gender tasks. This is similar to what occurs regularly in communication conducted
in the first language. However, women did receive greater opportunities to participate and
produce comprehensible output when working in pairs or groups of other females. As a
result of working with other females, their opportunity for learning greatly increased.
They had much better contexts to self correct themselves and participate more freely in
the conversation.

The Effects of Gender

Shehadeh (1999) concludes that these gender differences in second language


acquisition very well may be the result of socio-cultural influences. He relates this to the
fact that it is more acceptable in some cultures and subcultures than in others for men
and women to communicate freely and casually with each other at work and in social
situation (p. 259). Because of these variations, men and women play very different roles
in conversation. Males take more of an opportunity to talk therefore producing a lot of
comprehensible output. On the other hand, females utilize the conversation to develop
their skills and knowledge through obtaining comprehensible input. This is important
because conversation is very important in the acquisition and development of a second
language. Both the input and output of the target language are important. Input allows the
development of the learners listening and reading skills, while output assists their
speaking and writing skills. Since both output and input are necessary for the acquisition
of a second language, teachers must make sure that their students have the opportunity to
participate in both same-gender and mixed-gender interaction and group work. Equal
opportunity for learning must be given to both the male and female students.
Another interesting difference between men and women in the process of second
language acquisition is their choice of use and preference for different learning strategies.
In their study, A Closer Look at Learning Strategies, L2 Proficiency, and Gender,
Green and Oxford (1995) analyzed the role of gender on learning strategy use and choice.
The results were significant, showing extensive differences between the learning
strategies frequently used by male and female students learning a second language. Since
good language learners often refer to a variety of learning strategies to help them improve
their language skills, this study provides much insight to linguists and teachers who are

The Effects of Gender

studying the role gender has on language use and acquisition. Big variation in learning
strategy choice between males and females is one way that gender affects second
language learning.
Past studies have shown that gender is a strong determinate of learning strategy
choice. Females consistently use more learning strategies than males, especially
cognitive, compensation, metacognitive, and social strategies. These findings are very
important as they suggest that there are consistent differences in the way females learn
compared to males. Significant differences between the two groups have been found in
studies occurring all over the world in many different cultures. This suggests, that
biological and/or socialization-related causes for these differences might exist and that
these causes might have a real, if subtle, effect in the language classroom (Green &
Oxford, 1995, p. 266).
The current study by Green and Oxford (1995) was intended to build on previous
studies by examining the use of individual strategies as well as strategy categories and
overall strategy use in second language learners. It also attempts to analyze patterns of
variation by gender while at the same time looking for patterns of variation by
proficiency level. The researchers used the SILL test scores of 374 students from all
levels studying English at the University of Puerto Rico. The students were asked to take
the Strategy Inventory for Language Learning (SILL), a self-scoring survey that asks
about their learning process and the learning strategies they frequently use in second
language learning. The test classifies learning strategies into six groups: affective, social,
metacognitive, memory-related, cognitive, and compensatory strategies.

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The study showed greater use of learning strategies by females than by males. The
students use of fifty individual learning strategies was evaluated on the test. Men and
women used almost a third of the total fifteen strategies differently.
Females used fourteen strategies more often than males and males used only one strategy
more often than females. Females used significantly more memory, metacognitive,
affective, and social learning strategies than their male classmates. Males and females
used cognitive and compensation learning skills about equally in this study.
The one strategy that males used more significantly than females was the use of
English movies and TV programs to help develop language skills. This difference can be
explained by the fact that in Puerto Rico where the study took place, Spanish
programming is dominated by soap operas that appeal more strongly to females while
English language television often includes sporting events, movies, and music videos.
Females on the other hand, showed a much higher use of global strategies, incorporating
the big picture into learning, as women are more often than males classified as global
learners. Females also used more introspective and affective strategies, aspects where
females are known to pay more attention to in learning. Several other strategies can also
be linked to the way that women converse and use language such as sociability, a
tendency to elicit comment, and a wish to build a relationship with those involved in the
conversation. Women also tended to review material more often than men, which may be
contributed to their desire to follow rules and be compliant as well as womens desire to
be in control of their learning in a metacognitive sense.
However, just because men and women use different learning strategies does not
mean that one gender is better at learning a language than the other. Variation in gender

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and variation by proficiency seem to be working in very different ways. In the study, the
strategies more often used by women had little overlap with the strategies used by the
more proficient students. Similarly, although women used more strategies than men in
this study, the researchers did not find a higher number of women at more advanced
course levels. Regardless, men and women are using different approaches to language
learning. This is true within and across many different cultures and can be related to
many variables including learning styles, motivations, and attitudes (Green &Oxford,
1995).
These differences in learning strategies have many implications on the teaching of
ESL. It is very important for the teacher to recognize the large variability of learning
styles used in their class. Some learning styles are better suited to some learners than to
others. Strategy use might be very different between males and females in the class. The
better teachers understand the factors that influence a students learning style, the easier it
is for the teacher to effectively reach all of her classroom despite individual differences
among the students. This information gives teachers the power to plan lessons so that
students with many different characteristics, including varied strategies, can receive what
they need (Green & Oxford, 1995, p. 292). Understanding how gender affects learning
strategy choice will make teachers more effective in their classrooms.
Another interesting area where significant differences occur between males and
females is in the knowledge of academic words and vocabulary. In their study,
Academic Words and Gender: ESL Student Performance on a Test of Academic
Lexicon, Scarcella and Zimmerman (1998) attempt to discover if there is a relationship
between gender and second language vocabulary knowledge, specifically academic

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vocabulary. Understanding academic words is especially difficult for English as a second


language (ESL) students. Knowledge of that vocabulary does however appear critical to
academic success. Many of the academic vocabulary items have several meaning that a
student would not be able to understand by the context that the word is used in. ESL
students found their lack of vocabulary knowledge to be their greatest weakness when
reading English. Academic vocabulary knowledge is necessary for both reading and
writing fluently and efficiently.
This studys main question was to answer whether ESL students academic
vocabulary knowledge varied as a function of gender and if so what effect does gender
have. The subjects of the study were 192 University of California at Irving freshmen ESL
students. They were from a variety of backgrounds and ranged in level from high
intermediate to advanced. The students were given the Test of Academic Lexicon (TAL)
to test their productive knowledge of commonly used academic words. The test consisted
of fifty vocabulary terms, forty of those were real words and ten were made up words.
The made up words were included in the study as a control to prevent the students from
guessing and to keep them from assuming they knew all of the words. The students were
asked to rank their knowledge of the academic words. If they claimed to have a good
understanding of the word and how to use it they were asked to write a sentence using the
word.
The study produced interesting results. It is often assumed that females are better
ESL learners than males. However, in this study males significantly outscored their
female classmates. Males had an average score of seventy-three percent while the
females averaged a score of sixty-eight percent. After examining the response to the

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made-up words, it can be concluded that guessing did not affect the results as females and
males guessed about the same amount of times. The results showed that verbal SAT
scores, length of residency, and age of arrival do not affect the relationship between
gender and the results of the TAL test.
While the authors of this study do not feel as though gender itself, biologically,
caused the differences in the scores, they do offer some possible reasons for the
differences. There could be differences in the amount of exposure males and females
have to academic reading or in their participation in leisure-time reading. A students
reading patterns could definitely affect their vocabulary knowledge. Differences in the
previous schooling of males and females could also play a key role in their understanding
of academic vocabulary. As we know, males and females use very different learning
strategies. These learning strategies are used to help them acquire academic language. It
is possible that males have better strategies to learn academic language. Culture is also
another variable that could affect knowledge of academic vocabulary in a second
language. Some of the women in this study may have come from cultures where they
were not expected or encouraged to participate in academic discussions unlike their male
counterparts. Similarly, women often have less power in conversations with males and
this might diminish their opportunities to discuss academic issues. Further research is
needed to identify what difficulties women face in learning academic vocabulary. It could
be the result of any of the problems listed above or a combination of them. Until these
studies are completed it is hard to understand the complex relationship between gender
and the knowledge of academic vocabulary (Scarcella & Zimmerman, 1998).

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The role of gender in the acquisition of a second language is something that all
teachers need to be aware of. In the study conducted by Kay M. Losey (1995), Gender
and Ethnicity as Factors in the Development of Verbal Skills in Bilingual Mexican
Women, it is easy to see the struggles that female students face everyday in the ESL
classroom. The study was set up to analyze the differences in student output across
ethnicity and gender in a mixed monolingual English and bilingual Spanish/English class
in order to understand how L2 oral language skills are developed in a mixed classroom
(p. 635). Interaction between native speakers and second language or bilingual learners is
important for the acquisition of a second language. Students need opportunities to take in
input and produce output while conversing with native speakers. This studys goal was to
study the interaction in multicultural classrooms to analyze the affect that gender and
ethnicity has on classroom interaction.
The study involved thirty basic adult writing students, half were bilingual
Mexican Americans and half were monolingual Americans. The students were observed
during their normal class time for two years. Informal interviews were conducted with the
students and further data was provided through audiotaped classroom and tutorial
interaction. The data was analyzed by examining classroom interaction and the amount of
participation and number of speech acts each student was involved in. The researcher was
looking for patterns in student output.
The results of this study are very interesting. It was expected that the Mexican
American students would speak less in the classroom then the native speakers of English,
however major differences between male and female in that group was not. The Mexican
American females participated half as much as expected while Mexican American males

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participated four times as much as expected. The females who were native speakers of
English also spoke less than their male native speaker of English classmates, but the
difference was much less significant than the difference between male and female
Mexican Americans. These findings suggest that the structure and content of classroom
interaction during traditional whole class interactions differently limited that output of
bilingual Mexican American women (Losey, 1998, p. 653). Bilingual Female Mexican
American students face a double minority, being both female and Hispanic. Many lacked
the confidence needed to communicate in a multi-cultural setting (Losey, 1998).
ESL Classrooms need to be structured in a way where all students are comfortable
and have the opportunity to receive comprehensible input and produce comprehensible
output. If students do not receive this opportunity then their language acquisition will
suffer. In her paper Gender and the ESL Classroom, Effie Papatzikou Cochran (1996)
agrees with the previous study, saying that female ESL students are doubly marginalized
because of their cultural and linguistic situation. She warns, it is time for ESL and EFL
teachers to direct their own and others attention to the predicament of the gifted but
forgotten women in their classrooms (p. 159). So how do ESL teachers make sure that
all of his/her students, both male and female, are given equal opportunities to grow and
learn? Advice is offered on ways in which teachers can make their classroom equally
productive for both males and females.
Papatzikou Cochran (1995) that teachers provide clear opportunities for students
to discuss their feelings and vocalize problems of discrimination. This can be done
through carefully planned exercises that give students control of the assignment such as
open-ended dialogue. Second, it is suggested that teachers need to be on the look out for

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their students non-verbal communication. A teacher can often learn more about what a
student is thinking from their nonverbal communication than their verbal communication.
Teachers should do their best to avoid the use of sexist and racist language, especially
ethnic and sexual generalizations, the use of generics, and stereotypical expression that
are sex or culture specific. Finally, teachers should familiarize themselves with literature
dealing with sexism and language. ESL teachers need to become gender attentive in their
classrooms to ensure that every student has an equal opportunity to succeed.
Males and Females use and learn language in very different ways. Many of the
ways in which gender affects the use of an L1 carry over to the use and acquisition of an
L2. There is no concrete evidence to show whether these differences are the result of
biological, socio-cultural, or psychological differences between males and females. More
research needs to be done to determine the cause of these variations. Regardless of the
reason why, it is important to understand how language use and acquisition differ
between the two sexes. This is especially important for ESL teachers to understand
because the better a teacher understands the differences among their students the better
they can provide a successful learning experience for all students involved.

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References

Doughty, J.C., Long, M. H. (Eds.). (2003). The handbook of second language


acquisition. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Finch, G. (2003). Word of mouth: A new introduction to language and communication.
New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Green, J. M., Oxford, R. (1995). A closer look at learning strategies, L2 proficiency, and
gender. TESOL Quarterly, 29(2), 261-297).
Holmes, J. (2001). An Introduction to sociolinguistics (2nd ed.). Harlow, England:
Pearson Education.
Losey, K. M. (1995). Gender and ethnicity as factors in the development of verbal skills
in bilingual Mexican American women. TESOL Quarterly, 29(4), 635-661.
Papatzikou Cochran, E. (1996). Gender and the ESL classroom. TESOL Quarterly, 30(1),
159-162.
Saville-Troike, M. (2006). Introducing second language acquisition. New York:
Cambridge University Press.
Scarcella, R., Zimmerman, C. (1998). Academic words and gender: ESL student
performance on a test of academic lexicon. SSLA, 20, 27-49.
Shehadeh, A. (1999). Gender differences and equal opportunities in the ESL classroom.
ELT Journal, 53(4), 256- 261.