Gender Differences in Language? An Investigation of Gender-Related Differences in Classroom Conversations

Research Paper (postgraduate) 2003 21 Pages

Women Studies / Gender Studies




Review of the Literature
1. Language and Gender: Gender Theory
1.1. The dominance approach
1.2. The difference approach
1.3. The community of practice approach

The study
1. Methodology of data collection and analysis
2. Findings
2.1. All-female discussion
2.2. All -male discussion
2.3. Mixed- gender discussion:
3. Implications
4. Limitations




Most empirically based studies of gender differences in language usage have suggested that women and men have different sets of norms for interaction. The aim of this investigation is to study some gender-related differences in both single-sex and mixed-sex classroom conversations. The assumption is that knowing the extent to which gender affects L2 learning and teaching may provide EFL teachers with insights that can help them make language learning more effective. Viewed from this perspective, it follows that gender differences may have implications for L2 teaching, learning, and assessment.


Since the early decades of the nineteenth century, there has been a growing interest among sociolinguists in language and gender related topics. This interest stems, in part, from the fact that language is an inherently social phenomenon and can provide insights into how men and women approach their social worlds. Consequently, a huge body of research has been carried out and the results have reported various differences between males and females’ patterns of speech at various levels. In fact, a number of syntactic structures, lexical items, phonological patterns and conversational styles were found to be sex associated. Women’s speech has been described as being inconclusive, indefinite, tentative, overtly polite and cooperative. Men’s speech, in contrast, has been identified as complex, powerful, direct, definite and authoritative.

Within the social sciences, these gender linked linguistic differences were initially explained in terms of mainly power/dominance relationships that exist between men and women in a number of societies.

In relation to the educational context, the research of some sociologists and anthropologists such as Janet Lever,Marjorie Harness Goodwin, and DonnaEderhas demonstrated that girls andboys use language differently in their sex-separate and sex-mixed groups.Male and female students’ speeches have been observed to differ in their form, topic, content, and use. These different linguistic patterns are worth scrutinizing because they have implications for classroom instruction.

While early writers were largely introspective in their analyses, more recent work has begun to provide empirical evidence from different cultural classroom contexts. In line with this, this book attempts at examining some aspects of gender –related linguistic variations in the context of the Moroccan classroom. The aim is to examine gender as a stimulus variable and compare differences between male and female students on the constructs of classroom communication. To this end, I conducted a comprehensive survey of gender differences in language. This survey was brought within reach by observing a number of students communicating in both same-sex and mixed-sex groups. Specifically, I wanted answers to the following question: What are the differences between male and female students’ language in classroom discussions? In other words, I wanted to investigate the relevance of the linguistic differences reported in the literature from other contexts.

This book is divided into two parts. The first chapter provides a theoretical overview of the related literature. The second chapter describes the methodology of data collection, summarises the research findings, implications and limitations.

Review of the Literature

1. Language and Gender: Gender Theory

Conversation is an interactional act which is determined by a variety of sociolinguistic variables such as the topic of the conversation and the relationship between the participants. Over the last few years, researchers in sociolinguistics have begun to devote a considerable attention to the linguistic variation associated with a speaker’s gender. Coates (2014: 3) suggests two main reasons behind this interest. First, informants in traditional dialectology were mainly non-mobile, old, rural and male. Sociolinguists, however, have focused on urban, rural, and younger informants. Second, with the shift in interest to minorities, women gain interest in sociolinguistic research. Previously, women were also introduced in sociolinguistic studies but not as a social group that deserves a woman-focused research on its own. They were usually associated with men.

With the growing perception of gender as a crucial variable in discourse studies, gender theory has emerged to investigate gender-related linguistic variations. In theorising about language and gender, there have been mainly two influential schools of thought: the essentialist and the constructionist views. Within the essentialist view, gender is based on biological sex and was thus regarded as essentially dichotomous. Gender within the essentialist school is also defined by three major characteristics: innateness, strict binary, and bipolarization. Gender is innate because biological endowments are innate. It is binary given the strict binary opposition between men and women as two different groups. Gender is bipolar because human beings belong to one of the two bipolar categories: male or female. Thus, from the point of view of essentialism “gender differences in behaviour are based in biological differences between men and women.” (Brym &Lie 2009: 264)

The constructionist view, on the other hand, postulates that gender is not innate or given. It is rather constructed as it interacts with class, ethnicity, age, and other socioeconomic and political variables. In other words, gender is created through our social and linguistic behaviours. (Holstein& Gubrium 2008: 432).

On the basis of an essentialist, a constructionist, or a combination of both views, a number of approaches were advanced to explain the differences between male and female discourse. These differences were explained as primarily effects of power and subordination-the dominance approach, or as primarily effects of sub- cultural variation-the difference approach. More recently, a model labeled “community of practice” has been introduced to account for these linguistic differences.

1. 1. The dominance approach

The dominance approach, was popularized by Lakoff’s publication of “Language and Women’s Place” in 1975. This work showed that “language provided evidence of social inequity in society between the roles of men and women” (Weatherall, 2005: 67). This approach “interprets language behaviours as effects of male dominance” (Penhallurick, 2010: 144). Proponents of this view assert that there is a women’s language consisting of certain linguistic features that connote tentativeness, deference and lack of authority. The reason, according to Cameron (1998: 206) is that women are socialized into using this style of speech as part of their subordinate social position. On the other hand, men’s dominance in conversations parallels their dominance, power, and authority in society. Men’s “linguistic patterns are regarded as ways in which they display power, a power based in the larger social order but reinforced and expressed in face to face interaction with women” (Henley& Kramarae, 1991: 477).

1. 2. The difference approach

The difference approach gained ground through the work of Gumperz (1982), Maltz and Borker (1982), and Tannen (1990). The difference theory is also called “the two- cultures model” due to its emphasis on the notion of sociolinguistic subcultures. This notion is based on the belief that because boys and girls are not socialized in the same way they end up by acquiring two different sociolinguistic subcultures: the male subculture and the female subculture. This approach does not consider the behaviour of women a mark of their subordinate status, but rather a manifestation of distinctive female sub- cultural norms and values. Horan (2003: 1989) explains that women define themselves “according to their specific group criteria, and adopt a framework of language accordingly”. Tannen (1994: 5) argues that these differences arise because in most cultures there is still considerable social segregation of the two sexes and children learn their conversational strategies for the most part in single-sex peer groups. Research suggests that these are organized differently for the two sexes: boys play in larger, hierarchically structured groups, while girls group themselves more loosely around clusters of best friends. There are obviously linguistic correlates of this peer-group structure. While boys’ speech tends to be authoritative especially if they occupy a prominent position in the hierarchy, girls are more cooperative, observing a norm of concern for the others. This seems the reason why they act as supportive hearers, use hedging strategies to preserve the face of interlocutors, and respect speaking rights. The difference approach would interpret women’s behaviour in a mixed-sex conversation as a normal female pattern, problematic only in so far as men, who are socialized in a different sub-culture, fail to understand it or respond to it in the same way.



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Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University
gender differences language investigation gender-related classroom conversations




Title: Gender Differences in Language? An Investigation of Gender-Related Differences in Classroom Conversations