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The purpose of this review is to provide a theoretical background for a future study on the relationship
between language and gender, in the second language learner classroom. The relationship between
language use and gender is one which has been the subject of much debate in the sociolinguistic
community. While there is widespread agreement that some differences between male and female
language use exist (O’ Loughlin, 2000), the reasons proposed for such observed differences are widely
contested and have been the cause of much scholarly disagreement. The notion that males and females
are different is hardly surprising given our biological make-up, however it is also recognized that many
differences between men and women result from socialization processes rather than stemming purely
from biology (Wardhaugh, 2006). This review will look at both observed differences in men and
women’s conversational styles, and the main explanatory theories which have emerged in this field of
study since the 1960’s. Recent studies on language and gender issues in second language learners will
also be mentioned to conclude the review and provide context for the forthcoming study.

History of Language and Gender Studies

‘Folk- linguistic’ ideas about how men and women speak have been present for centuries, and are
often the subject of a culture’s proverbs. For example; “Women are nine times more talkative than
men” (Hebrew); “ A woman’s tongue wags like a lamb’s tail” (England); “A woman’s tongue spreads
gossip fast” (China) (Sunderland, 2006, p. 2). These proverbs demonstrate cultural beliefs, referring
negatively to women’s verbosity and the content of their language. Early academic work on the topic
also reflects these ‘folk- linguistic’ ideas. Otto Jespersen was one of the early scholars to record
observations about gender differences in speech, claiming that women have more limited vocabularies
than men, produce less complex sentences, and show overuse of certain adjectives and adverbs (1922).
It should be noted that his studies was based entirely on his own impressions with input from literary
texts, which would have reflected common stereotypical ideas about women at the time, rather than
being a source of reliable data (Sunderland, 2006). Early ethnographers were among the first to note
distinct varieties of language used by males and females. For example, the famous anthropologist Levi
Strauss noted clear differences in the words used by young Amazonian girls and boys, specifically noting
an Amazonian father laughing at his daughter for using the male word for ‘hunting’ (Spolsky, 1998).
While many examples of sex exclusive speech differences like this exist in various cultures, the focus of
this paper will be on sex preferential speech differences, as most languages are not openly
differentiated according to sex (Freeman & McElhinny, 1996).

Defining Gender

Defining ‘gender’ is crucial to any theory of language and gender. A consensus on its definition has
never been achieved, and it is the variety of approaches to defining it which have led to various theories
about its relationship with language use. Firstly, it is useful to address the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’.
While sex refers to a biologically determined state, gender is widely viewed as a social construct, which
involves not only genetic differences, but also psychological, social, and cultural differences
(Wardhaugh, 2006). According to Cameron (citing Mathieu, 1996), the relationship between sex and
gender is correlational, meaning that gender specific behavior is built upon pre- existing sex differences.
She states that even if the sex- gender relationship is more arbitrary, there will always be gender
differences which come to symbolize sex (1997).

The notion that gender and sex are closely related, is what most of the early theories about language
use and gender difference were based on, for example, dominance and difference theory. Current ideas
about gender have gotten considerably more complex, as many sociolinguistic scholars are rejecting
what they label the concept of ‘binary difference’ in gender, i.e. the notion that there are 2 categories;
male and female. New ideas about gender are concerned with the ‘diversity’ of gender identities and
practices, with new research assuming an array of possible gender identities for an individual, which
both influence, and are influenced by, social identities and group membership in different contexts
(Cameron, 2005). Post- modern ideas about language and gender incorporate this idea, rejecting the
essentialist view of earlier approaches (Sunderland, 2006).

Feminist Approaches: Dominance Theory

In the 1970’s the Women’s Movement brought a new feminist focus to language and gender study.
During this time, the ‘Dominance Approach’ emerged as a theory to explain gender differences in
language use. This approach was pioneered by Lakoff (1975) in Language and Woman’s Place, assigning
gender differences in language use to the dominance of men over women in society at the time. Lakoff
posited that the gender differences observed between male and female speech were not due to innate
biological difference, but were a result of women’s subordination and socialization in a patriarchal
system (Cameron, 2005). She identified what she called ‘women’s language’, a characteristic
interactional style used by women, which can be divided into 3 categories;

(1) It lacks the resources to express ideas strongly

(2) It encourages women to discuss trivial matters
(3) It makes women speak tentatively

(Freeman and McEllhinny, 1996).

She made a list of claims about the specific differences she observed including; men use stronger
expletives, women’s speech is more polite, women discriminate among colors more than men do,
women use ‘empty’ adjectives, women use more tag questions to express uncertainty, women use more
intensifiers and hedges, women use hyper- correct grammar, and women don’t tell jokes (Freeman and
McElhinny, 1996). Other researchers in the dominance approach added further claims to this list,
including the idea that men tend to interrupt women more than women interrupt men (Zimmerman and
West, 1975).

Based largely on her own intuitions, Lakoff’s theory has been widely criticized. Using mainly anecdotal
evidence to support her ideas, rather than producing statistical evidence, her claims are really only
relevant to the particular section of society which she observed. Her work has also been criticized for
representing women as passive and powerless victims, with no apparent sources of resistance
(Sunderland, 2006). Coates (1989), points out that work in the dominance tradition was largely
concerned with women’s speech in relation to that of men, so what was viewed as typical in mixed- sex
interaction shouldn’t be generalized to women’s discourse in general. Furthermore, attempts to test
her claims have highlighted problems with their underlying assumptions (Freeman and McElhinny,
2006). For example, a study on conversational hedges carried out by Holmes (1984 in Sunderland, 2006)
reveals that the function of a hedge is not restricted to showing speaker uncertainty as Lakoff suggested,
but can express certainty, refer to shared knowledge and/or clarify a previous point. It is clear that
although Lakoff and the dominance theorists’ claims were largely anecdotal and require further study to
be validated, they were an important first step which led to further investigation in the field

Feminist Approaches: Difference Theory

The next approach to language and gender studies which emerged out of the feminist school was the
cultural/difference approach, which was less concerned with power inequalities between men and
women, but focused on the difference in the early socialization processes of males and females, to
explain gender differences in language use between the sexes. Deborah Tannen popularized this theory,
but was influenced by a paper by Maltz and Borker (1982), which described the different ‘sociolinguistic
subcultures’ that boys and girls grow up in, which facilitated the development of different
communication patterns. They offer an example of this at work using minimal responses, proposing that
the minimal response ‘mmm’ can mean ‘I agree with you’ for a man, but can mean ‘I’m listening to you,
please continue’ for a woman. This type of ‘mis- communication’ commonly occurs between the two
subcultures, and both remain blameless in the situation (Tannen, 1990). Tannen summarized six
contrasting features of male and female language use. She suggested that men tend to converse
competitively while women seek to achieve support, men focus on independence rather than intimacy,
and men view complaints as a situation where they should give advice over understanding. Men also
convey information rather than feelings, use orders more than proposals, and tend to be involved more
in conflict than compromise.

Rather than evaluating differences in language use from a negative perspective, difference theorists
often positively evaluated women’s speech. For example, Coates & Cameron (1988), claim that while
men’s conversational style is essentially competitive, women’s conversational style tends to be co-
operative. Therefore, features observed in female communication, like overlapping speech, are used to
show cooperation with the goal of maintaining social relationships. Relating this back to the theory of
socialization, it is thought that girls develop these skills when growing up, playing in small cooperative
groups, while boys usually socialize in larger hierarchical groups (Freeman & McElhinny, 1996). Similar to
dominance approach, the difference theory has been criticized for lacking generalizability as it
concentrated on; “ a mainstream prototype of femininity or masculinity- in practice, most often that of
speakers who were white, straight, middle class and monolingual’ (Cameron, 2005 p. 468). Some
feminists were critical of Tannen in particular, stating that what she refers to as ‘mis- communication’
could actually be viewed as conflict, and in support of the dominance approach. For example, Eckert and
McConnell- Ginet suggest that her approach is lacking, as she doesn’t give any significance to power
dynamics in male/ female interaction (1992, 1995). Other theorists claim that dominance and difference
approaches were rather similar in essence, as they both looked for well- defined differences between
men and women, implying that these groups are homogenous and well –defined. As a result they
dismissed Tannen and difference theory for being too essentialist is in the same way that dominance
theory was. In defense of her position, Tannen later stated that she is not an essentialist as she doesn’t
view gender as being tied in with sex, but as a social construct (Cameron, 1998). Further criticism of
Tannen came from Freed (1992), who completely undermined Tannen’s theory by pointing out that if
the dual- culture notion is to be believed, surely the similarities between the 2 groups (male and
female), should be viewed with as much importance as the differences.

Post- modern approaches: Gender Revisited

Since the 1990’s, there has been a significant shift in perspective of many language and gender
researchers. Concerns about binary gender difference have now been replaced with the notion of
gender diversity, with researchers adopting a skeptical position to theories based on generalizable sex-
based differences in the speech of men and women (Cameron, 2005).This ‘new wave’ of research falls
under the social constructivist or post- modern approach to language and gender. In this paradigm,
gender is viewed as dynamic and performative, meaning that gender behaviours and gender identities
are performed by the individual across various situations or contexts (Butler, 1990). Butler famously
defines gender as; the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid
regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural kind of
being’ (1990, p32). Under this assumption, it is possible for gender to shape or be shaped by other
aspects of social identity like class, race and ethnicity (Eckert & McConnell- Ginet, 1992). In fact,
according to them, one of the main issues with earlier theories of language and gender differences, was
the crude abstraction of gender and language from wider social and linguistic practice and the specific
communities in which interactions occur.

Social Constructivist Theory: Focus on Activities

Goodwin is sociolinguistic who has offered a critical theory in this perspective. She conducted an
ethnographic study looking at gender and language use in a single community, and proposed that rather
than analysing genders/cultures/individuals or groups, activities should be the main focus of research.
An example of an activity could be a job interview, teaching, a sporting event etc. To back up her theory,
Goodwin references the fact that anthropological, sociological and psychological scholars have all come
to the same conclusion; that activities are worthy of analysis, as individuals’ social behavior and
cognitive functions change over the course of various activities (Freemand & McElhinny, 1996). In her
research, Goodwin observed differing social structures between African American males and female in a
variety of speech and play activities. She found that boys and girls build similar structures through their
use of speech in some situations, and different structures on other situations (Freemand & McElhinny,
1996). Thus we can see that rather than ignoring similarities between male and female interactions like
the difference approach does, a strength of the social constructivist approach is that it addresses both
similarity and difference.
Social Constructivist Theory: Communities of Practice

In a similar vein to Goodwin, Eckert and McConnell- Ginet propose that the concept of ‘community of
practice’ (CoP) should be the focus of study in looking at gender and language use. They state that the
“language-gender interface” experienced by individuals may vary with participation in different
communities across life stages (1992, p. 4). Unlike a community which is defined by geographic location
a ‘community of practice’ is defined by social engagement; “A community of practice is an aggregate of
people who come together around mutual engagement in some common endeavor” (Eckert &
McConnell- Ginet, 1992, p.8). They suggest that speakers are involved in numerous communities of
practice and that this multiple participation shapes the identity of the individual. In this way, gender is
constructed in a variety of communities of practice. The relationship between language and gender is
born in the communities of practice that men and women are involved in, so language use will differ
related to participation in different activities (Cameron, 2005). For example, if a man is a member of a
sports team and a woman a member of a book club, they will likely develop differing discourse
repertoires as a result of membership to these CoP (Cameron, 2005). This idea is in keeping with
Goodwin’s theory about the importance of activities. However, according to Freeman and McElhinny
(1996), the concept of ‘communities of practice’ involves a wider analytic area of inquiry than ’activities’.
To illustrate this point they use an example of a workplace being a community of practice, and the
different jobs being carried out in that workplace being activities.

Eckert & McConnell- Ginet(1992), identify that women tend to be subordinate to men in various mixed-
sex communities of practice, including; the workplace, the military, and in academic settings, so they do
address power structures with their theory (Cameron, 2005). Another advantage of their theory is that it
does not attempt to overgeneralize about the relationship between language and gender like previous
theories tended to. Differences and similarities observed in one CoP are not going to be applied to
another CoP, as the theory is dependent on context. As a result of its newness, this approach seems to
be the most relevant to modern society. While the ‘dominance approach’ was relevant in its time due to
social and political forces, it seems rather archaic now as Western society is no longer rigidly controlled
by gender hierarchies. Additionally, contemporary young Western males and females are more similar
to each other in terms of education and opportunity than previous generations, so the binary nature of
gender difference implied by older theories seems less relevant in current times. Further support for the
diversity of gender approach comes from the fact that there are significant numbers in modern society
who regard themselves as either gender indeterminate (neutral), or transgender (Cameron, 2005). The
language used by this community of individuals clearly can’t be explained by any theory assuming binary
or sex-specific differences.


It is clear that the social- constructivist/post- modern approaches provide a more solid, currently
relevant theory as to why observed differences exist between male and female language use. This is not
to say that previous approaches should be disregarded, as they clearly contributed significantly to the
field of study and had social and political relevance at the time of their inception. As with all theories, a
lot of further research needs to be carried out to develop a more in depth understanding of the complex
relationship between language and gender. The writer feels that the notion of ‘communities of practice’
is one area which certainly warrants further sociolinguistic investigation, to see what kind of data
emerges. Due to the current extent of globalization, migration and ever – increasing multiculturalism,
this writer also suggests that the language-gender differences in second- language learners/the
language classroom would be a very interesting area of study. Interesting topics of study in this area to
date have included; analysis of teacher talk in relation to male and female students, teacher approach to
gendered language in language textbooks (Sunderland, Cowley & Rahim et. Al, 2002) and rates of
interaction of girls and boys with second language teachers (Sunderland, 1998). Although a significant
amount of research has emerged in this field over the past decade, Sunderland (2006,) points out the
foreign- language classroom is still a much under- explored site of study for language and gender
researchers. In fact, Pavlenko and Pillar(2008), suggest that an overall monolingual bias exists in the
field of language and gender research, which has hampered research into multilingualism and second
language acquisition. They state that the interaction between language and gender in these contexts is
both under researched and under theorized. The writer therefore concludes that this should be the
focus of her sociolinguistic investigation. The research problem to be investigated is; what differences
exist in language use according to gender of English teachers, in the second language classroom setting.

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