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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Words on Wednesday: Gender Differences in Language?

It's an oh-so familiar argument to linguists, just as gender differences in other spheres are regularly debated too. It's a great topic in the classroom: how is men's speech different to women's speech? Students always have ideas about this and so many of the claims 'feel' true on some level: men swear more often and more violently, men problem solve while women sympathise, men compete while women co-operate etc etc etc.

The trouble is, every claim can be debunked with quantitative evidence. According to Deborah Cameron's fantastic The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do men and women really speak different languages?, that sense of familiarity is due to our 'confirmation bias' - we recognise and notice things which confirm what we already believe. Society tells us men and women are essentially different and behave differently, so that's what we notice.

I must say that, when faced with the same transcribed conversation, it amazes me that students will be able to find 'proof' of completely opposing ideas. Those who are stuck in the 'men are aggressive and women are lovely' mode will find examples of male interruption and females agreeing with others and generally smoothing things over. Those who think men and women have different (but equally valid) styles of conversation will find evidence of males' preference for factual communication and females' tendency to share feelings. Only those who have understood and accepted Cameron's arguments are likely to find evidence that contradicts any of the 70s and 80s studies showing clear gender differences.

So, with people happy to see confirmation of what they already believe, outdated ideas about gender are merrily being published. This piece in the Times Higher, dealing specifically with the recently-published work of John Locke, does a lovely job of discussing the evolution model used in some of this stuff. It's scary really, how tempting these arguments about our 'natural' or 'primal' or 'instinctual' gender-regulated behaviour can be.

This is easily one of my favourite bits of English Language teaching, as there's lots of scope for students to discuss and explore real data. Plus, I get to discuss a bit of feminist theory and get into gender-as-a-social-construct with some of them!

1 comment:

  1. *waves* from a fellow campaigner! I followed over from your interview on Michele's blog!

    I think gender differences are fascinating. In writing, we can imply the gender of a character simply by using different speech patterns, but mixing that up has very interesting results - a woman who speaks like a man and vice versa. And it doesn't have to be obvious, but it plays with the underlying assumptions of the reader.

    Or maybe I'm just evil that way. :)

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