Gender and social class – how do they affect foreign language learning?

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Much has been written about the underperformance of boys in Modern Foreign Language Learning in England and much attention has been given to how gender and social class act as a variable in male adolescents’ attitudes and motivation. A lot of assumptions have been made about the causes of this phenomenon. In this article I intend to discuss to what extent such assumptions are true, in the light of the most reliable studies carried out in this area. In view of my discussion of the limitations of educational research in a previous post (see below ‘Ten reasons why you should not trust research’) the reader should not take the findings I will be reporting as conclusive and irrefutable evidence. Research in this area is still quite fragmented and not always generalizable and fully transparent as to the data elicitation procedures adopted.

Is the common assumption that girls are significantly better than boys at foreign languages actually true?

Research indicates that girls in Britain do on average outperform boys when it comes to language learning (they do in all subjects in general, anyway, but the differences are more acute in this subject). However, a study by Clarke and Trafford (1996) noted that in some schools some students did equally well as girls. The researchers found that social class seemed to correlate positively with lower disparity between the sexes, boys from middle class background doing as well or not significantly less well than girls. The interviews they carried out found that these boys had a clearer idea of how a foreign language could be useful to them in business and international affairs. Moreover, several pupils spent their holidays abroad and had contact with foreigners on a regular basis. In other words, they had higher level of extrinsic motivation and empathy with and interest for the target language country.

Clarke ad Trafford’s finding coincides with my own personal and professional experience and explain why, in international school settings where parents are not only quite affluent but also more used to travelling and more frequently in contact with foreigners, boys’ motivation to learn a foreign language is substantially higher than it was in the inner city schools I taught in in Britain.

Are girls’ brains better equipped for foreign language acquisition and production than boys’?

Several studies attempted to answer this question. Although there is a strong body of evidence indicating that females do have an advantage over males in first language acquisition, (Burman, Bitman, & Booth, 2008; Roulstong & Northstone, 2002), not much is known about gender differences in foreign language learning. As Callaghan (1998) and other researchers have noted, there is some evidence of brain lateralization in boys (the belief boys tend to use one hemisphere when processing language processing whereas girls tend to use both). There also seem to be differences in the high cortical functions of the female brain which would facilitate language processing. However, there is no conclusive evidence for either claim.

Do boys’ and girls’ attitudes towards MFL differ substantially?

Gender appears to be, according to researchers a critical individual a social variable in second language learning (Brantmeier, Schulle and Wilde, 2007). So what do we know about the gender-specific affective factors which affect L2 learning?

Research findings diverge slightly in some areas, but most of the studies carried out in England found that:

  • Boys have a less positive attitude to foreign languages than girls; A British study conducted by Williams, Burden and Lanvers (2002) supports this notion. They found that girls had a significantly higher degree of desire to learn French than did the boys, and they also put forth more effort to learn the language;
  • Girls are more likely to find languages important than boys (e.g. Jones and Jones, 2001);
  • Boys perceive the subject as more difficult than girls do. Their expectancy of success in the subject  is lower than girls’ (Callaghan, 1998; Jones and Jones, 2001; Macaro, 2007). In schools were students are set, this phenomenon is exacerbated by the fact that in England most top-set classes are made up mostly by females, which reinforces boys’ perception of languages as out-of-boundaries for them;
  • Females are more likely than boys to attribute success to hard work rather than ability;
  • Boys appear to be more instrumentally motivated than girls. This is interesting as research in gender differences in language use in general indicate that in general women are more likely to use verbal interaction for social purposes with verbal communication serving as an end in itself. Whether teachers are male or female is not identified as a factor influencing attitudes;
  • Finally, English boys (and the same has been found for other cultures) seem to perceive certain languages as having negative associations for males in their society.

The findings above point to important affective factors which can be powerful inhibitors of motivation. I do not discount physiological differences in the language-processing of females, as brain imaging has indeed identified greater activity in both cerebral hemispheres in females whilst processing language . This is a very important finding in that implies that females can recruit more support from areas of the brain that boys cannot access during L2 performance.

However, in England, the affective issues related to cultural schemata, mentioned above (i.e.  the societal views of what is ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, which makes ‘French’ for instance, or other languages, more of a female concern) play, in view of the research I reviewed, a greater role in inhibiting boys’ learning than biological differences. The following excerpt from Kissau’s (2012) study of gender differences in L2 learning with students of French, is very enlightening in this regard (http://www.aclacaal.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/6-vol-9-no1-art-kissau.pdf, page 85):

As the study progressed, it became apparent that traditional, societal views of what is appropriate for a male and what is appropriate for a female were weighing significantly on the results. Boys were reporting that they felt less capable than girls in French because society has told them in no uncertain terms that they are not supposed to be as capable. Boys reported being less interested in learning about French culture because society has made it clear that that is more of a female concern.

As we know from many sociological investigations, stereotypes – all stereotypes, not just those about masculinity – are stronger further down one goes the social ladder. This explains why upper middle class children are likely to be, as Clarke and Trafford (1996) found, less constrained by masculinity and/or xenophobic stereotypes. This is compounded by the fact that middle class boys are more likely to have a stronger first language base, which, according to recent research constitutes a real advantage for foreign language learners.

The fact that the vast majority of teachers are female does not make the situation any better, as it reinforces the stereotype that language learning is a female-dominated subject.

In a study whose author I could not locate (source: www.ling.lancs.ac.uk/groups/crile/docs/crile57court.pdf), another very important point is made, which relates to the notion of masculinity, the fact that is, that in speaking in front of the class public error-making may cause more embarrassment for a boy than for a girl and therefore more anxiety. As the authors puts it:

Finally, because speaking is a skill that has to be practiced, there are plenty of opportunities to make pronunciation errors, which can lead to embarrassment and a loss of social status. When all these factors are combined with perceptions of foreign languages as unimportant and irrelevant to future lives and careers, the puzzle that is boys’ under-representation becomes a little bit closer to being pieced together.

The perception of foreign language as difficult, identified by research, stems from a vicious circle generated by lack of motivation, as without strong positive ‘arousal’, learning cannot occur: students will leave MFL lessons with a sense of failure, will go into the next lesson with low expectancy of success, will leave with a greater sense of failure and so on…

The finding that boys need an instrumental goal for their foreign language learning experience is crucial, too. Language teachers do not often make explicit to learners, both male and female, the connection between what they teach and how it can be useful in the real world. The connections, one may argue, are not always obvious and they are easier to make in some contexts than others (e.g. international schools like the one I work at) than in others (e.g. inner city area schools with children from less privileged background).

Boys being more goal-orientated, they tend to want lessons to work towards a clear objective and find the ‘so-what?’ effect of a learning activity off-putting. Often the activities MFL teachers stage in lessons do not give the learners a sense of achieving a clearly specified goal by the end of the lesson. Boys, more than girls need to see that goal clearly and need to have evidence, every step of the way that the work they are engaging in is leading steadily towards that goal. That is why, boys prefer to know, before starting an activity, the rationale behind it (how it is going to beneficial to the achievement of that goal).

What are the implications for teaching? I will discuss them in another post…

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