Teaching language and genderAuthors: Jane Sunderland and Joan Swann
© Jane Sunderland, Lancaster University and Joan Swann, Open University
The relationship between language and gender has long been of interest within sociolinguistics and related disciplines. After overviewing the history of the subject, the article discusses possible content for language and gender courses as well as addressing issues which may arise in the classroom setting.
Table of contents
- 1. Language and gender – a brief history
- 2. Teaching language and gender: introduction
- 3. Commonality and diversity in language and gender curricula
- 4. Teaching and learning stances
- 5. Designing modules in language and gender
- 6. Language and gender as part of other language modules
1. Language and gender – a brief history
The relationship between language and gender has long been of interest within sociolinguistics and related disciplines. Early 20th century studies in linguistic anthropology looked at differences between women’s and men’s speech across a range of languages, in many cases identifying distinct female and male language forms (although at this point language and gender did not exist as a distinct research area). Gender has also been a social variable in quantitative studies of language variation carried out since the 1960s, a frequent finding being that, amongst speakers from similar social class backgrounds, women tend to use more standard or ‘prestige’ language features and men more vernacular language features – see Sociolinguistic Variation. Aspects of interpretation and of the methodology adopted in variationist studies have however been criticised by some language and gender researchers (see discussion in Cameron, 1992; Coates, 1986/2004; Graddol and Swann, 1989).
As a field, prompted by the blossoming ‘western’ Women’s Movement, language and gender really took off in the 1970s with a broad interest, particularly from feminist researchers, in the potential for male dominance of mixed-gender talk (e.g. men interrupting women more often than vice versa); in the identification of distinct female and male speaking styles (a common finding being that women tended to use more supportive or cooperative speaking styles and men more competitive styles); and in sexism, or sexist bias, in language. The field was also characterised by different positions, retrospectively termed ‘deficit’, ‘(male) dominance’ and ‘(cultural) difference’. Research associated with the deficit position saw women’s language use as deficient (relative to men’s) in various ways; the male dominance position placed greater emphasis on differences in power between female and male speakers; and the cultural difference position saw women’s and men’s language use as ‘culturally’ different but not unequal. Women’s and men’s language use has also been interpreted in relation to politeness theory, with women seen as more linguistically polite than men. (For critical accounts of this work, see the text books under Teaching Bibliography. Specifically on politeness, see Holmes (1995) and Mills (2003).)
More recently, and particularly in studies carried out since the early 1990s, gender has been reconceptualised to a significant extent, influenced by contemporary theories associated with post-structuralism such as performativity theory (Butler, 1990/1999; 1993; 1997). Gender is seen as a less ‘fixed’ and unitary phenomenon than hitherto, with studies emphasising, or at least acknowledging, considerable diversity amongst female and amongst male speakers; the shifting relationship between gender and other aspects of identity; and the importance of context in determining how people use language. From this perspective, importantly, gender is seen less as a prior attribute that affects language use and more as an interactional achievement - something that may be performed (or negotiated and perhaps contested) in specific ways in different contexts. Particularly interesting insights into such phenomena have come from recent studies of language and sexuality. Studies have also explored different discourses associated with femininity and masculinity. And there has been valuable discussion of methodological issues – e.g. what different approaches can bring to the study of language and gender (including variationist and interactional sociolinguistics, linguistic ethnography, conversation analysis, critical discourse analysis, discursive psychology, feminist post-structuralist discourse analysis and corpus linguistics). (For sources, see the textbooks and edited collections under Teaching Bibliography.)
Within language and gender as a field, the emphasis has been on ‘language’ and ‘gender’ as social phenomena, and on the social construction of gender and other aspects of identity in linguistic and other practices. There has been limited discussion of cognitive issues (such as differences in verbal ability), and of potential biological explanations for human aptitudes and behaviour, including linguistic behaviour. However, a contemporary review of the field (Cameron, 2005) suggests that language and gender researchers need to engage more seriously, and critically, with the challenges posed by a recent resurgence in ‘biological’ explanations. (Baron-Cohen (2003), for instance, represents a strong biological (evolutionary) perspective; for a broader overview of sex differences in cognition, see Halpern (2000).)
2. Teaching language and gender: introduction
The teaching of language and gender is now widespread, at least across the ‘western’ world, whether in the form of coherent modules on the topic, or as sessions in modules such as ‘Language in Society’, ‘Language and the Media’, or within non-language programmes, such as Women’s Studies. Language and gender doesn’t, however, have a settled curriculum. The field itself is still young and additionally is extremely fast-moving: consequently, what can be and is included in language and gender curricula is enormously diverse. Testament to this is the fact that edited collections in the area outweigh monographs. In what follows, we look at commonality and diversity in language and gender curricula; at issues relating to teaching and learning stances; at the design of language and gender modules, including selection and sequencing of curricular content; and at the potential for integrating language and gender into modules on other aspects of linguistics and English language studies.
3. Commonality and diversity in language and gender curricula
Despite the potential for diversity, we would suggest that the teaching of most language and gender modules shares some common themes:
- a balancing of past and contemporary theory (e.g. deficit/dominance/difference and performativity theory)
- a broadly political, and often ‘feminist’ subject matter (however this is defined) and teaching stance
- the welcoming of students’ personal experience, stances and critique
- a focus on empirical work (including by students themselves)
These however will be tempered and mediated by disciplinary and departmental differences (as well as by individual lecturer differences, the level at which the subject is taught and actual and perceived student abilities and preferences). Language and gender is not only taught as part of (socio)linguistics and English (language) studies, or Women’s Studies, but also within the disciplines of (linguistic) anthropology and (social) psychology – and there may be more. As an illustration of the different inflections that may be given to modules, we can contrast syllabi designed by Penelope Eckert (2006/7) at Stanford University and Niko Besnier (2005), at the time at UCLA. Eckert’s and Besnier’s syllabi demonstrate consistent approaches to theoretical developments in language and gender, including early work based on ideas of difference and dominance as well as more recent work consistent with performativity theory. Both have a strong empirical focus, and include student project work. Eckert deals with language and gender within the context of linguistics: the module outline includes a rich and detailed exploration of the (socio)linguistic study of pitch and voice quality, grammatical gender, dialect variability and stylistic variability as well as language in interaction. Besnier, on the other hand, has a strong and explicit anthropological focus, noting that ‘gender has become one of the most important lenses through which anthropologists have sought to understand society and culture’ (Besnier, 2005: ‘Aims of the course’). Besnier seems to give greater emphasis to the broader sociocultural and historical context and to the intersection of ethnic, racial and national identities with gender. He also covers gender and literacy, whereas Eckert’s focus is primarily on spoken language. On the basis of these syllabi at least, both modules explore relevant aspects of language and gender, but the subject is to some extent differently constituted in each case, reflecting disciplinary perspectives.
A wider range of language and gender syllabi representing different disciplinary contexts can be found on two web sites. The first is an early collection published by The Council of the Status of Women in Linguistics (COSWL), and subsequently updated by Scott Kiesling (1999). These are mainly US sources and not all recent links are available. A similar, more recent exercise in syllabi collection has been undertaken by Amy Sheldon and Barbara LeMaster (www.csulb.edu/~lemaster/lgarchive). This site includes reading lists and assignment topics.
The diversity evident in the syllabi and other curricular documents usefully documented on these sites is probably inevitable, given the disciplinary and other differences referred to above. There may also be something of a split between curricula in continental Europe and those in the USA. Differences reflect the vibrancy of language and gender as an academic area, and any attempts to ‘straitjacket’ curricula would seem not only futile but intellectually counter-productive.
4. Teaching and learning stances
Teachers of language and gender report rather different experiences of working with students – perhaps unsurprisingly, given the nature of the subject. What we have termed ‘stance’ – the positions taken up by teachers and learners, and how they relate to one another in teaching contexts – is an issue for the teaching of any subject, but there are particular issues, sometimes problematical, that relate to the teaching of language and gender. Students’ background, academic experience and perceptions of ‘language and gender’, along with teachers’ and students’ (gender) politics, are likely to affect teaching approaches and relations between teacher and students.
First, what issues are relevant to young undergraduates? This is not to privilege immediate perceived relevance to students but it is to say that, for instance, undergraduate students can be alienated by what they see as feminist topics characteristic of their parents’ generation. Many young female undergraduates do not see sexism as a current issue – rather, they see oppression as a thing of the past, a problem solved. The classic case here is probably sexist (English) language (together with language change, and guidelines for inclusive language). While fifty-somethings may have argued for, used, and indeed continue to use Ms, eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds are not only far more likely to use Miss, and to associate Ms with, variously, divorce, lesbianism and a hatred of men, but also to consider the topic of linguistic sexism as passé. (This is, of course, if they are not simply indifferent to these debates and issues.) It makes more sense, then, to teach the non-sexist language debate as something with an important history (rather than, say, focusing on current arguments for Ms); but a history whose implications are currently felt more widely - for example, in the casual use of the phrase ‘political correctness gone mad’ to refer to utterances intended as ‘inclusive language’.
Secondly, on language and gender modules, classroom demographics in mixed-sex educational institutions are almost inevitably skewed towards a female population, despite teachers’ insistence that ‘language and gender’ does not mean ‘language and women’. Perhaps male students feel that language and gender is not for them, even that they will feel uncomfortable – or, worse, be made to feel unwelcome. Amongst male students, we have come across apparent motives of sympathy and ‘wanting to understand’, and machismo (‘what’s all this about? can I take it?’). Certainly, having signed up, they usually have to deal with being a member of a minority group in the class. In this context, teachers will usually need to resist the temptation to ask ‘what the man in the group thinks about Issue X’, and to develop strategies for dealing with female students who ask precisely this. On a different level, male students may in effect restrict what female students feel they can say (in case they are seen as unfairly generalising), and indeed what the teacher feels she can do: using men’s ‘lifestyle’ magazines as texts for analysis may (rightly or wrongly) be a more palatable proposition when all your students are female. The converse of this is the value for men being able to analyse (say) GQ in a mixed-sex group.
Thirdly, there is the issue of ‘teaching as a feminist’ (or not), of feminism in general, and indeed of making one’s own politics explicit. While the teacher indicating a feminist or other commitment is accepted, indeed, encouraged, in Women’s Studies, and in areas of linguistics such as critical discourse analysis (CDA), this may still come as a shock to students. And while feminism has been responsible for the upsurge in language and gender study since the 1970s, and this needs to be pointed out and demonstrated, the word ‘feminism’ is not only problematic to young ‘western’ women (who locate it historically in the same past timeframe as Ms), but also to many third world women. It has also been reported to us by African students that ‘feminism’ in different African countries is associated with sexual promiscuity, man-hating, being anti-family and single-parenthood (which is not to deny the progressive influence of the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995) on women’s rights and gender relations in some African nations).
The fourth issue rather differently concerns the overarching Social Science field of language and gender, and the associated question of empirical research, on which so much language and gender scholarship is based. This may be difficult for students from the Humanities taking language and gender modules, who are largely unused to this form of scholarship, and for whom linguistic description and analysis (for example, of naturally-occurring talk) may be unfamiliar and off-putting. Perhaps more significant is the question of students’ own empirical research. While this is often encouraged by teachers anxious to position their students as active, knowledge-making members of the language and gender research community (perhaps something particularly characteristic of language and gender, especially in the light of the range of relevant methodologies referred to above), these methodologies entail curricular demands which on (say) a 20-hour module need to be balanced with important language and gender curricular content, or, better, appropriately integrated.
Lastly (for this paper) is the question of accessibility vis à vis the sophistication and complexity of intellectual concepts populating the pages of current monographs and articles in language and gender. It is relatively easy to teach about ‘gender differences’ and ‘male dominance’, in which men were variously found to interrupt women more than vice versa, talk more than women, and produce fewer conversationally helpful questions and backchannels. Students new to the field are in our experience more than happy to discuss such findings and to look at them in the context of their own lives and relationships, often having no problem identifying with the findings. It is much harder to explain that current language and gender scholarship goes way beyond gender differences in language use (indeed, that ‘gender differences’ itself is a problematic concept in many ways), that language can be seen as ‘constructing’ gender rather than reflecting it, and that the field is now concerned with notions such as communities of practice, Queer theory, subject positioning, identity, discourse(s), orientation to gender, performativity/performance and warrants for our claims (to name a few). These complex notions need to be addressed, and in fact approached critically, but in an accessible way. This is difficult particularly for those teachers working with academically inexperienced students or those who are ‘dipping into’ language and gender with no opportunity for advanced study in the area, and some simplification may be pedagogically necessary and, indeed, appropriate.
5. Designing modules in language and gender
In Section 5, we consider four possible ways in which a language and gender module might be designed, according to different organisational criteria:
- A. Historical
- B. Topical
- C. Theoretical/methodological approaches
- D. Eclectic
A. Historical: Example
B. Topical: Example
As illustrated in the four different syllabi above, what to include in a language and gender module is by no means self-evident. One key question for many teachers is ‘How much history?’ – which poses something of a dilemma. As in other fields, current emphases in language and gender, both topical and methodological, have grown out of (responded to/reacted against) previous ones. As mentioned in Section 1, previous emphases included the ‘gender differences’ approaches of ‘deficit, ‘(male) dominance’ and ‘(cultural) difference’. But while the field has moved on considerably, to the point of having thoroughly problematised and largely rejected such emphases, they are (as we have suggested) both appealing to many students and intellectually graspable. Of course, previous emphases can be included critically, and now usually are – but the message does not always get through.
If such history is to be included (Example A), the question of sequencing needs to be addressed – must a language and gender module necessarily start with history, given that this may then set the tone for the remainder of the module? There are, of course, other organising principles than the chronological development of the field. One possibility here (Example B) is to sequence a module topically (e.g. classroom talk, the workplace, the media) – although it is hard to see how this could be achieved without some sort of theoretical/methodological thread running through it too. A third possibility (Example C) is to sequence a module chronologically but according to different theoretical/methodological approaches – perhaps starting with traditional sociolinguistic approaches (e.g. gender as evident in language variation) and concluding with Queer theory. Such an approach is however more likely to be appropriate to post-graduate students and/or those who already have some experience of the field. A fourth possibility is an ‘eclectic’ syllabus (Example D), through which some sort of ‘thread’ still needs to run.
A second key question of what to include in a language and gender module revolves round sexuality and, relatedly, Queer theory, which has made its own important contribution to language and gender. Given the overwhelming stress on (hetero)sexuality these days, few teachers of language and gender would argue that sexuality is not worthy of inclusion; however, this topic may still be absent partly because it presents something of an ontological challenge for ‘straight-identifying’ teachers, and partly because of the demanding intellectual challenge of Queer theory.
A third question is the role of biological factors/explanations. We noted above that these have traditionally been downplayed, but that it had also been suggested that researchers should engage critically with relevant literature. In terms of teaching, we would argue that language and gender study can address biological issues and debates without going down the routes of essentialism and biological determinism, and while keeping a critical eye on the discourses articulated in different types of explanation (i.e. how these are constructed in the literature.) A debate between the psychologists Stephen Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke on ‘The science of gender and science’ is a potential general resource, though not focussed on language issues (Pinker and Spelke 2005).
Most basic is the question of time. The language and gender field is young, but wide, intellectually complex, and fast-growing. Teachers need to address how to do justice to this in (say) ten two-hour sessions, considering a balance not only of content and methodology (already referred to), but also of what is likely to be of interest to students and what is of contemporary interest in the field, mediating the latter as appropriate to make current issues approachable and accessible.
6. Language and gender as part of other language modules
So far we’ve focussed on language and gender as a distinct module, but language and gender may also feature as a session in other modules, particularly in sociolinguistics or other socially-oriented approaches to language study. One option here is to provide a broad outline of the field (examples of how this has been attempted can be found in language and gender chapters in sociolinguistics text books – see, for instance, Holmes, 2001; Meyerhoff, 2006; Mesthrie et al, 2000). Another is to choose just one, illustrative topic (for example, language and gender in relation to children’s books, education, or the workplace). There are problems of selection here, but such a session should balance interest and accessibility with at least a flavour of contemporary approaches to the field.
Language, gender and sexuality may also be more closely integrated into the broader discussion of language and identity, and related topics. The shift from seeing identity as something that one has (a prior category that is reflected in language use) to seeing it as an interactional achievement (something that one does in very specific ways in particular interactions), which has led to a reconceptualisation of gender, and to its theorisation in terms of performativity (and its variations), as discussed in Section 1, is broadly consistent with much contemporary work on codeswitching and on style, style-shifting and stylisation, also concerned with the local, contextualised production of identities (e.g. Coupland, 1986; 2001; Rampton, 1995/2005). Codeswitching/style and gender/sexuality are not always discussed together, but some studies do bridge the gap (e.g. Barrett, 1999; Besnier, 2003; Eckert, 2007).
Such approaches are less consistent with work within the quantitative, variationist tradition that necessarily takes a less contextualised approach to social categories. However, the tussle between the local, qualitative exploration of identity and broader approaches associated with quantitative methods, along with debates about the potential value of combining superficially incompatible approaches, is very much a live issue in language and gender (e.g. Holmes, 1996; Hultgren, 2007; Swann, 2002). Gender therefore makes a useful case study in teaching about questions of identity and categorization.
Gender can also be drawn on in teaching about methodological/analytical issues: for instance, debates between exponents of conversation analysis (CA) and more critical approaches to discourse analysis on the interpretation of texts. At issue here is whether analysts may legitimately go beyond the text itself, and invoke various extra-textual or contextual factors to make an interpretation of the text. This textual vs contextualised debate has often been played out in relation to gender. CA advocates who take a strong position on this issue would insist that one may only interpret an interaction in terms of gender if gender is explicitly ‘oriented to’ by participants. This would rule out correlational evidence, ethnographic evidence, or any other approach that took contextual factors into account. For fuller discussion, see the debate between Schegloff, 1997; Wetherell, 1999 and others in the journal Discourse and Society; the powerfully-argued case for CA in Speer, 2005; and Swann, 2002. This and other methodological issues are also addressed in relation to language and gender in Harrington et al. (2007, in press).
In cases where it isn’t possible to teach a whole module on language and gender, then, language and gender can still inform the teaching of related topics, such as language and identity. Language and gender research may also be drawn on in the discussion of broader theoretical and methodological issues in language studies. In both cases it may serve to enrich and stimulate discussion and debate.
Barrett, R. (1999) ‘Indexing polyphonous identity in the speech of African American drag queens’, in Bucholtz, M., Laing, A.C. & Sutton, L.A. (eds) Reinventing Identities: the gendered self in discourse. New York: Oxford University Press.
Besnier, N. (2003) ‘Crossing genders, mixing languages: the linguistic construction of transgenderism in Tonga’, in Holmes, J. & Meyerhoff, M. (eds.) The Handbook of Language and Gender. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Besnier, N. (2005) ‘Gender and language in society’, Anthropology 149B.
Available at: www.sscnet.ucla.edu/05W/anthro149b-1/anthro149BsyllabusW05.pdf (Accessed 31 August 2007).
Coupland, N. (2001) ‘Language, situation, and the relational self: theorizing dialect-style in sociolinguistics’, in Eckert, P. and Rickford, J. (eds) Style and Sociolinguistic Variation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Eckert, P. (2006/7) ‘Language and gender’, Linguistics 156. Available at: http://www.stanford.edu/~eckert/linguist156/index.html (Accessed 31 August 2007).
Holmes, J. (1996) ‘Women's role in language change: a place for quantification’, in N. Warner, J. Ahlers, L. Bilmes, M. Oliver, S. Wertheim & M. Chen (eds.) Gender and Belief Systems: Proceedings of the Fourth Berkeley Women and Language Conference, April 19-21 1996. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Women and Language Group.
Hultgren, A.K. (2007) ‘Reconstructing the sex dichotomy in language and gender research: some advantages of using correlational sociolinguistics’, in Harrington, K., Litosseliti, L., Sauntson, H. & Sunderland, J. (eds.) (2007, in press) Language and Gender Research Methodologies. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Kiesling, S. (1999) Language and Gender syllabi.
Available at: www-personal.umich.edu/~jlawler/gender.html (Accessed 4 September 2007).
Lemaster, B & Sheldon, A. (2006) Resource Archive for Language and Gender
Available at: www.csulb.edu/~lemaster/lgarchive/ (Accessed 4 September 2007).
Pinker, S. and Spelke, E.S. (2005) ‘The science of gender and science. Pinker vs Spelke: a debate’. Debate held by the Mind, Brain and Behaviour Initiative: Harvard University, 22 April 2005.
Available at: www.edge.org/3rd_culture/debate05/debate05_index.html#p12 (Accessed 4 September 2007).
Recent text books
Coates, J. ( 2004, 3rd edn) Women, Men and Language. London: Longman.
Eckert, P. and McConnell-Ginet, S. (2003) Language and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Goddard, A. & Patterson, L.M. (2000) Language and Gender. London: Routledge.
Litosseliti, L. (2006) Gender and Language – Theory and Practice. London: Hodder Arnold.
Romaine. S. (1998) Communicating Gender. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Talbot, M.M. (1998) Language and Gender: an introduction. Cambridge: Polity.
Readers and resource books
Cameron, D. (ed) (1998) The Feminist Critique of Language. London: Routledge.
Cameron, D. & Kulik, D. (eds) (2005) The Language and Sexuality Reader. London and New York: Routledge.
Coates, J. (ed.) (1998) Language and Gender: a reader. Oxford: Blackwell.
Sunderland, J. (2006) Language and Gender: an advanced resource book. London and New York: Routledge.
Recent edited collections
Bergvall, V.L., Bing, J.M. & Freed, A.F. (eds) (1996) Rethinking Language and Gender Research: theory and practice. London and New York: Longman.
Bucholtz, M., Liang, A.C. & Sutton, L.A. (eds) (1999) Reinventing Identities: the gendered self in discourse. New York: Oxford University Press.
Campbell-Kibler, K. Podesva, R. Roberts, S.J. & Wong, A. (eds) (2002) Language and Sexuality: contesting meaning in theory and practice. Stanford, California: CSLI Publications
Hall, K. & Bucholtz, M. (eds) (1995) Gender Articulated: language and the socially constructed self. London: Routledge.
Harrington, K., Litosseliti, L., Sauntson, H. & Sunderland, J. (eds.) (forthcoming, 2007) Language and Gender Research Methodologies. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Harvey, K. & Shalom, C. (eds.) (1997) Language and Desire: encoding sex, romance and intimacy. London: Routledge.
Hellinger, M. & Bussmann, H. (eds.) (2001) Gender across Languages: the linguistic representation of women and men, Vol. I. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Hellinger, M.; Bussman, H. (eds.) (2002) Gender across languages Vol. 2. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Hellinger, M. & Bussman, H. (eds.) (2003) Gender across Languages: the linguistic representation of women and men, Vol. 3. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Holmes, J. & Meyerhoff, M. (eds.) (2003) The Handbook of Language and Gender. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Johnson, S. and Meinhof, U. (eds.) (1997) Language and Masculinity. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Leap, W.L. (ed.) (1995) Beyond the Lavender Lexicon: authenticity, imagination and appropriation in gay and lesbian languages. Newark: Gordon and Breach.
Litosseliti, L. & Sunderland, J. (eds.) (2002) Gender Identity and Discourse Analysis. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Livia, A. & Hall, K. (eds.) (1997) Queerly Phrased: language, gender and sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press.
McIlvenny, P. (ed.) (2002) Talking Gender and Sexuality. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Mills, S. (ed.) (1995) Language and Gender: interdisciplinary perspectives. Harlow, Essex: Longman.
Wodak, R. (ed.) Gender and Discourse. London: Sage.
See also the Gender and Genre Bibliography, 3rd edition
Equinox Publishing Ltd - Gender and Language journal
Relevant articles appear in journals of sociolinguistics, applied linguistics and text and discourse analysis.
Language and gender syllabi
Syllabi collected by The Council of the Status of Women in Linguistics (COSWL)
Syllabi collected by Amy Sheldon and Barbara LeMaster
International Gender and Language Association (IGALA)
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