Language investigation ideas: World Englishes and gender

If genderlects exist, do people who learn English as a second language display features that have been identified as gendered? 

If men and women speak in distinct ways (as has been claimed by Lakoff, Tannen and others), it would be interesting to see whether people who have learned English as a second language display these traits – presumably if the (claimed) difference is primarily due to biological factors (e.g. perhaps men are more aggressive or assertive in their speech as a result of having more testosterone) then non-native speakers will produce these gendered features. If any differences result primarily from socialisation, then perhaps non-native speakers will notproduce those features. 

The idea for this study comes from a student who had Asian family members who visited the UK but had never lived here, and who were non-native speakers. When they visited, she had access to their conversations with English speakers who lived in the UK and recorded and transcribed some of those conversations. Partly because of less competence in the language, some of her female relatives seemed quite rude and assertive when speaking to restaurant staff in English. 

Gathering detailed information on the language backgrounds of each subject would be important (how long have they been speaking it? Do they have any formal qualifications in English? How often do they speak it? What other languages do they speak? Which do they speak most often?). One approach would be to count up (and analyse/label) errors in their English and use that as a way of measuring their competence in English (be sure to take the amount they speak into account too – average number of mistakes per turn would be better than just a raw total). 

With that information gathered, comparing the rate of gendered features to each speaker’s level of competence in English could be fruitful – if female subjects are consistently producing ‘feminine’ features whatever their level of English language ability, that’s interesting. If male speakers are producing lots of ‘feminine’ features then that would be interesting, and if a high level of competence in English is associated with a high level of ‘feminine’ features then perhaps stereotypically feminine speech is something people are acquiring as they learn English. 

AO1 – all the suggested genderlect features from research (like Lakoff’s ‘women’s language’ features, topic shifters being taken up, face-threatening turns, interrupting and overlapping, using standard forms etc..). Facework seems worth discussing in light of Tannen’s assertions about how men and women speak (‘orders vs proposals’). 

There would be scope for some discussion of transfer errors (mistakes caused by approaching a new language like your native language) that could introduce all sorts of AO1 terms like subject-verb agreement, morphology, pluralisation, auxiliary verbs and so on (depending on the specific mistakes). Examining a few of these could allow an assessment of the level of English-language competence of people in the data. 

AO2 – genderlect researchers like Lakoff, Tannen, Fishman, Zimmerman & West etc.. and supporters of the Gender Similarities Hypothesis (Hyde, Cameron). O’Barr and Atkins. Could get into Zimmerman and West’s Doing Gender (the idea that gender is something we perform) to discuss gender roles in different cultures, how changeable supposedly gendered behaviours are and perhaps whether different languages might be priming different behaviours. 

AO3 – The lives of the people involved would provide good rich context to discuss. If the non-native speakers do produce gendered features at a similar rate to native speakers, it would be worth considering whether learning a language also involves learning certain attitudes typical of speakers of that language. Everything to do with their backgrounds could be considered as well – depending on the results, all sorts of things could be relevant. For example – if older speakers are ruder and perform less facework, could that be because they’re more established in the world, or higher status in that family and so don’t feel the need for politeness so much? Or are their personalities just like that in both languages/cultures? If the investigator knows about their behaviour in their native country, that could be useful background for their general levels of, say, politeness, and stereotypically feminine or masculine behaviour. 

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