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Gender roles in language acquisition Essay

We reprimand our daughters for being “bossy” and praise our son’s for showing such assertiveness. These were the sentiments expressed during Sheryl Sandburg book promotion tour in early 2013. Mrs Sandberg is largely accepted as one of the most successful female businessperson in modern society. During her many lectures and academic interviews she essentially cited her success as the result of ‘going against the gender norm’ for women. Although specifically referring to the business world, does Sheryl have a point? Are we reinforcing gender roles in the words we promote and discourage our children to use?

It is largely accepted across both linguistic and psychology fields that girls develop their language skill in: understands, quantity, quality and range of vocabulary acquired at an earlier age and faster rate than their male counterparts.

A very recent study by Rikard Bauman in 2010 (Stockholm University Press) explored vocabulary growth and language production in pre-school children. It is suggested that at 22 months girls have a more extensive vocabulary than boys due to capacity differences; however, at 34 months such a pattern cannot be found. Furthermore it is suggested that gender affects language production in the sense that male and female speakers will prefer to produce words that are associated with their culture’s definition of masculinity and femininity.

The study on vocabulary growth is based on the assumption that TTR (type/token ratio) reflects vocabulary size and it proves that, at 22 months, girls have a more extensive vocabulary than boys; however, at 34 months such a pattern is less obvious, if any conclusion can be drawn it is that boys have a slightly larger vocabulary than girls. The study on language production is focused on verb production and it shows that boys and
girls prefer verbs that are associated with common stereotypes of masculinity and femininity.

It seems that these gender distinctions are not unique to the English language or the Western world as …… Found when examining the Japanese language. according to Eleanor Harz Jorden, when learning language in Japan children learn that there are some words and some grammatical constructions that are associated explicitly with men or boys, while others are associated with women or girls. Such differences are sometimes called “gendered language.” In Japanese, speech patterns associated with women are referred to as onna kotoba (“women’s words”) or joseigo , “women’s language”).

In general, the words and speech patterns associated with men are seen as rough, vulgar, or abrupt, while those associated with women are considered more polite, more deferential, or “softer”. Some linguists consider the rough/soft continuum more accurate than the male/female continuum. For example, Eleanor Harz Jorden in Japanese: The Spoken Language refers to the styles as blunt/gentle, rather than male/female. There are no gender differences in written Japanese (except in quoted speech), and almost no differences in polite speech (teineigo), since males take on “softer” speech, except for the fact that women may be more likely to use polite speech in the first place.

The word onnarashii , which is usually translated as “ladylike” or “feminine,” refers to the behaviour expected of a typical Japanese woman. As well as behaving in particular ways, being onnarashii means conforming to particular styles of speech. Some of the features of women’s speech include speaking in a higher register, using more polite forms and using polite speech or honorifics in more situations, and referring to themselves and those they address more formally. Some linguistic features commonly associated with women include omission of the copula da, the use of personal pronouns such as watashi or atashi among others, use of feminine sentence-final particles such as wa, na no, kashira, and mashoo, and the more frequent use of the honorific prefixes o and go.

According to Katsue Akiba Reynolds, ladylike speech is instrumental in keeping Japanese women in traditional roles and reflects Japanese society’s concept of the difference between women and men.[4] For example, there is the potential for conflict for women in the workplace in that, to be onnarashii, a woman must speak politely, submissively and humbly, yet to command respect as a superior, she must be assertive, self-assured, and direct, even when dealing with male subordinates. Actual language used by Japanese-speaking women differs from these ideals. Such onnarashii speech is a norm that institutions such as education and media encourage women to adopt. Similarly, these forms may be prescribed for women learners by Japanese textbooks and other materials.

There are, however various deviations from these norms in conversation. Although Japanese women may not follow the gender norm in speech, some linguistic studies indicate that Japanese women tend to use more honorific language than men do, which reinforces the idea of onnarashii and traditional gender roles.[5] Traditional characteristics of Japanese men’s speech [edit]

Just as there are modes of speaking and behaviour that are considered intrinsically feminine, there are also those that are considered intrinsically masculine. In speech, being otokorashii (“manly” or “masculine”) means speaking in a lower register, using fewer polite forms and using them in fewer situations, and using intrinsically masculine words.

Research on Japanese men’s speech shows greater use of “neutral” forms, forms not strongly associated with masculine or feminine speech, than is seen in Japanese women’s speech. Scholars argue that men use typically masculine forms to “assert their own authority and knowledge of themselves”. Some studies of conversation between Japanese men and women show neither gender taking a more dominant position in interaction. Men, however, tend to show a “self-oriented conversation style”, telling stories and expressing their expertise on topics being discussed, than is typical of women in these studies.

Gender differences in modern society :- As women gain an increasing leadership role in Japanese society, notions of onnarashisa and otokorashisa, that is, what is deemed appropriate behaviour for men and women, have evolved over time. Although comparatively more extreme movements call for the elimination of gender differences in the Japanese language (gender-neutral language), convergence in usage is considered unlikely and may not even be desirable. Instead, trends in actual usage indicate that women are feeling more comfortable using traditional characteristics of female speech (such as wa) while still maintaining an assertive attitude on par with men. In other words, there is a gradual decoupling of language forms and traditional cultural expectations.

Although the characteristics of Japanese male speech have been largely unaffected, there has been an increasing sensitivity regarding certain usages (such as changing the terms used to refer to mature women -chan) that may be considered offensive. Regional dialect may often play a role in the expression and perception masculinity or femininity of speech in Japanese. Another recent phenomenon influencing established femininity in speech is the popularity of Okama, very feminine men as popular Geinoujin (television personalities). While homosexuality and transgenderism is still a fairly taboo subject in Japan, lesbians with male traits, or cross-dressers, are referred to as onabe or tachi. Problems for Japanese learners [edit]

Without the proper instruction by fluent Japanese speakers and/or teachers, non-native persons risk learning and expressing themselves inappropriately to native Japanese. Compounding the difficulty of language acquisition, formal instruction may emphasise learning the polite forms of expression (that favour female students) while glossing over informal expression (that favour male students) and honorifics (distinguishes natives from foreigners).

It is important for non-natives to be instructed by members of the same sex or be aware that mere mimicry may not have the expected results. In addition to the use of pronouns to refer to oneself and others, the use of titles also is strongly influenced by gender-based overtones and is another source of potential problems for the non-native speaker. The situation is further complicated by regional variation. For example, in many regions of Japan it is common for older men to refer to themselves as boku or older women to refer to themselves as ore.

How does this relate to language spoken in the Western world? Opinion is, as is often the case, divided.


1) other major influences
Mahsa Saligheh ‘Revisiting Age and GenderInfluence in Second Language Acquisition’ 2012 states, ” There is no doubt that language acquisition process is a complex process which involves several factors, and that this process is highly influenced due to plasticity of the brain. Furthermore, the types of memory systems involved in females and males are also have a pivotal role that makes the genders distinct. The researchers claim, age and gender, are among the factors that run in parallel with other factors that deeply influence language acquisition process such as motivation, personality, styles, strategies, gender and age.

The present study attempts to investigate the last two factors: age and gender. Given the importance placed on the role on age and gender, the researchers hold they are not the necessary conditions for second language acquisition. However, the writers claim that genetically there are some benefits that can be reaped for those who begin L2 acquisition early. Furthermore, both males and females are equipped with some predetermined tendencies that would be helpful for them to acquire some aspects of language much faster and easier.

2) biological basis

Mar. 5, 2008 — Although researchers have long agreed that girls have superior language abilities than boys, until now no one has clearly provided a biological basis that may account for their differences.

For the first time — and in unambiguous findings — researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Haifa show both that, areas of the brain associated with language work harder in girls than in boys during language tasks, and that boys and girls rely on different parts of the brain when performing these tasks. “Our findings which suggest that language processing is more sensory in boys and more abstract in girls could have major implications for teaching children and even provide support for advocates of single sex classrooms,” said Douglas D. Burman, research associate in Northwestern’s Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences

The researchers measured brain activity (using functional magnetic resonance imaging) in 31 boys and in 31 girls aged 9 to 15 as they performed spelling and writing language tasks. The tasks were delivered in two sensory modalities – visual and auditory. When visually presented, the children read certain words without hearing them. Presented in an auditory mode, they heard words aloud but did not see them. Using a complex statistical model, Burman and Pepper accounted for differences associated with age, gender, type of linguistic judgment, performance accuracy and the method (written or spoken) in which words were presented. The researchers found that girls still showed significantly greater activation in language areas of the brain than boys.

The information in the tasks got through to girls’ language areas of the brain (areas associated with abstract thinking through language). And their performance accuracy correlated with the degree of activation in some of these language areas. To their astonishment, however, this was not the case for boys. Boys’ accurate performance when reading words depended on how hard visual areas of the brain worked. In hearing words, boys’ performance depended on how hard auditory areas of the brain worked. If that pattern extends to language processing that occurs in the classroom, it could inform teaching and testing methods.

Given boys’ sensory approach, boys might be more effectively evaluated on knowledge gained from lectures via oral tests and on knowledge gained by reading via written tests. For girls, whose language processing appears more abstract in approach, these different testing methods would appear unnecessary. “One possibility is that boys have some kind of bottleneck in their sensory processes that can hold up visual or auditory information and keep it from being fed into the language areas of the brain,” Burman said.

This could result simply from girls developing faster than boys, in which case the differences between the sexes might disappear by adulthood. Or, an alternative explanation is that boys create visual and auditory associations such that meanings associated with a word are brought to mind simply from seeing or hearing the word. While the second explanation puts males at a disadvantage in more abstract language function, those kinds of sensory associations may have provided an evolutionary advantage for primitive men whose survival required them to quickly recognise danger-associated sights and sounds.

If the pattern of females relying on an abstract language network and of males relying on sensory areas of the brain extends into adulthood (a still unresolved question) it could explain why women often provide more context and abstract representation than men. Ask a woman for directions and you may hear something like: “Turn left on Main Street, go one block past the drug store, and then turn right, where there’s a flower shop on one corner and a cafe across the street.” Such information-laden directions may be helpful for women because all information is relevant to the abstract concept of where to turn; however, men may require only one cue and be distracted by additional information.


Alongside most if not all empirical and theoretical evidence involving human beings it is impossible to make concrete and definite conclusions. Having extrapolated the information the most obvious conclusion can only deduce

Is this only evident in childhood, does the distinction disappear by adulthood or was Sandberg right in stating that the division in language between the sexes continues through life.

Burman is primary author of “Sex Differences in Neural Processing of Language Among Children.” Co-authored by James R. Booth (Northwestern University) and Tali Bitan (University of Haifa).

Jorden, Eleanor Harz; Noda, Mari (1987). Japanese: The Spoken Language. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-03834-7.

Siegal, Meryl; Okamoto, Shigeko (2003). “Toward reconceptualizing the teaching and learning of gendered speech styles in Japanese as a Foreign Language”. Japanese Language and Literature 37 (1): 49–66. Retrieved 2013-4-26.

Kazuko, Ashizawa (1998). Mangajin’s Basic Japanese Through Comics.
Weatherhill. ISBN 0-8348-0452-2.

Reynolds, Katsue Akiba (1990). “Female Speakers of Japanese in Transition”. Aspects of Japanese Women’s Language (Tokyo: Kurosio).

Tanaka, Lidia (2004). Gender, Language and Culture: A Study of Japanese Television Interview Discourse. John Benjamins Publishing. ISBN 978-90-272-3079-9.

Sreetharan, Cindi Sturtz (2004). “Students, sarariiman (pl.), and seniors: Japanese men’s use of ′manly′ speech register”. Language in Society 33 (01). doi:10.1017/S0047404504031045. ISSN 0047-4045.

^ Itakura, Hiroko; Tsui, Amy B. M. (2004). “Gender and conversational dominance in Japanese conversation”. Language in Society 33 (02). doi:10.1017/S0047404504332033. ISSN 0047-4045.

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