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Research in Gender Differences

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The purpose of this essay is to investigate what role the gender plays in ESL context. To find the answer, I will focus on the research that was done in the field in the past 15 years. During my research, it became obvious that the quantitative approach seems to be more popular among researchers, with the Likert scale being on top of overall choices. Despite the fact that is lots of studies performed to measure gender differences with MRI, there is still lack of work done when it comes to learning the second language. Few of the researchers approached the topic with the qualitative approach and conducted the study using interviews and observations as their main instruments. Mixed methods using questionnaires and interviews are being recognized and gaining popularity, especially in the most recent research.

There are three major theories in the field of gender differences versus language: the deficit theory, the dominance framework and the different framework. The deficit theory (Lakoff, 1975) is based on the characteristics of women’s speech: emphasize its negative aspects while considering male language as stronger, more prestigious and more desirable. The dominance framework, that was developed in the mid1970’s, started to connect the negative evaluations of female’s speech to their social domination by men (Bergvall, 1999). One of the most popular books on gender differences describes gender differences as being socially constructed (Tannen, 1991). Tannen’s book is often being cited by sociobiologists as well, to support the theory of difference in language processing in the brain (Moir, 1989). There are hypotheses that language is more strongly lateralized males than for females. Left-lateralized brain activation was shown in some studies, whereas bilateral activation was shown in female’s brain (Kansaku, Yamaura, & Kitazawa, 2000; McGlone, 1980; Shaywitz et al., 1995). Finally, the difference framework, known as the dual-culture model, suggests that males and females are socialized differently into their role, thus the differences in their communicative style. Gender plays a significant role in foreign language performance and in general females outperform males. Kissau (2006a) claims that females are better due to their higher levels of motivation in second language acquisition. Few more research confirms the theory of females’ better performance in the aspects of foreign language (Koul, Roy, Kaewkuekool, & Ploisawaschai, 2009). They tend to show a higher level of interest in language compared to boys.

Quantitative approach

The first study (Chen et al., 2007), used functional MRI (fMRI) to investigate how sex determines the optimal brain functions. The team has created an artificial language, based on Korean writing and sound system – Hangul – but the visual forms did not correspond to their original sounds to avoid the graphene-phonology-correspondence. The study was carried out in China on 24Chinese college students: 13 males and 11 females, between 19-25 years old. They have never learned any Korean language before and all of them were right-handed. The subjects went through 2 weeks course, studying visual form,phonology, and semantics of 60 logographic artificial language characters. The program consisted of 2 hours a day and 5 hours a week of training. Additionally, to administered the training outcomes, the in-house software was developed. Initially, the subjects were trained on 20 characters, which extended to all 60after the first 3 days. Several types of learning tasks were incorporated to achieve measurable results, i.e. dictation, naming, copying words by hands, translation, listening comprehension. The subjects were tested on their visual word learning at the end of the everyday session. The behavioral data indicated that the training was successful. The pre-training MRI data showed the similarities in activation in the bilateral occipital, fusiform cortices and parietal lobule for males and females. The masked comparison revealed no significant sex differences. The post-training performance analyses showed the first evidence for gender differences in visual word learning. For males, to optimize the language learning, the left fusiform is used, whereas, for females, the use of bilateral neural network plays the significant role. The findings correlate with the previous research (Xue, Chen, Jin, & Dong, 2006) and indicate the sex differences in native language processing(left-hemisphere dominance for males and bilateralism for females), which can be correlated to second language acquisition. This study provides a new perspective and can be seen as a pioneer in a second language learning. The main limitation is the usage of the artificial language; the further studies need to use another languages’ pairs and research other learning aspects such as listening or production.

The next study investigates the gender differences in the foreign language classroom anxiety (Park & French, 2013). The study was conducted in South Korea on 948 university students learning English: 368 males and 580 females; with the average age of 21 years old. The subjects were studying English for more than 10 years with a range of2-4 hours weekly. To measure the anxiety level, the Foreign Language ClassroomAnxiety Scale (FLCAS) was used with a 5-point Likert Scale. Teachers who were responsible to collect the questionnaires were instructed on data collection procedure, students were voluntarily participating and they were asked to answer the questions honestly. The previous studies (Koul et al., 2009; MacIntyre, Baker, Cl?ment, &Donovan, 2002; Matsuda & Gobel, 2004)showed mixed findings in gender studies. The hypothesis was that males might be more anxious than females and their results in L2 performance would be adequately lower. The results of this study reported significantly higher anxiety level conflicts scale in females. ANOVA results indicated that female and more anxious students received the higher grade compared to males and less anxious students.

The main limitation of this study is socio-cultural aspect thus view on anxiety in Korean male-dominated culture. It was expected for females to receive higher grades because they have higher motivation level.

The next research is from South Korea as well. What differentiates it from other research is the big group of subjects: 5545 cases in total. It was a longitudinal study taking into account years 2005 – 2009. Korean Educational Longitudinal Study was conducted by the Korean government and it included a nationally representative sample. The research was measuring the intrinsic motivation for English and Math in middle schools’ 7th-grade students till 11th grade in high school. There was a good variety of schools themselves: urban and rural areas, private, national and public, different curriculum tracks, and the most important – targeted genders: boys, girls, and coeducational classrooms. The the4-point Likert scale was used to measure the motivation: interest in the subject, the importance of it and engagement. Students’ intrinsic motivation began to decrease for English and Math and it only changed the pattern after entering high school: the motivation for English increased. The gender differences were examined and it was noted that for English, females’motivation was higher at 9th grade, during middle school it was slowly decreasing, and again increasing at a faster rate during high school years(H. Lee & Kim, 2014). This study supports the previous one that reported advantage in language for females (Fern?ndez, Quiroga, del Olmo, Ar?ztegui, &Mart?n, 2011). Although this research provided new insight into intrinsic motivation and gender differences, we need to look at its limitations: different psychological and environmental factors, as well as identify if its result can be generalized into other countries (including non-Asian culture countries).

The next research reports the gender difference in learning oral English skills using technology. (Harb, Abu Bakar, & Krish, 2014). 30 males and 70females were the subjects and research were conducted in Jordan using 5-point Likert Scale. The study investigated the attitude towards learning oral skills between girls and boys and to find if females are better in language acquisition than males. Questionnaires were administered twice: during the first week of the compulsory English course in the university, and at the end of the semester – week 14 of the course. The results did not show any significant differences between genders, both in pre-test and post-test.

Qualitative approach

One of the studies I have chosen as an example of the qualitative approach is “I’m tired. You clean and cook.” (Gordon, 2004). This ethnographic study has approached the topic of gender differences and ESL by investigating second language socialization (Watson-Gegeo, 1988). “Language is learned through social interactions (…) and identity and context enable or limits access to second language resources.”(Gordon, 2004). Gordon (2004) investigates the interactions and shift between gender in Lao community. “Language learning both influences and is influenced by this changing identities.” (Gordon, 2004). According to this study, the gender identities are reconceptualized: women are gaining more power and getting more opportunities in expanding their leadership roles, which impacts positively their second language learning. The gender shift has been documented previously in immigrant and refugee’s communities (Foner, 1998; Zhou & Nordquist, 1994). It would be expected to see this change as a strong factor for increasing the access to second language recourses for women and increase the access to language, some studies show otherwise (Rockhill, 1990; Thanh V. Tran & Thang D. Nguyen,1994). They show that females have fewer opportunities in acquiring English than males. As the main reason, they suggest that women stay at home doing house chores and have little chances to interact in English with the outside world, while men need English for their daily life, including their workplaces. English for males is a necessity since they are in the role of the main financial support. Despite the common thought of women being oppressed by males and being confined at home, we should not assume that it is always the case. In the changing society, we observe that English is not only acquired by females for domestic reasons since they more often enter the wage labor force. This study specifically shows that we need to see the traditional gender identities in a new light: we should not ignore anymore the ongoing changes and ESL teachers have to recognize this shift. The researcher entered the Lao community in 1994 but formal data collection did not start until 1997.

The data collection was divided into 5stages: the first stage consisted of observations and interviews the participants, the second one the researcher spent by studying Lao language and literacy, the third was a research in an ESL/citizenship classroom, during the fourth stage, the researcher started to observe and interview principal participants of the study in their homes and workplaces, finally the last stage and the last year of the research, Gordon spent in Laos, visiting participants families and learning more about cultural differences between Laos and the USA. Within 5 years, Gordon collected wide-range of data allowing to triangulate data sources: “35 interview transcripts (15 from the initial interviews with community members and 20 interviews with principal participants); field notes from participant observation in the Lao Temple, the ESL/ citizenship class, research in Laos, and in the principal participants’ homes, workplaces,and gathering places; documents from the ESL/ citizenship class, including class lists, lesson plans, student information sheets, student writings, needs assessments, student progress notes, and language use sheets; documents from the research sites, including Temple newsletters and mailings, pamphlets and memos from the Indochinese Assistance Association and the Lao AssistanceCenter, and letters received by principal participants from the welfare office,utility companies, children’s schools, and other institutions.” (Gordon, 2004). Data analyses began with themes and categorize coding, using the colored label. The main participants were two Lao women: Pha and Viseth, both actively participating in ESL classroom. They were on different English levels: Pha was more advanced since she has overtaken the responsibilities of English communication for her household, Vieth’s English was very limited. Despite the fact of being a housewife, Pha developed her English through constant interactions in the society. On the other hand, full-time working Viseth did not have the same opportunity, because she was working with another Lao immigrant. Few researchers, such as Holmes (Holmes, 1993), Rockhill (1990), have claimed that women have fewer opportunities to acquire the second language than males since they are lacking language interactions from the workplace. The data collected by Gordon (1994)contradicts this statement. It was clearly visible that Pha has improved her English through domestics’ tasks such as dealing with the landlord and selling the car. Vieth’s English has not improved that drastically, but little change could have been observed. This serves as an example that females’ presence at home does not necessarily limit their access to language. Furthermore,“domestic language events required more complex patterns of English use than the workplace did.” (p. 453). In general, second language acquisition is not seen as a social phenomenon being shaped by social interactions between gender and their social status. Although this study gives us some pictures of the gender identities shift and second language socialization, the further research in multiple contexts is needed. Particularly, we need to look into the gender differences in non-migrant subjects, as well as in different socioeconomic groups, and extend it to the more diverse ethnic background.

Mixed-methods approach

The next study investigates gender differences by measuring the intrinsic, extrinsic, and interpersonal motivations and comparing the language result between girls and boys(Liu & Young, 2017). The research was carried out on 501 Taiwanese high school students:285 females and 216 males, using an online-community based reading contest. As motivation is an important factor, different outcomes in learning performance can be observed between genders (Kissau, 2006b). Reading is one of the main skill for delivery of information (Gardner, 1985). Gardner (1985) said that learning language is a lengthy process and he identified motivation as one of the most important factors in the second language acquisition. Gardner (1985) and (Deci & Ryan, 1985) has divided motivation into two types: intrinsic and extrinsic. “Intrinsic motivation refers to the interesting, satisfying, and pleasant emotion that users feel when engaging in an activity, whereas extrinsic motivation refers to external objects such as rewards or purposes used to encourage users to engage in various forms of behavior” (Liu &Young, 2017). The development of the Internet brought online platforms into research attention. Online communities that started to emerge, created interpersonal interactions between learners. (Kwok & Gao,2004) noticed that change and divided motivation into three types: on top of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, they provide the concept of interpersonal motivation, that consist of linking and affiliation. Personal factors such as motivation and gender, as well as social factors, play the role in second language acquisition (Shaughnessy,1998; Y. h. Wang & Liao, 2011). Previous studies have shown that there are gender differences in ESL context on learning motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic (Lepper, Corpus,& Iyengar, 2005; Li, Cheng, & Liu, 2013). Kissau came to the conclusion that males have weaker intrinsic motivation than a woman (2006a, 2006b) but they possess stronger extrinsic motivation (2008). “Gender differences in the use of technology (including online learning technology) can also significantly alter the impact on learning performance” ((Butler, Ryan, & Chao,2005; I.-S. Lee, 2002) cited in (Li et al., 2013)). Gender differences are also visible in online discussions: female was reported to have higher motivation and enjoyment in participating in the discussions. The gender differences are reduced though when a female shows no confidence in information and communication technology (ICT) (Lin & Overbaugh, 2009; Wu& Hiltz, 2004). Gender determines interpersonal relationships and behaviors, showing females more cooperative when the problem appears (Blum, 2005; Hale, 2002). Web-based questionnaires, interviews and learners’ log files were the instruments of this research.Triangulation of data was used to increase reliability. The questionnaire was developed by five high school teacher who was proficient in online platform users. The items for intrinsic, extrinsic and interpersonal motivation were adopted using previously developed frames by Gardner (1985), Deci & Ryan(1985), Kwok and Gao (2004). 5-point Likert scale and t-test were used to examine the topic. Users of online platform voluntarily filled the questionnaire (501 valid sample in total), and further interviews were carried with 15 students who received awards. (Liu & Young, 2017) research indicated that female possess stronger intrinsic motivation than males, they found the reading more interesting and fun, while males showed more interest in the use of ICT in learning English. These findings confirmed the previous theory that males are more fond of IT (Y. S. Wang, Wu, & Wang,2009). Both males and females scored the highest on the extrinsic motivation which is in relation to the previous study (Deci & Ryan, 1985). This study revealed that females showed more collaboration and they found it easier to overcome challenging activities. Regarding social interactions, males showed stronger interpersonal motivation compared to females (Liu & Young, 2017, p. 58). The study provides an evidence of gender differences in ESL context. Intrinsic motivation and comprehension test score were higher for females. In overall, males were better interactive activities such as puzzles and online discussions and they received higher average interactivity test scores than females. Despite those outcomes, we have to be careful not to generalize them into other context and studies: reading online contest is much different from traditional ones. A higher level of extrinsic motivation in females in this study could be affected by the cute prices that were offered: Hello Kitty mouse, Angry Bird MP3 players. It is highly likely that female students were strongly drawn to the awards marked by gender characteristics or cartoon symbols (Liu & Young, 2017, p.58). Another limitation of the study is the fact that it was a reading contest and participants were already higher motivated in the task than students would be in a regular English classroom. Further research is needed to check if there are similar patterns existing in the different cultural background, outside of Asian context, a different age group such as teenagers, children, and adults.


It is worthwhile to consider psychological and environmental factors that affect the second language acquisition in women and men. Especially, in a new gender-neutral society, the movement that is getting more and more visible worldwide. Typicalgender’s roles are not being taught or acquired from the birth, as the dual-culture model promotes, thus this gives an open window for discussion in context: how gender-free phenomena impact the outcomes of the second language learning when learners do not perceive themselves either as feminine nor masculine. A longitudinal ethnographic study in the newly emerging society could give a wider picture of the theme and help us to understand how gender discourse emerged in English learning environment/ESL classroom. Possibly combined with MRI studies that measure the brain activity for gender-neutral people: if and how language processing in the brain would change its pattern. To allow in-depth analysis of the topic, a greater variety of subjects should be researched: younger students, before even entering high school, since their motivation would vary from high school and university students. In addition, members of different subgroups would shed the light on second language acquisition by extending the context to more diverse cultures. More mixed-methods approach, such as 7-point Likert scale combined with interviews to triangulate the findings, would help to learn more details about the outcome and provide additional evidence and explanations on the phenomena, especially in cases like Park and French (2013) research: to find an answer why females, despite being more anxious, received higher scores than males. As Harb (2014) results showed no significant difference in learning oral skills, further study administered on different aspects of language acquisition: reading, writing, and speaking, is needed.

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