This article was published on the ELT NEWS website, Japan as part of the ‘Think Tank’ regular feature.
It was part of a column entitled “Women’s Classes” discussing the questions on teaching all-female groups in Japan.
I’ve never taught at a women’s college, but I have taught plenty of all-male and all-female classes. We used to do specialist courses, and it’s not sexist to point out that the courses for the Kuwaiti Fire Brigade or Japanese Golfers that I taught were all male, nor that (in those days at least) the Secretarial, Hotel Reception and Nursing groups were either all female or 90% female.
Anyone who’s taught languages to mixed groups will agree that … well, how can you put this … women are better language learners? It’s easier to teach languages to women? Women are less resistant to the ego shock of finding themselves in a beginner situation? There are fewer discipline problems?
Everything that follows is a generalisation. We all know that some women are taciturn and some men are talkative, but most people would agree that generally women talk more freely than men. Of course if the male readers have chosen to be language teachers and spend their days with language, it stands to reason that most of them (i.e. most of us) are at the more talkative end of the male spectrum. However, language departments in universities always seem to have a majority of women students.
When I started teaching full-time, the Swiss-owned language school had an all male staff. The first female teacher joined the staff four weeks after me. This was an oddity of Britain in 1971. Most of the talks I’ve given to teachers since the mid-70s have seen a majority of women in the audience, often a very large majority. For students, I believe it’s beneficial to have both men and women teachers, and in British primary teaching the very small number of male teachers is often held to cause socialization problems for little boys.
It’s unquestionably gender biased. Thirty years ago you could have got into deep water by implying that there were any differences at all. A distinguished sociologist of that era got himself into a whole heap of trouble by suggesting that women have innate language learning abilities. He (for it was a he) went on to suggest that in primitive societies, each group or village had such a strong local dialect that it was almost a different language from neighbouring villages. In nearly all these societies there were taboos about marrying within the village, and on marriage it was the woman who moved to the husband’s family or village. So that generations of women had to develop language adaptation strategies.
It’s also obvious that most initial language teaching to babies is done by mothers, who have developed an instinctive analysis of language. My granddaughter, at 22 months, referred to herself as “You” rather than “I” or “me”. If you showed her a photo of herself, she’d say ‘That’s you.’ She thought it was her name. One Sunday my son-in-law spent a futile ten minutes trying to explain logically that she should say ‘I’ and ‘me’ to the amusement of the watching women. They were aware that language develops and grows, and can’t be “explained” at that stage.
Teaching all-women classes starts out with strong advantages. In the UK we have single-sex schools and mixed (co-ed) schools. Girls perform better academically in all girls classes. Boys perform better in mixed classes. It’s a straighforward statistic, and every time it’s been checked it’s the same. Girls feel more relaxed in an all female class, and they don’t get shouted down by the boys. Boys behave better when girls are in the class. There are fewer disciplinary problems. The conundrum is that single sex education is academically better for girls (we’re not considering whether it’s socially better) and mixed education is better for boys. You can’t have both.
I agree that co-operative activities are important in women’s classes, though I disagree that competitive activities are inappropriate. A lot of women enjoy the process of competitive activities. It’s just that they don’t get so stressed about winning and losing. My kids used to go mad playing Monopoly, because if someone lost a large pile of money, Karen would give half of it back rather than see them out of the game. ‘But that’s not the point …’ they’d protest. So you can have competition and it works better because no one leaps up punching their fist in the air and screaming ‘Yes!!!’ when they win.
An area worth considering is pair work. Women are generally better at turn-taking in conversation. It has been pointed out that this puts them at a disadvantage when pair work in a mixed class is male / female. Males expect to dominate the path of the conversation and women let them get away with it, probably from bitter experience. The answer in a mixed class is to vary the pairs as often as possible with same gender pairs interspersed with mixed gender pairs (as well as stronger with weaker, streamed so that stronger is with stronger, and plain proximity as possibilities). Against that, secondary teachers have often pointed out that kids chatter far more in the mother tongue with the same gender, and much less in mixed gender pairs. Variety is the key.
As another huge generalisation women are less inhibited about making mistakes or appearing ‘foolish’ in a foreign language. That’s not always true of course, but the fragile male ego is seriously at risk when Mr. Manager finds himself in a beginner language situation doing far worse than Ms. Personal Assistant. I have also seen women students making deliberate minor mistakes rather than ‘show up’ their male friend or partner. They don’t have to bother in single-sex classes.
Research was done years ago into the teaching of French and German in English schools. They came to the conclusion that language teaching should begin younger at primary school. At that time, language teaching started at 11 or 12 years old, which was the worst possible age for boys. At this age boys were becoming aware of their own group (and national) identity and were not interested in a foreign culture. They also found that pronunciation was the most difficult area of all, because boys either refused to make any effort to accommodate to foreign sounds, or even deliberately mangled them to amuse their classmates. This rang bells for me. It certainly happened when I was a teenager. Girls on the other hand were more interested in foreign cultures and less resistant to attempting new sounds. This was work on early teenage language learning, but attitudes are created at that point that persist.
Women have measurably more acute hearing, which means they perform better at intonation, stress and pronunciation work (and feel less “silly” in doing so). They also have less directional hearing than men, finding it harder to place where sounds are coming from, but this isn’t a language learning disadvantage. But more women can sing in tune than men. Women are more relaxed about using body language (smiles, gestures etc) to accompany language. They give more feedback in conversation, using a greater amount of attentive listening signals such as smiling, nodding, making sounds of agreement.
The differences between male and female communication styles and even language is a great classroom topic, and one I’ve often exploited. There ARE measurable differences in language use, too. These include:
• the choice and range of adjectives
• the number of other descriptive words used
• accurate choice of colour words (turquoise) versus vague colour words (light blue)
• giving and receiving compliments (the vast majority of compliments are given TO women, a definite majority of compliments are given BY women)
• the use of indirect questions and negatives (women prefer indirect questions, Do you know what it is? rather than What is it?)
• the use of qualifiers (women qualify more than men … a bit, quite, kind of, sort of, about, around)
• the use of quantifiers (men use more quantifiers than women … all, every one of them, both)
• the use of jokes (men use jokes as a substitute for conversation).
• Women prefer tentative forms (tend to do, might, should ) rather than definite (does, will, must).
Does all this have syllabus implications? Not really, as you have to understand both sides whichever you choose to use. It might mean that the effort of getting the word order right in indirect questions and statements is less worthwhile with all male groups. It might mean that tentative forms are worth ‘promoting’ in a linear syllabus. But I tend to think that this might be kind of right anyway.
Underlying it all is that statistic about the number of words used per day. Marc Helgesen quotes the Peases on 18,000 words a day for women versus 7,000 words a day for men. Another source gives 23,000 words a day versus 7,000. Let’s just say ‘about three times as much.’ On the visual / auditory learner question, I believe that more women are auditory learners than men, but that a majority of both men and women are visual learners … but that’s a whole different subject. From a personal point of view (having done a course, Handshake, which is based on a communication skills syllabus), more women see the point of integrating communication skills into our teaching.
‘He Says, She Says’ by Dr Lillian Glass (Piatkus, 1992)
‘Why Men Don’t Listen and Women can’t read maps’ by Allan and Barbara Pease (Pease Training International, 1999, revised edition Orion 2001)
‘BrainSex’ by Anne Moir and David Jessel (Mandarin, 1989)
‘Men and Women’ Unit 14 in In English Pre-Intermediate by Peter Viney & Karen Viney (OUP, 2005)
‘Conversation Strategies: Women and Men’, ‘Attentive Listening’, ‘Turn-Taking’, ‘Interrupting’, ‘Compliments’ all in Handshake by Peter Viney & Karen Viney (OUP, 1995)