The Effects of Gender on Language

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Gender can have a profound effect on how people acquire, use, and think about language. This lesson presents and discusses some of the ways that gender can impact how language is acquired.

Why Think About Gender and Language?

When you look around, you might notice that for the most part, masculinity and feminity are represented in a number of different ways. From the way people dress, to how they wear their hair, all of these choices are sending a message about their own relationship to the social construct of gender, or how a person identifies themselves in relation to the categories of man and woman. Gender is so tied to how we express ourselves that it can even impact the words we use every day!

This may come as a surprise. At first, gender might seem irrelevant to language. However, researchers have repeatedly demonstrated a strong relationship between gender and how language is acquired, developed, and used. Gender seems to have an impact on language development even in very different historical and cultural contexts.

Gender and Language Acquisition

First of all, gender can play an important part in language acquisition, or how young children learn their native language. In many societies, babies and toddlers spend more time with female caregivers, so early language is often initially mimicked from a female speaker.

In most language groups, young girls acquire language on average at a slightly faster rate than boys, though this tends to even out by middle childhood. Gender differences in language use appear early; girls are more likely to use language in the context of emotional relationships with others, while boys more likely to use it to describe objects and events.

On average, girls also learn to read slightly earlier than boys, but this, too, evens out in middle childhood. Nonetheless, throughout the lifespan, women tend to perform slightly higher than men, on average, on tests measuring verbal acuity and performance.

Gender and Language Development and Expression

There are some significant differences in how language develops and how people tend to express themselves based on gender.

For example, as a whole, women tend to use language more relationally, or in the context of close relationships with others. Women also tend to have a wider-range of emotional vocabulary, using language more readily to describe their feelings and emotional states.

Men, on the other hand, tend to use language more assertively and are more likely to suppress, or hold back, their emotions. As a result, men tend to not express their emotions through language. It is important to note that this is a generalization and is by no means applicable to all men and women worldwide.

The ways men and women use language also vary depending on the language in question. For instance, some studies note that female speakers of Chinese speak more quietly and in a more passive voice than male speakers. These differences have not been documented consistently in other languages.

How to Make Sense of Differences

This raises an important question; why does gender play such a big role in how people acquire, develop, and express themselves through language? There are several different perspectives on this question.

Biological Difference

Some people maintain that there is a biological difference between men and women that impacts neurological development, and thus, leads men and women to acquire and use language differently. This is an essentialist view, meaning that the differences between men and women are considered to be innate and irrevocable. In general, researchers have moved away from this perspective over the last century, though some still argue for the significance of biology in gender effects on language.

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