Are girls better than boys at language?

"Kids playing with marbles” by Tup Wanders is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Kids playing with marbles” by Tup Wanders is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This month, I want to pick up the theme of the brain and language learning and consider the controversial topic of sex differences.  There has existed a belief for some time that girls are innately better at language than boys.  Gurian (2005 in Eliot, 2009) argues that girls are up to eighteen months ahead of boys by the age of six and this has been put forward as an argument for teaching girls and boys separately and differently.

The neurobiologist, Lise Eliot, in her book “Pink Brain, Blue Brain” argues that the difference is not nearly as large as some people think and acknowledges that the key is education:

“ … most language and literacy differences are small and largely fixable if parents and teachers focus on these abilities in an early and consistent manner.”  (Eliot, 2009:  173)

As Eliot points out, language and literacy are learned skills (look at literacy rates in countries where women don’t have access to education), so it is impossible for this to be a hard-wired difference between girls and boys – we rely on the spoken language to help us to read.  Any kind of advantage in speaking that girls may exhibit early on becomes further compounded by the environment and societal beliefs (girls are expected and encouraged to be more verbal). Eliot documents studies with twins that show that boys who speak more with boys are less verbal while boys who hang out with girls are more verbal – which seems to me like a good argument not to separate the sexes!!

Cordelia Fine, meanwhile, examines in detail the research which tries to pin any language differences on hard-wiring and concludes that “Nonexistent sex differences in language lateralization, mediated by nonexistent sex differences in corpus callosum structure, are widely believed to explain nonexistent sex differences in language skills.”  (Fine, 2010: 138)  The point Fine makes is that there is some very dubious research in the area, a lot of reverse inferencing, small subject numbers and overreporting of results that show differences and underreporting of the studies that show no significant differences between the sexes (see Hyde’s Gender Similarities Hypothesis).   Cameron adds to the argument against the innate female language superiority idea when she asks, “If female verbal superiority is a scientific fact why have so many cultures considered men’s verbal skills to be more advanced than women’s?”  (Cameron, 2008: 39).

A lot is made of gender differences in language ability, but research shows that sex is not nearly as important as some authors make out.  Socioeconomic factors are a far stronger predictor of language ability than gender – research puts the influence of socioeconomic status at between 30 and 70%, while the sex of the child has about a 3% effect. (Eckert et al, 2001, Hatlaar et al, 2005 in Eliot, 2009: 195).

So, what does this mean for teachers?  Everything points to the importance of education, not gender, in language learning, so how can we ensure that both girls and boys do well in the language classroom?

I’ll be talking more about this in future posts. :-)

References

Cameron, D (2008)  The Myth of Mars and VenusDo men and women really speak different languages? Oxford:  Oxford University Press

Eliot, L  (2009)  Pink Brain, Blue Brain  New York:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Fine, C. (2010). Delusions of Gender: How our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference. New York: W. W. Norton.

Hyde, J S (2005) The gender similarities hypothesis’ American Psychologist, Vol 60 (6), Sep 2005, pp581-592

Lethaby, C (2014) ‘Children, gender and learning’ in Primary Methodology Handbook:  Practical ideas for ELT Richmond Publishing

Carol Lethaby

Carol Lethaby is a teacher, teacher educator and materials writer based in San Francisco, California, who has been in the field of language teaching since 1986. She is part-time Assistant Professor on the New School, New York online MA TESOL as well as being an honoured instructor at UC Berkeley Extension where she teaches on the TESL/TEFL Certificate program. She has also worked on several textbook series for learners of English, including Awesome, Next Step, The Big Picture and English ID, all published by Richmond ELT. Carol is a frequent presenter at international conferences. http://clethaby.com

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