The Effect Of Gender Reinforcement On Language Acquisition And Style
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The Effect Of Gender Reinforcement On Language Acquisition And Style

When children are encouraged to establish their gender identities before or during when language acquisition is established, then they will form gendered speech communities because the methods and tactics of their communication skills are reinforced by adult and media paradigm encouragement/discouragement.

The Effect Of Gender Reinforcement On Language Acquisition And Style

Looking back to my experiences in the late '90s and early 2000s regarding learning what to say and how to say it I find two notable reflections that beg for exploration. My first reflection is that as a child I was encouraged by my peers, media, and authority figures to conglomerate based on gender. In other words, the "No boys allowed" mentality was a very real experience in public schools. My second reflection is that young girls and young boys were/are expected to adhere to and learn from using divergent communication styles and symbols.

These reflections are supported by my time as a counselor for youth at the YMCA and youth drama camps. Especially during the ages of 4-10 (but not isolated to those ages), the children seemed to be able to and prefer to communicate more effectively with students of their own gender.

Children on Gender RolesYouTube

I had a sense that there were things girls should say and things that wouldn't be ladylike to say. For example, I recall being put in time-out for speaking too loudly while the boys of my class who reached similar decibel counts were never punished.

Forty years ago, Lakoff, the foundational gender socio-linguistic shares my experience with this phenomenon in Language and A Woman's Place:

"As children, women are encouraged to be 'little ladies'. Little ladies don't scream as vociferously as little boys, are chastised more severely for throwing tantrums or showing temper: 'high spirits' are expected and therefore tolerated in little boys; docility and resignation are the corresponding traits expected of little girls. Now, we tend to excuse a show of temper by a man where we would not excuse an identical tirade from a woman: women are allowed to fuss and complain, but only a man can bellow in rage." (Lakoff)

I felt comfortable using the aesthetically descriptive words "Pretty" or "cute" or "beautiful" but when I used them to describe a boy, he would react negatively and reject those descriptions in lieu of words like "awesome" or "cool" or "strong." Even as adults I've been told not to call a male date cute or beautiful unless you know he is okay with that while it's a man's prerogative to comment on the beauty of his female date.

Observation: In general I've noticed young girls learn to use modifiers, amplifiers, uptalk, emotion-based dialogue, and descriptive verbs and adjectives. Young girls and women tend to pitch their voice up during phone calls, or when speaking in front of a crowd. I've also noticed young boys learn to use volume, definitives, slang, and name-calling to bond within their in-group. I've also noticed boys tend to stray away from emotion-based speech with a preference for logic and reasoning. Young boys and men tend to pitch their voices down when addressing a crowd.

Differences are noted in five particular areas: morphology, phonology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and word choice. Anne McGillicuddy, a prominent gender psychologists notes:

"One area in which morphological gender differences has been founds is in the use of diminutives: the little -y or -ie that transforms a word into a baby talk like doggie or footie. Women use more of these when talking to children, and are more used to little girls than little boys". (Anne McGillicuddy-De Lisi)

Gender Roles-Interviews with KidsYouTube

In regard to pragmatics and semantics, I've noticed there is a high emphasis on pronoun and gendered titles. There is a standardization of masculine pronoun that is taught very young. This structure and systematic preference shape how we see ourselves and how we can operate inter-personally. For example, historically women have been required to take their husband's last name and change theirs to Mrs. John Doe. This effectively replaces a woman's identity and suggests to them that they are bound, unlike their free spouse who does not have to change their name.

I've also observed young girls and women have more allowance and ability to code-switch from feminine to masculine depending on the situation. In general for men, they meet more opposition when they speak in a way regarded feminine. Lakoff has observed:

"if a girl knows that a professor will be receptive to comments that sound scholarly, objective, unemotional, she will of course be tempted to use neutral language in class or in conference. But if she knows that, as a man, he will respond more approvingly to her at other levels if she uses women's language, and sounds frilly and feminine, won't she be confused as well as sorely tempted in two directions at once?" (Lakoff, 48)

Question: How does gender, or the idea of binary gender influence developmental language communities in regard to forming identity?

Hypothesis: If children are encouraged to establish their gender identities before or during when language acquisition is established, then they will form gendered speech communities because the methods and tactics of their communication skills are reinforced by adult paradigm encouragement/discouragement and media influence.

Hypothesis: In general if boys are taught they are different than girls, and they communicate more efficiently through physicality and contest – other words by not being a girl, then they will develop a strong sense of gendered language styles because of isolated in-group slang and perception of behavior-based identity on the threat of social paraism.

In general if young girls are taught they communicate more efficiently through sharing secrets and emotive sentiment then they will develop a divergent language style compared to young boys because of isolated in-group/out-group slang and perception of behavior-based identity.

Thesis: Gender as a social construction is established and supported by divergent processes of encouraging language styles. The mere structure of the language itself serves to isolate, define, and standardize one gender or way of speech over the other.

My thesis isn't without vocal academic support. The leading theory in gendered language acquisition is called the Separate Worlds Theory and was only ever explored starting in the 1980s by Stanford anthropologists Daniel. Maltz and Ruth Borker. The theory suggests sociolinguistic differences between gender is "a result of separated peer play in childhood...the genders evolve different goals for social interaction and communicative styles" (Kyratzis on Maltz & Borker), rather than an inherent superiority of either gender.

Tests: In order to back up these reflections with self-sought empirical data I interviewed my friend's children: Lisa, female, age 7 and Dakota, male, age 5. I asked them each 3 questions. 1: Are there words you shouldn't say as a girl/boy? 2. Are there words you feel like the opposite gender shouldn't say? 3. What would you say the difference is between how boys and girls talk to each other?

Lisa's answers were not all that surprising. To question one she said, "As a girl, I shouldn't say any swears or fart or yell really loud." For question 2 she replied: "I don't think boys should ya know giggle or act like Princesses like Miss. this or Mrs. that...they should sound tougher and mean." and for question 3 she said: "Boys talk more just to each other while girls talk to everybody even teachers. One boy in my class won't talk to anyone but his friends, not even the teacher." (It's important to note that her answers were filtered through my own questions whose purpose separated the genders, further validating her ideas that the genders are indeed different. This is a micro-process which mirrors the macro-process of indexing gender binaries.)

Dakota surprised me with his answers. He seemed to have a more relaxed notion to what he was expected to say or do as a boy. To question 1 he answered: "I think all boys and girls should say the words they want" For 2: "I mean I like to talk about dinosaurs and cars and my sister likes to talk about horses." and for 3: "(On the playground) my friends and me play wizards, and we don't really let girls play because they don't understand and we fight more."

Further Research-based Evidence and Theories:

I reject the idea that biological predisposition/ability is the cause of differences in gendered language, rather is a learned set of behaviors based on social tradition. If more young boys and girls knew that the only differences between gendered groups are those that they choose to believe, then maybe out-group bullying and miscommunication between genders in developmental ages would decline. However, it is not this simple. Although gender and language are constructions, the implications of the roles they lay out for us are very real. The effects of these distinct speech communities on the function of society is supposed to maintain social order. I say: to hell with social order. Social order can and should be replaced with fairer, more democratic ways of speaking and behaving to combat traditional and ingrained bias.

Irena Markovic, a professor of Italian linguistics in the University of Zadar outlines how these roles lay a framework for our behaviors and interactions fueled by our speech:

"Children growing up must learn not only to act like girls and boys, women and men but to talk like them as well. Some sex differences are thus sociolinguistic in nature. Templin (1957) was the first one to include the new trend in studies of sex differences; toward the investigation of differential treatment of the two sexes as an explanation of what had previously been taken as genetic superiority. Under this hypothesis, the relatively greater loquacity and fluence of girls Smith and Connolly (1972) would attribute to differential expectations and communication with the two sexes by their parents. Therefore sex differences arise out of a complex interaction between children with particular endowments and patterns of sensitivity…" (Irena Markovic)

Borker and Maltz describe the observable differences in boys and girls language styles as differences in their tactical methods of belonging.

"What girls learn to do with speech is cope with the contradiction created by an ideology of equality and cooperation and a social reality that includes difference and conflict. As they grow up they learn increasingly subtle ways of balancing the conflicting pressures created by a female social world and a female friendship ideology. Basically girls learn to do three things with words: (1) to create and maintain relationships of closeness and equality, (2) to criticize others in acceptable ways, and (3) to interpret accurately the speech of other girls. To a large extent friendships among girls are formed through talk. Girls need to learn to give support, to recognize the speech rights of others, to let others speak, and to acknowledge what they say in order to establish and maintain relationships of equality and In activities they need to learn to create cooperation through speech. Friendships are not only formed through particular types of talk, but are ended through talk as well. As Lever (1976:4) says of 'best friends,' "sharing secrets binds the union together, and 'telling' the secrets to outsiders is symbolic of the 'break-up'."

In contrast, observations of interpersonal groups of young boys suggested the boys had grown a separate way of speaking among each other, apart from how their mother (if present) would have taught them to speak.

"Boys play in larger, more hierarchically organized groups than do girls. Relative status in this ever-fluctuating hierarchy is the main thing that boys learn to manipulate in their interactions with their peers....The social world of boys is one of posturing and counterposturing. In this world, speech is used in three major ways: (1) to assert one's position of dominance, (2) to attract and maintain an audience, and (3) to assert oneself when other speakers have the floor. The use of speech for the expression of dominance is the most straightforward and probably the best-documented sociolinguistic pattern in boys' peer groups."

So: Men are from Mars, and Women are from Venus – albeit we are still in the same solar system made from the same chemical compounds. Borker and Maltz explore what happens when these binary communications styles clash. Miscommunication is common among the sexes and hinges on the misinterpretation of intent and effect of speech.

"(1) There are two interpretations of the meaning of questions. Women seem to see questions as a part of conversational maintenance, while men seem to view them primarily as requests for information.

(2) There are two conventions for beginning an utterance and linking it to the preceding utterance. Women's rules seem to call for an explicit acknowledgment of what has been said and making a connection to it. Men seem to have no such rule and in fact, some male strategies call for ignoring the preceding comments.

(3) There are different interpretations of displays of verbal aggressiveness. Women seem to interpret overt aggressiveness as personally directed, negative, and disruptive. Men seem to view it as one conventional organizing structure for conversational flow.

(4) There are two understandings of topic flow and topic shift. The literature on storytelling, in particular, seems to indicate that men operate with a system in which topic is fairly narrowly defined and adhered to until finished and in which shifts between topics are abrupt, while women have a system in which topic is developed progressively and shifts gradually. These two systems imply very different rules for and interpretations of side comments, with major potential for miscommunication.

(5) There appear to be two different attitudes toward problem sharing and advice giving. Women tend to discuss problems with one another, sharing experiences and offering reassurances. Men, in contrast, tend to hear women, and other men, who present them with problems as making explicit requests for solutions. They respond by giving advice, by acting as experts, lecturing to their audiences." (Borker, Maltz).

Conclusion: What I can say for sure now is we are all expected to perform toward specific roles. All the world's a stage, and all the men and women and everyone in between are merely players at the mercy of a social-cultural-economic-linguistic system that defines boundaries of such roles. These roles are reinforced and taught by the gendered groups we are corralled into from six months old through high school.

By gaining awareness of these constructions, and by building enough bravery to go against the stream, one can find freedom from these constraints and speak and perform the way that feels honest to them. And, once these educated free-thinkers have children, they too, can impact on their young during and after the crucial period of language acquisition that they too, can have a choice and a voice that is uniquely theirs.


1. Mary Bucholz, "Editor's Introduction", Language and a Woman's Place: Text and Commentary, Oxford University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-19-516-757-0, p. 3. "The publication of Robin Tolmach Lakoff's groundbreaking book Language and Women's Place (LWP) by Harper & Row in 1975 has long been heralded as the beginning of the linguistic subfield of language and gender studies, as well as ushering in the study of language and gender in related disciplines such as anthropology, communications studies, education, psychology, and sociology."

2. Lisi, Richard DE, and McGillicuddy-De Lisi Ann V. Biology, Society, and Behavior: the Development of Sex Differences in Cognition. Ablex Publishing, 2002.

3. Markovic, Irena. "Gender Differences in Children's Language." University of Zadar, Department of Italian Linguistics and literature, 2007.

4. Amy Kyratzis (2001) Children's Gender Indexing in Language: From the Separate Worlds Hypothesis to Considerations of Culture, Context, and Power, Research on Language and Social Interaction, 34:1, 1-13, DOI: 10.1207/S15327973RLSI3401_1

5. Gumperz, John J., Borker, Ruth. Maltz, Daniel. et al. Language and Social Identity, A Cultural Approach to Male-Female Miscommunication. Cambridge University Press, 1982.

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