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 were 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 Likert scale being on
top of overall choices. Despite the fact that gender differences are easily
measured with MRI, there is still lack of work done when it comes to learning
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.

 

Background

There are three
major theories in the field of gender differences versus language: the deficit
theory, the dominance framework and the difference 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 mid
1970’s, started to connect the negative evaluations of female’s speech to their
social domination by men (Bergvall, 1999). One of the most popular book 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 hypothesis that language is more strongly lateralized
for 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 (Kissau, 2006) claims that females are better due to their higher levels of
motivation in second language acquisition. Few more research confirm 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 grapheme-phonology-correspondence. The
study was carried out in China on 24 Chinese college students: 13 males and 11
females, between 19-25 years old. They have never learnt 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 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 60 after 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 every day
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. 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 finding correlate with the previous research (Xue, Chen, Jin, & Dong, 2006) and indicates the sex differences in native language processing
(left-hemisphere dominance for males and bilateralism for females), which can
be corelated 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 of
2-4 hours weekly. To measure the anxiety level, the Foreign Language Classroom
Anxiety 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, Clément, &
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 on
FLCAS 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 to this study is socio-cultural aspect thus view on anxiety in
Korean male dominated culture. It was expected from females to receive higher
grades because they have higher motivation level.

The next research is
from South Korea as well. What differentiate 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 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
4-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 faster rate during high school years (Lee & Kim, 2014). This study supports the previous one that reported advantage in
language for females (Fernández, Quiroga, del Olmo, Aróztegui, &
Martín, 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 70 females were the subjects and research was
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 result
did not show any significant differences between genders, both in pre-test and
post-test.