March 8 is the 100th anniversary of the International Women’s Day, and the theme this year is:
Equal access to education, training, and science & technology: Pathways to decent work for women.
There are a number of ways that such a day (and a theme) could be recognized in the language classroom. Below are some suggestions for discussion which lead to a language-based science project.
Have your students research how women’s language differs from men in other languages. Do Japanese women have different words than Japanese men? What kinds of differences are they? Are they using entirely different systems, or are their simply symbolic differences that allow the speaker to show whether or not they are men or women? How do your students think this affects situations like education? What other languages show these kinds of patterns? How does this compare to their own language?
An important part of getting them to understand why this information is important is by making it relevant to their own lives. Ask your students what kinds of linguistic differences occur between men and women in this country. A good place to start for information about this topic is with work by Deborah Tannen, a linguistic scholar who often writes for a popular audience. She generally subscribes to a theory which says that men and women are raised in different subcultures in our society—one where boys are raised to be hierarchical in their communication style and girls are raised to be more collaborative. A number of other prominent scholars question this theory, but it’s a good starting place for exploring this topic, especially in the K-12 system.
There are a number of questions you ask your students about the differences between hierarchy and collaboration. Start by making sure they know what these two terms mean, then ask them to describe what they look like when they are enacted. What kinds of language behaviors are collaborative in nature? Which ones encourage people to participate? Which behaviors are used to assert a position in the conversation? Which ones to do your students use to prove they belong? Which ones are used when they’re trying to keep others from participating?
Have your students move beyond the obvious methods that are used to keep people from participating in conversations: tone, intonation, and insulting vocabulary. This is an important discussion, because research in gendered communication and in cross-cultural communication suggests that exclusion isn’t always intentional. In what ways do turn taking strategies affect participation in conversations? What kinds of topics cause people to disengage?
You should also ask your students about the kinds of language that makes people sound authoritative and/or assertive. For example, what happens when somebody starts every sentence with “I think…”? In what contexts is this assertive? In what contexts might it be considered weak or unauthoritative? What other speech patterns make your students think that somebody doesn’t know what they’re talking about? (If you’re looking for resources to help you guide this conversation, you can search for research by Robin Lakoff, Deborah Tannen, Penny Eckert, Janet Bing, or any of the other researchers listed on the LingEducator “Language & Gender” page. Or you can check out a blog by Duncan Grey, which highlights some of the issues raised in this research.)
Once you’ve established the kinds of conversational patterns that might contribute to women’s achievement (and to other groups who historically haven’t been able to participate in one form of our society or another), there are other projects your students can do that fit with this year’s theme of access to “education, training, and science & technology.”
Investigate these language patterns as a science project. Ask students to keep track of who talks more in a particular situation (boys or girls). Pick one or two features that might exclude or include people in conversation and have students count how often they are used. Who uses them? With what frequency? Under what circumstances? The benefit of this project is that it drags language skills, which are thought (stereotypically, perhaps) to be a strength of women out of isolation, integrating the discussion of them with the scientific method.
Depending on the age of the students and the amount of class time that you have, you could have them work in small groups or this could be a project that the class works on together. My friend David Bowie (the rockstar linguist, not the singer) has a daughter who just completed a similar (though not gender-related project) for her elementary school science fair. Using data from the Wizard of Oz, she investigated whether or not the characters pronounced things differently in Oz than they did in Kansas. (They did.) By all accounts young Bowie’s project was a smashing success.
The goal is to help students understand that when it comes to participation (particularly in STEM fields, where they typically weren’t expected to participate), women and other political minorities may be suffering from a very subtle form of institutionalized discrimination. This is not the sort of discrimination where any individual thinks to himself (or herself), “Gosh, I can’t let that person participate because she’s a woman.” Instead, it’s the sort of discrimination that happens when we are surprised to see a woman in a particular role. Combined with other behaviors on her part (e.g. unassertive speech patterns like using “I think the answer is 42,” instead of “The answer is 42”) and uninviting behaviors on the part of those who are expected to be there, a woman may be either excluded all together or simply unable to advance.
Let me be very clear: The situation for women is dramatically better than it has been in the past, but American women, who have far more rights than women in most of the rest of the world, are still making about 75 cents on the dollar. For that reason, it’s worth exploring whether or not these very subtle patterns of behavior continue to block “the pathways to decent work for women.” These discussions outlined above will help your students to explore the reasons why the routes sometimes feel obstructed. The science projects will provide them with concrete tools for climbing over any potential roadblocks.