AUTHORS: Carr, Jo; Pauwels, Anne
TITLE: Boys and Foreign Language Learning
SUBTITLE: Real Boys Don't Do Languages
PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan
Zoe Ziliak, PhD student, Program in Linguistics, University of Florida
In _Boys and Foreign Language Learning: Real Boys Don't Do Languages_ ,
Carr and Pauwels analyze the results of a qualitative study investigating
why fewer school-age boys than girls choose to study foreign languages.
Pauwels presents statistics from Australia, New Zealand, the United
Kingdom, and Scotland showing that in recent years foreign language
classrooms in all these countries have had higher enrollment of girls than
boys. (Throughout the book, the United States and Canada are mentioned
only occasionally.) They restrict their analysis to the English-speaking
world, noting that in countries where English is not the first language,
foreign language learning is generally more highly valued, so class
enrollment is often balanced between the sexes.
For the study, Carr interviewed over 200 teenage Australian boys – some who
had chosen to continue with foreign languages past the required courses but
more who hadn't – as well as their language teachers and some female
classmates. In this book, she provides excerpts of their responses,
ranging from specific reasons why the boys don't take foreign languages, to
general musings on biological differences between boys and girls ''in their
brains,'' to teachers' stories of attempting to keep boys interested in class.
Carr and Pauwels return frequently to the idea of ''doing'' boy and to
Pennycook (2004)'s idea that ''gender'' is a verb. They focus on boys'
choice of how to perform their gender and link this to their choice to
study foreign languages or not. In a society where, as their interviews
confirmed, foreign languages are often considered girl-appropriate
subjects, dropping languages is a way for boys to emphasize their
separation from girls and thus ''do'' boy more noticeably. The authors
emphasize the socialization factor in determining boys' choices about
foreign languages and academics in general.
Unlike Carr and Pauwels, the boys, girls, and teachers interviewed mostly
seem to take for granted that girls' greater school achievement is due to
biology. The interview excerpts repeatedly refer to girls' supposedly
innate longer attention spans and their natural facility with
communication. Boys, meanwhile, are seen as having brains more suited to
mathematics and as being simply unable to sit still as long as girls can.
Carr and Pauwels note that as long as boys' lack of interest in foreign
languages is chalked up to biology, school corporations will do little to
attempt to lure boys into the language classroom. They link this
acceptance of ''the way it is'' to Foucault's (1980) truth regimes. The
belief that differences between girls' and boys' behavior are biologically
rather than socially determined spreads from individual belief to
conventional wisdom, preventing teachers from taking action to change ''how
The book does not present the situation as hopeless, of course. Several of
the teachers reported success in keeping boys interested if they made the
exercises more competitive (e.g., see who can learn this vocabulary the
fastest) or by doing away with worksheets and focusing on interactive,
realistic activities. One particularly inspiring example is that of a
teacher of both French and drama who developed a process drama approach for
her French classes. Her students acted out a traditional folktale and took
turns taking on each role, trying to express the characters' feelings in
French. After implementing this method, the teacher had much greater
retention of boys into higher level classes than the school had had under
the previous, more traditional teacher. The book ends on a high note,
suggesting that if schools adapt the way languages are taught, and if
administrators emphasize the importance of intercultural experience, then
more boys may become interested in foreign languages.
Chapter 1 provides a brief introduction to the book, primarily outlining
the structure of the remaining chapters.
Chapter 2, ''Setting the Scene,'' provides a history of gendered language
study in the Anglophone world, noting for example that Latin and Greek were
once considered appropriately manly subjects, and that when women first
gained access to education, they were expected to study mostly the
sciences. This chapter also presents the statistics on recent foreign
language enrollment mentioned above. (The introduction indicates that this
chapter was Pauwels's primary contribution.)
Chapter 3, ''The Gendering of Language Education,'' describes the recent
uproar over boys' disadvantages in education. The authors note that in
earlier decades, when gender differences in education were discussed, the
focus was on girls' disadvantages in mathematics and sciences. In the past
fifteen years, however, more attention has been paid to boys' deficits in
language arts. While previous researchers have restricted this discussion
to L1 language deficits, Carr and Pauwels want to expand the discussion to
include L2s. The chapter then introduces the ideas of gender as
performance and of truth regimes. Finally, the authors review a few other
qualitative studies of boys' relationships to foreign languages, all
conducted within the United Kingdom.
Chapter 4, ''Boys Talking,'' first explains the methodology and rationale of
the study. Interviews were conducted in small groups, away from a
classroom setting when possible. Some of the questions the authors wanted
to focus on were ''How do boys regard the languages curriculum option? What
do they see to be its relevance? Does it sit within a gendered sense of
curriculum choice/appropriacy, and what are the effects of such a
positioning?...What do boys see as ways in which languages could be made
more attractive?'' (60) The chapter then presents the first set of data,
which comes from boys who attend either state schools (analogous to public
schools in the U.S.) or Catholic schools. (The Catholic school boys'
opinions ended up matching those of the state school boys more than those
of the boys at the more expensive private schools discussed in Chapter 5.)
These boys fit the ''doing boy'' model in that they speak of being obliged
to goof off in class; this is apparently what makes boys boys. They also
assert that girls are innately smarter than boys and more suited to
academics, particularly the study of languages. Other comments do focus on
choice and on socialization, showing that some boys have an understanding
that their avoidance of foreign languages might not be biological. Many
boys feel that foreign languages are simply irrelevant for their future,
and that girls are more likely to pursue careers where knowledge of a
foreign language would be of use, such as travel agency work or teaching.
Chapter 5, ''Other Boys Talking,'' reports on interviews conducted with boys
at private schools. These boys are generally wealthier, and more of them
have had first-hand international experience. They generally have higher
estimations of foreign languages' usefulness and relevance to their future
careers. Several comments mention the pleasure of really trying to fit
into a foreign culture, of feeling ''almost French,'' for example. More of
these boys have chosen to continue with foreign languages into their later
years of schooling.
In Chapter 6, ''Teachers Talking,'' the foreign language teachers present
their opinions on the differences between boys and girls in their classes,
as well as on how to stimulate more interest in the subjects among boys.
Many of the teachers again ascribe differences in behavior to biology, and
they describe girls as more eager to please and willing to do boring work
Chapter 7, ''Girls Talking About Boys,'' is the last chapter to
systematically present primary data from the study. The girls unfailingly
describe boys as less mature than they are. They also believe boys
generally do not think about long-term goals but just focus on having fun
in the present. The girls themselves say they are already concerned about
careers. Interestingly, they do admit that some boys don't act like boys;
that is, they are able to be academically focused like girls, and will even
communicate like girls if you get them alone. The girls seem to divide
their counterparts into boy-like boys and girl-like boys.
Chapter 8, ''Reading Between the Lines,'' circles back to the theoretical
questions of the book's beginning. The authors link the data collected in
the interviews to the idea of performativity of gender and once again show
how the common belief that biology determines gendered behavior constitutes
a truth regime that leads to some teachers' defeatist attitudes about boys
and foreign languages. The chapter then revisits the initial questions
posed by the study and discusses what the data show in terms of such topics
as whether boys find foreign languages relevant to their lives, how
difficult they believe languages to be, and what boys consider the best way
to teach (or learn) foreign languages.
Chapter 9, ''Changing Thinking, Transforming Action'' wraps up the book by
suggesting changes in attitudes on several levels. Most generally,
Anglophone society must evolve beyond its ''English is enough'' attitude and
acknowledge that foreign language competence is beneficial in the modern
world. Schools and curriculum directors then need to provide more support
for foreign languages so that they are once again seen as a main area of
study, as necessary as science or literature. Teachers must realize that a
change in teaching methodology is necessary, and they must be given access
to training that will help them adapt. Finally, rather than focusing only
on ''boy-friendly pedagogy,'' we must realize that the socialization of boys
may also be altered so that they feel more comfortable ''doing boy'' in an
academically-focused way. We must ''think about transforming the shape of
'boy' as well as the shape of pedagogy'' (203).
This will be an enjoyable and useful book for foreign language teachers,
who will gain insight into boys' thoughts on foreign languages and some
inspiration for how to increase retention of their male students. Perhaps
to a lesser extent, linguists interested in second language pedagogy,
discourse analysis, or the role language plays in performing gender will
also find it worth reading. The book's clear writing style makes reading a
pleasure, and the comments from the boys are often amusing as well as
informative. Teachers especially should find these comments helpful, as
they demonstrate what (some) adolescent boys believe about their own
language abilities, and they give direct advice on how to make foreign
language classes more appealing to boys.
The authors do a good job of noting when they are leaving out potential
discussion in order to keep to the point. For example, they mention more
than once that gender is only one of several factors that seem to predict
whether a student will continue with foreign languages. They do discuss
the role of social class, but they also note that there are several other
factors which they do not have time to discuss. They responsibly point out
potentially misleading information present in their statistics. For
instance, the data on enrollment by gender for some countries includes the
years of compulsory foreign language study, so they note that the gender
gap for the post-compulsory years would be much wider.
One shortcoming of the book is that it takes for granted some knowledge
that readers might not have. A few acronyms are never spelled out fully; I
had to ask a British friend what a GCSE was and find NESB on the internet.
Some culturally specific terms are also used without clarification, so
there is no explanation of what British A-levels or Australian day schools
are. This can be frustrating for American readers, but then, I'm sure
American authors sometimes forget to explain what the SATs are.
A greater shortcoming is that many of the reasons the authors give for why
boys don't continue with foreign languages could apply equally to girls,
but the book does not explore why these affect the genders differently.
For example, the book stresses that Australian society as a whole considers
English to be the only language really needed in the world. If girls are
exposed to this attitude as much as boys, why do they not deem foreign
languages courses superfluous as boys do? The authors occasionally point
out that girls should also be influenced by the reasons driving boys away
from languages, but I felt the issue should have been explored more. This
weakness does not outweigh the overall value of the primary data readers
can garner from _Boys and Foreign Language Learning_, however. This book
adds to the literature useful to those hoping to convince L1 English
speakers that foreign language study is worthwhile.
Foucault, M. 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings
1972-1977. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Press.
Pennycook, A. 2004. Performativity and Language Studies. Critical Inquiry
in Language Studies: An International Journal 1(1): 1-19.