LINGUIST List 28.3804

Fri Sep 15 2017

Review: English; Sociolinguistics: Kaplan (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <clarelinguistlist.org>


Date: 16-May-2017
From: Maria Assunta Ciardullo <ciardullomariegmail.com>
Subject: Women Talk More Than Men
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/27/27-2171.html

AUTHOR: Abby Kaplan
TITLE: Women Talk More Than Men
SUBTITLE: ... And Other Myths about Language Explained
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Maria Assunta Ciardullo, University of Calabria

SUMMARY

“Women talk more than men… and other myths about language explained” is a book written by Abby Kaplan and published in 2016. The book is made up of ten chapters grouped in three macro sections, tackling language from different perspectives.

The paratextual apparatus of the work is made up of a list of figures, a list of tables, the acknowledgements, an introduction written by the author and ten different essays grouped in three thematic sections followed by an exhaustive appendix concerning some fundamental notions of statistics. At the very end of the book, we find three different indexes, two of them regard the languages and the people mentioned throughout the text and finally there is a general alphabetical list.

The introduction presents the scientific reasons that lead the author to write this book and that are smartly summed up in the title, “Women talk more than men… and other myths about language explained”. In fact, in the introduction Kaplan states that the book was written to face and explain some popular beliefs about language, from the aprioristic assumption of linguistic sex differences to the effects of text messaging. Sometimes, these common beliefs about language are responsible for imprecise news shared by the media and the author’s main aim is to illustrate their ascientific basis. Kaplan’s second intention coincides with the composition of a book concerning linguistic methodologies in order to provide a general overview of the techniques of elicitation and analysis used by linguists.

Each chapter of the book deals with a specific language-related topic and starts with a brief summary of the area explored, describing common beliefs about language and confronting them with what linguists know to be sure and experimentally proved. The very end of each chapter deals with a specific case study that responds to the specific question put at the core of the section.

As mentioned above, the book is made up of three thematic sections: the first one deals with some non-standard and non-human languages such as sign language and non-standard dialects; the second section explores the acquisition of language and the consequences of bi-/pluri-linguism and the last thematic group brings together four essays that examine the relationship between how language is used and some social aspects of daily life.

The first essay, “A dialect is a collection of mistakes”, explores the concepts of standard language and non-standard varieties and specifically investigates the common belief that considers some dialects better than others. The chapter focuses on the dichotomy composed of Standard English and African American English (AAE): the first language commonly represents the proper embodiment of linguistic and grammatical rules whereas AAE is conceived as a non-standard dialect that does not conform to grammar. This assumption is contradicted by the author who shows that all varieties, whether standard or not, obey grammatical rules that are clearly different for the standard and non-standard forms. At the end of this first essay, a case study concerning education is presented: in fact, Kaplan examines the best didactic ways to teach the standard dialect of a language to students who speak a non-standard dialect. As the author states, this question was addressed by the Oakland Board of Education in 1996 and the resolution adopted on the issue became then a topic of national debate in the United States of America: in December of 1996, in fact the Oakland Board of Education came to the conclusion that the best way to teach the standard dialect to students who spoke a non-standard dialect was to acknowledge the presence of non-standard varieties – explicitly instructed - within the classroom.

“Sign language is skilled charades” is the second essay of the book. It deals with sign language and specifically with two wrong beliefs diffused among people: first of all, it is believed that signing is a visual representation of the surrounding spoken language and that it doesn’t have its own grammatical structure. Secondly, sign language is often perceived as something less than a language, just a universal “skilled charade”. These two beliefs are evidently incompatible because if we assume that sign language is universal, it is illogical to believe that it is a direct representation of so many different spoken languages. Sign language is a vivid form of non-verbal communication and its use is not reserved to deaf people only but is also used in communities who have had significant experiences with deaf subjects (Perlmutter 1986). One example mentioned by the author concerns the population of Martha’s Vineyard – whose speakers were already used for William Labov’s sociolinguistic work - where a considerable amount of people were deaf until the twentieth century. Here the community communicated using their own sign language which was known by deaf and hearing people alike. Moreover, the assumption summed up in the title is further denied towards the end of the section: in fact, the author gives attention to some researches that suggest that both signed and spoken languages use iconic symbols in order to refer more directly to the meanings they’re connected to and it appears that it’s definitely easier to create an iconic symbol using gestures rather than sounds.

The third essay, “Chimpanzees can talk to us”, deals with human linguistic interaction with animals. Most of the time, people use language with animals for commands, for requests of attention, etc. Animals do respond but in different ways depending on the species; especially mammals and dolphins can be trained in order to obey orders given in human language. Human voice sound has specific acoustic features because of the particular articulatory shape of the phonatory system that differs from the one owned by animals. Even anthropomorphic apes, anatomically close to humans, do not possess the physiological apparatus necessary to produce human sounds. In the history of language experiments with animals, there was just one case with the chimpanzee Viki that has shown that she had actually learnt four words, i.e. mama, papa, cup, and up. After that experiment, researchers have suggested two different types of systems that might ease apes’ learning to use human language: the first one is made up of word-like symbols represented in physical way that apes can manipulate, and the second is constituted by sign. The last type of system mentioned has aroused a lot of interest over the years and has created a widespread belief that monkeys can learn sign language. Throughout the chapter, Kaplan illustrates the most important studies conducted upon apes and shows that animals involved in these researches were very intelligent and that they used language in a different way than humans. The author clearly states that animals are not inferior to men but that what we call language comes to be very specific to humans.

The second section’s name is “Language Learning” and is made up of three articles. “Children have to be taught language” is the first article and explores many common opinions about first-language acquisition. It is widely believed that language is explicitly taught to children by their parents and great importance is given to their role. This belief is especially spread in the Western world where parents-as-language-teachers are highly valued and where they are expected to train their children on words for elements belonging to their reality (Brown and Hanlon 1970). The author of the book cleverly shows that parents are not always responsible for language teaching and that this practice is very culture-specific. Therefore, societies have dissimilar ideas about how children are supposed to learn language. What’s more is that the quality of parents’ teaching affects children’s language acquisition and recently many programs have been founded in order to fill this linguistic gap by changing instructors’ behaviour.

The second article of the second section is called “Adults can’t learn a new language”. It examines adults’ acquisition of a second language. If learning a first language is normally uniform across individuals who become fluent and competent speakers of their native language at the end of the process, learning a second language does not happen in the same way. In fact, second languages are not expected to be learnt in all societies; in many countries, speaking a second language is a very rare skill whereas speakers belonging to other communities continue to learn multiple languages until adulthood. Moreover, the results of this process can vary a lot, in fact speakers of a second language can reach a proficiency level or can be characterized by their native accent even after years of practice. The author supports her point of view with the analysis of a case study focused on whether there is a ‘critical period’ for second-language learning, i.e. a specific age range outside of which it’s more difficult to learn a new language with a native-like fluency. At the end of the essay, the author mentions different factors, apart from age, that affect how well a person will be able to learn a second language. These elements explain several age-related differences in second-language acquisition.

“Being bilingual makes you smarter (or dumber)” is the following article and focuses the attention on bilingualism and multilingualism. This essay specifically examines the advantages or disadvantages intrinsic to bilingualism by presenting the different typologies of the bilingual phenomenon: Kaplan points out that it is impossible to give an univocal definition of this linguistic condition and that is better to talk about different ways of being bilingual. Even though a consistent literature research has tried to answer the question of whether bilingualism is good or bad, a definitive response has not been formulated yet. In fact, even if several studies conducted at the beginning of the twentieth century recognized a vast range of cognitive benefits, more recent studies have proved that bilinguals have a smaller vocabulary in each language than a child monolingual in that language. It has been also shown that bilinguals are slightly slower at retrieving words than monolinguals. Kaplan concludes the study by affirming that bilingualism has positive effects on different domains such as metalinguistic ability and executive control but, at the same time, she observes that its beneficial influence can be affected by social and cultural circumstances.

The third section “Language in use” is made up of four essays. The first is called “Women talk more than men” and gives the title to the entire book. It focuses on the common belief that women and men speak differently and, more precisely, that women talk more than men and that feminine speech is more polite, more correct and less confident than the masculine one. Obviously, these assumptions must be verified and even then, their results must be tackled considering several social and contextual factors. At first, Kaplan takes into consideration some of the crucial studies on women’s language (Jespersen 1922, Lakoff 1975, Tannen 1990, Trudgill 1983) and explores some of the typical, yet not empirical, differences between women’s and men’s language. After this brief overview of gender-related studies, the author demonstrates that sex is an important sociolinguistic variable as far as concerns speech and that the social context in which language is used is very important. Two case studies are presented: the first one deals with quantitative aspects of women’s speech and the second one focuses on the use of question tags by women and men. The first case study mentions the results achieved by Frances 1979 that, surprisingly, shows that men talk more than women and that sex is just one of many variables, such as social expectations and power relationships, that affect how, and how much, people talk. The second case study examines the use of question tags within women’s and men’s speech starting from Lakoff 1975’s findings. Lakoff found out that women tended to use more question tags and other devices that indicated uncertainty than men; more recent researches have shown that the use of those linguistic elements highly depends on contextual factors. At the end of the essay, Kaplan does state that linguists need to be very careful when linking linguistic production with social meanings.

The following essay, “Texting makes you illiterate”, analyses some technological means of communication. Over the last fifty years, many technological improvements and developments have been made as far as concerns communication and, more specifically, language transmission. When people use technology to transmit language, they’re aware that its form is not neutral; in fact, this medium influences how a message is formulated and conveyed due to the fact that writing is a permanent – and editable - act. Also in the past, telegrams influenced the way in which messages were produced because they were priced on word; so, senders used as few words as possible giving the birth to the so-called telegraphic style. Over the last years, it has been believed that technology could influence people’s language even when they’re not using it. Kaplan tries to deconstruct this myth by analysing some of the major worries related to the use of old and new technologies. After that, she focuses on text messaging because it’s a widely investigated topic and because it represents one of the most used means of technological communication. At the end, the essay considers some studies that investigate whether texting affects a person’s literacy skills.

The tenth essay’s name is “The most beautiful language is French”. It tackles the common belief that specific languages are particularly fit to certain uses, mainly inscribed within artistic or scientific domains. So, the main focus of this chapter is represented by the aesthetic evaluation of languages and dialects of a language. These judgements do not have linguistic basis so it’s impossible to give a proper (socio-)linguistic definition of a good or a bad language. Despite some accounts, such as that of Hales 2009, that consider specific languages more euphonic than others, it’s important to keep in mind that these opinions do not have a scientific foundation and that there are not linguistic justifications for condemning particular languages or dialects to extinction.

“My language limits my thoughts” is the last chapter of the third thematic section and constitutes also the last investigation of the book. It is based on the examination of the relationship between human language and the organisation of thoughts and investigates the common opinion that linguistic forms shape the way we think. The relation between language and thought has been massively studied from different perspectives (i.e. linguistically, philosophically and psychologically) and, especially in recent times, has led the public to think that politicians, advertisers and others use language in persuasive and misleading ways. It has also been claimed that certain languages are well suited to certain purposes because of the types of thought they inspire. If true, this idea is very alarming and can condemn some languages to oblivion. Kaplan cleverly shows that the nature of the relationship between language and thought is very difficult to study but the positive aspect is represented by a noteworthy number of experimental studies that show whether, and to what degree, language shapes thoughts.

At the end of the book the reader finds a thematic appendix that contains useful information about the quantitative methods used in the social sciences. The first part of the chapter lists the most used quantitative methodologies, whereas the second part gives an overview of statistical testing. The third and last part of the appendix focuses instead on the most important issues in conducting social research, i.e. the experimental design of a study, the choice and the construction of an empirical corpus, etc.

EVALUATION

“Women talk more than men… and other myths about language explained” constitutes a brilliant and a very well-written book about various linguistic topics. Kaplan uses a clear style to illustrate some of the most widespread beliefs about language.

The introduction works very well as a preliminary presentation of the contents developed in the volume: the author starts this section by mentioning some of the studies that inspired her to write the book and progressively arrives at the description of the structure of every single essay included in the work. All of the ten articles deal with specific language-related topics and all begin with a broad overview of the area followed by the explicit mention of some of the common beliefs that concern language. Afterwards the author presents scientific evidence provided by the most recent linguistic studies in order to deconstruct epistemologically those beliefs. Towards the end of each study, a case study is presented: here Kaplan analyses several published studies in order to give the reader a critical investigation of the methodologies adopted and of the results achieved. Each chapter is concluded by two sections, namely “For further reflections” and “For further reading”, that contain bibliographic suggestions for the reader who wants to deepen the themes tackled in the essays. As shown, the introduction is very functional to the understanding of the general contents examined throughout the book.

Another remarkable aspect of “Women talk more than men… and other myths about language explained” is represented by the internal structure given to all the ten essays. As described above, each chapter develops a specific language-related topic in a deductive way in order to offer a progressive analysis and a cogent deconstruction of diffused and incorrect beliefs about language.

Moreover, the organisation of the contents in three ad hoc macro-sections is efficacious because it facilitates the comprehension of the topics that are gradually presented and examined.

Another valuable point is represented by the coverage of a broad range of linguistic topics and by the mention of several case studies: these two aspects qualify the volume as an ideal reading for students in Linguistics and for whoever wants to reflect on language myths and on their ascientific basis.

The statistical appendix constitutes the last notable feature of Kaplan’s work: the section does not examine in depth the quantitative methodologies used in social sciences but describes the fundamental concepts through which linguistic evidences come to be considered significant.

Over all, “Women talk more than men… and other myths about language explained” represents a noteworthy book about language and related popular beliefs that are smartly analysed and scientifically explained by the author with the aid of cogent bibliography and case studies.

REFERENCES

Baron, Dennis. A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009.

Boroditsky, Lera. Does language shape thought?: Mandarin and English speakers’ conceptions of time. Cognitive Psychology, 43(1): 1-22, 2001.

Brown, Roger, and Camille Hanlon. Derivational complexity and order of acquisition in child speech. In J.R. Hayes, editor, Cognition and the Development of Language, chapter 1, pages. 11-53. Wiley, New York, NY, 1971.

Flege, James Emil, Grace H. Yeni-Komshian, and Serena Liu. Age constraints on second-language acquisition. Journal of Memory and Language, 41(1): 78-104, 1999.

Frances, Susan J. Sex differences in nonverbal behaviour. Sex roles, 5(4): 519-535, 1979.

Hales, Dianne. La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language. Broadway Books, New York, NY, 2009.

Jespersen, Otto. Language: Its Nature, Development, and Origin, chapter XII: The Woman, pages 237-254. George Allen & Unwin, London, 1922.

Kavé, Gitit, Nitza Eyal, Aviva Shorek, and Jiska Cohen-Mansfield. Multilingualism and cognitive state in the oldest old. Psychology and Aging, 23(1): 70-78, 2008.

Lakoff, Robin. Language and Woman’s Place. Harper & Row, New York, NY, 1975.

Oakland Board of Education. No. $597-0063, December 1996. Original resolution available at http://linguistlist.org/topics/ebonics/ebonics-res1.html.

Perlmutter, David M. No nearer to the soul. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, 4(4): 515-523, 1986.

Premark, Ann James, and David Premark. Teaching language to an ape. Scientific American, 227: 92-99, October 1972.

Tannen, Deborah. You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. HarperCollins, New York, NY, 1990.

Trudgill, Peter. On dialect: Social and Geographical Perspectives, chapter 10: Sex and covert prestige: Linguistic change in the urban dialect of Norwich, pages 169-185. Blackwell, Oxford, 1983.


ABOUT THE REVIEWER

Maria Assunta Ciardullo is a Ph.D. student in Linguistics at the University of Calabria and has been a Visiting Ph.D. student at the University of York (UK). Her Ph.D. project is inscribed within the fields of Forensic Sociolinguistics and Women's Studies and deals with the socio-pragmatic analysis of criminal women's wiretapped voices. Her research interests include Forensic Linguistics, Forensic Phonetics, Gender Studies and Sociolinguistics.

Page Updated: 15-Sep-2017