Monash University Publishing | Contacts Page
Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning



Teachers of Languages other than English (LOTE) and others with an interest in languages lament the low participation rate of boys in post-compulsory secondary (year 9 and above) language classes, though there seems to be some evidence of a return to language study by some boys at tertiary level in certain languages. This phenomenon is documented using Victorian government statistics to examine the participation rates of boys and girls in post-compulsory language instruction. The question of whether languages are differently gendered is addressed using the participation data and students’ retrospective self-report to identify some reasons why boys’ engagement in language study declines. Notions of hegemonic masculinity, the gendered language classroom and classroom activity types are posited as possible reasons.


It is an unexamined assumption of much contemporary political discourse that education is in crisis (the literacy crisis, the numeracy crisis, the crisis in masculinity, or in civic values), and generally blame for these crises is directed at teachers, for failing to teach values, for teaching the wrong values, for not teaching phonics, or for being too female. Martino and Pallotta-Chiarolli (2005: 6) discuss the current pre-occupation in research on gender and education, amounting to a media-driven panic, about a putative crisis in masculinity, a preoccupation which led the federal government to introduce the Success for Boys Program (Australian Government 2007).

The evidence popularly cited for a crisis in masculinity in schools (see Martino and Pallotta-Chiarolli 2005: 10ff for a detailed discussion of the factors) includes the comparative rise in girls’ success in schools, higher retention rates for girls and their increasing success in gaining university places.1 One reason often given for the relative decline in boys’ school success is the preponderance of female teachers, particularly in primary school, which is said to deprive boys of male role models and create a feminised classroom environment.

Much of the debate on school performance and gender focuses on literacy (Carr and Pauwels 2006: 2) and clearly literacy underpins performance in all other areas. The focus in this chapter is more particularly on the issue of gender and second language learning. Oddly enough the crisis rhetoric is not invoked in relation to second language learning: we have not heard the Federal minister of education bemoaning the problems with retention rates in second language study or the ranking of Australia internationally in language proficiency. Second language learning, it appears, is not high on the conservative political agenda. The low priority given to languages in the federal government’s education policies may be a factor in the low rates of language study beyond the compulsory years, but it is likely that both policy and participation rates relate to a wider community discourse which values literacy and numeracy but attaches no such value to bilingual skills.

As will be shown below, participation in post-compulsory language study is low, and the figures show differential engagement of girls and boys in the study of second languages. A number of writers in the U.K. and Australia have noted the disengagement of boys from language study (McGannon and Medeiros 1995, Baker 2002, Barton 2002,Carr and Pauwels 2006). The principal aim of this chapter is to document the current participation of girls and boys in the study of languages other than English in the Victorian government sector, based on data drawn from the annual report, ‘Languages Other Than English in Government Schools 2005’.


It is well-known that participation of boys in language study declines once it ceases to be compulsory, and the main goal here is to document the extent to which asymmetries emerge in the LOTE classrooms of Victorian government schools. A second goal is to determine whether the asymmetries are comparable across languages, or whether there are differences in the general retention rates of different languages, and in their retention of boys in particular. In addition, in the light of Barton’s (2002) suggestion that teacher gender is important in motivating foreign language students, the question of the gender balance among LOTE teachers across the different languages is also examined.

In professional development programs for LOTE teachers, a frequent plea is for ‘something to do with Year 9 boys’. While boys increasingly withdraw from language study, those who stay, whether by choice or under duress, are reported to respond badly to the classroom activities which seem to work well with girls. What is going on with boys in language study and is the gendered classroom an issue? Piller (2002: 5) mentions the commonly-held belief that girls are better language learners than boys, which she contrasts with the view that immigrant women don’t learn the dominant language. This apparent paradox suggests that social rather than biological factors are at play here, and work by Norton (2000) on second language learning and identity supports this view.

The social factors may include the discursive construction of individual languages, and the language classroom as sites of gendered activity. Zammit (1992) suggests that languages are seen as girls’ subjects (cf. Marriott et al. 1994). A construction of LOTE study as feminine would partially explain differential engagement with language study but such a construction would itself need to be explained. Martino and Pallotta-Chiarolli (2005) warn against essentialist assumptions which treat boys and girls as members of homogeneous groups and suggest that other social variables (such as social class, poverty, belonging to an indigenous community) are likely to have a greater impact on educational outcomes than gender. They caution that we need to ask ‘which boys’ and ‘which girls’ (Martino and Pallotta-Chiarolli 2005: 7), and to try to understand the issues of school and gender through the accounts of individuals, both boys and girls (cf. also Carr and Pauwels 2006). The statistical data analysed below are therefore supplemented by personal accounts of language learning gathered from a group of university language students who wrote reflective accounts of factors that contributed to their success or failure in second language learning in secondary or tertiary education. These accounts provide some insights into the subjective experience of language learning.


In government primary schools in Victoria, most students have some exposure to language instruction, though contact hours vary a great deal. Overall, 84.1% of primary students had some LOTE instruction in 2005, ranging from 74.7% in the preparatory year to 89.1% of year 6 students (LOTE Report 2005: 20). The LOTE Report (2005: 22–23) shows that 21 languages were offered in primary schools, but over three quarters of students (76.1%) studied one of the main three languages, Italian (28.8%), Indonesian (25.9%) or Japanese (21.3%). Far fewer students studied the next ranking languages: German (7.9%), French (7.3%), Chinese (3.4%) or Auslan (1.8%).

Language programs were provided at 94.2% of the 311 government secondary schools in 2005, and further language instruction was provided also at 39 centres by the Victorian School of Languages (VSL), particularly at years 11 and 12 (LOTE Report 2005: 14). It was possible to study a language to year 10 in 65.2% of secondary schools, but only 51.5% provided a sequence through to year 12. Students from other schools who want to go on with languages beyond year 10 need to be highly motivated to study through the VSL, which provides year 12 language instruction for 32.1% of government LOTE students.

Over half (51.0%) the students in government secondary schools were studying a LOTE in 2005 (LOTE Report 2005: 14) and while there have been fluctuations the figure is lower than 1998 when the proportion was 54.6% (LOTE Report 1998).

While primary schools offered 21 languages, secondary schools offered 19,2 and the rank order in terms of enrolments is somewhat different. The richness and diversity of language offerings can create problems with transition from primary to secondary school, as the language studied in primary school may not be offered at secondary level, and there may also be problems of continuity within schools as a result of staffing problems. Table 1 gives a rank ordering of participation in different languages at primary and secondary school in 2005.

Table 1 Languages with highest enrolments in primary and secondary schools, 20053

The top six languages (Italian, Indonesian, Japanese, French, German and Chinese) are the same in primary and secondary schools but the order is somewhat different. The highest secondary numbers in 2005 were in Indonesian, and this is consistent with this cohort’s primary school experience, where Indonesian was the most widely studied language (LOTE Report 1998). A striking difference between the primary and secondary figures is the large number of secondary students studying French and the relative decline of Italian in the rank order and market share. However, the secondary figures are heavily weighted to the lower years of secondary when language study is compulsory, so they predominantly respond to language availability in schools rather than student choice. In order the understand choices made by boys and girls we need to examine the figures for the years when LOTE study ceases to be compulsory.


Schools vary in the extent to which a LOTE is compulsory in the senior years of secondary schooling. In 2005 LOTE study was compulsory at year 7 in 88.5% of government secondary schools (a fall from 95% in 2003), and 78.8% at year 8. Table 2 shows the percentage of LOTE-offering schools which make it compulsory.

As Table 2 shows, language study becomes increasingly optional across the secondary years. By year 10 only 8.8% of secondary schools require their students to study a LOTE. This phasing out of compulsion is accompanied by a falling off of participation in LOTE study, as Table 3 shows.

By comparing the proportion of colleges which require LOTE study with the participation rate we get a very rough measure of choice (rough because the colleges are not of equal size).

Table 4 shows a dramatic decline in the study of languages as it becomes elective. However it is not clear whether this decline affects boys and girls equally. Apart from gender issues, a number of factors contribute to the decline. Schools may cease to offer languages, or be unable to offer continuity of study. Regional schools experience a far more dramatic fall in LOTE participation after the compulsory years than metropolitan schools (LOTE Report 2005: 69) and this may be partly a result of availability and continuity of teaching. At year 9, 32.2% of regional students studied a language compared to 61.9% of metropolitan students, and there was a narrower range of languages studied in the country. By year 12 the figures were more even (9.4% of metropolitan students, 7.3% of regional students). Timetable clashes may make it difficult to combine language study with, for example, sciences, and career aspirations may require particular combinations of subjects to the exclusion of others. Students may also choose subjects partly on the basis of friendship groups, or personal feelings towards members of the teaching staff. That is, choosing not to study a LOTE may result from a combination of factors other than attitudes to the languages themselves.

It is clear though that the 2005 figures confirm earlier observations that boys are more likely to abandon the study of second languages. Carr and Pauwels (2006: 10) look at Australia-wide figures from 1999 and show that the proportion of boys in language education declines from 50.2% in primary school to 38% in final year of secondary school. The Victorian figures shows that in years 7 and 8 when LOTEs were studied as compulsory subjects, there were slightly more male than female students. Table 5 gives the numbers of girls and boys studying a LOTE in each year level of secondary school. In year 7, 50.8% of LOTE students are boys. By year 12 girls predominate (68.7%). Expressed as a ratio, in Year 7, the ratio of boys to girls is 1 to 0.97 in year 7, but 1 to 2.20 in Year 12.

Table 2 Number and percentage of secondary colleges where a LOTE is compulsory by year level 2001–20054 * The original table gives the figure of 88.2%, which appears to be a typographical error.

Table 3 Number of secondary students in government schools studying LOTE by year level, 2002–2005 Source: LOTE Report 2005:88.

Table 4 Proportion of schools with compulsory LOTEs & LOTE students, years 7–12

Table 5 LOTE students by gender, years 7–125

The figures in Table 5 reveal a progressive feminising of the LOTE classroom, suggesting that language study may be seen as gendered. Zammit (1992) noted that boys are more likely to find language study difficult, to report negative experiences with learning LOTEs, and to claim that they do not need languages for future study or travel. A surprising 97% of students in her study (1992: 15) disagreed with the statement that LOTE is a girls’ area of study. However it may be that it was the categorical nature of the statement that was rejected. LOTEs were perceived as more difficult than English, mathematics or science, and this view was more strongly held by boys (Zammit 1992: 52). This raises the question of whether the perceived difficulty rests with the languages themselves or with the way they are taught, an issue I will touch on briefly later. The data in Table 5 leave unanswered the question of whether the decline in male LOTE study is consistent across different languages (a question also addressed by Carr and Pauwels 2006). This is addressed in Table 6, which gives the overall figures for boys and girls for different languages in secondary schools.

As Table 6 shows, Macedonian has the highest proportion of boys (57.9%), followed by Greek (56.7%), Turkish (54.5%), Khmer (53.8%), Korean (53.3%), Vietnamese (51.0%) and Ancient Greek (50.0%). At the other end of the scale, fewer boys than girls study Gunai (28.0%), Arabic (31.1%), Auslan (33.9%), French (43.5%) and Spanish (44.2%). These figures are indicative of trends towards different gender uptake of languages, but in order to see how choice operates we need to break the languages down by years of study, to examine the non-compulsory years.

In order to make the data manageable I have grouped it into three tables. Table 7 gives the figures for languages where girls predominate in classes across years 7 to 12, Table 8 shows languages where boys outnumber girls initially, but girls predominate by years 11 or 12, and Table 9 gives the sole language where boys outnumber girls throughout.

French is of note in having a large cohort at year 12, of whom only 21.2% are male. Table 7 shows that the proportion of boys is particularly low for Arabic in year 12, but while interesting, the figures are very small and therefore possibly idiosyncratic. In what follows I will mainly focus on languages with more than 50 students in the final year.

Table 8 is the largest group of languages, with an early predominance of boys but with girls outnumbering boys by years 11 or 12. Bold figures indicate higher numbers of boys.

A striking contrast is offered by Greek, where male students predominate throughout the secondary years (Table 9).

Table 6 Secondary LOTE enrolments by gender and language, 20056

Table 7 Languages in which girls predominate

Table 8 Languages with more boys in earlier years, fewer in later years

Table 9 Language in which males predominate

No clear trend is evident with Chinese, Khmer, Korean, which show varied gender participation across the years. If we extract the top six languages (in terms of student numbers) from the tables above it is possible to construct a hierarchy of masculinity based on student numbers at year 12.

The hierarchy presented in Figure 1 seems to suggest a tendency towards greater female engagement with Romance languages, while German is relatively less feminine (though all these languages, unlike Greek, have more female students). Of the large languages, Chinese is furthest from the female end of the continuum. This may reflect the role of Chinese as a community language, spoken by recent immigrant families. It is likely that gender factors operate differently with foreign languages and community languages, possibly as a result of family influence, the availability of male role models or alternative peer group values among heritage language speakers. This issue will be taken up later in the chapter, but first it would be useful to consider more local effects, such as teacher gender.

Figure 1 Gender continuum based on percentage of male students at Year 12


Some insights into the role of the teacher gender come from Barton’s study of the effectiveness of single sex foreign language classes in mixed sex schools. Barton (2002) interviewed secondary students in the U.K. and found a preference for teachers of the same sex as the class. Boys felt male teachers would engage their interest, as revealed in the following example (from Barton 2002: 10):

It is different with Mr. F because when we’ve finished our work we just read French comics, and they’re Mr. F’s, he brings them in... I don’t think Ms. T would bring in comics like Superheroes and that...

Barton shows that boys tended to appreciate male teachers for their common interests, while girls valued female teachers for the ability to empathise with them. A number of students showed misapprehension of grammatical gender, in their claims that in single sex classes there was no need to waste time learning what they saw as the language associated with the opposite sex, which they thought they would not need to employ. As one boy comments (Barton 2002: 10):

I think there’s a need for [single-sex teaching] in French and German because you’ve got different words for feminine and masculine. The stuff that we’re taught is mostly masculine... we get told the feminine stuff and we put it down in our vocabulary book, but we don’t use it.

This is a very revealing insight into the closed world of the foreign language classroom, where languages are seen as having no use beyond the instructional setting. If students feel more positive about same gender teachers it is possible that languages with more male teachers may be more attractive to boys. I therefore examined the teacher gender balance across the languages. Primary LOTE teachers were predominantly female (88.3% in 2005), (as were most other primary teachers) though there were more men teaching Asian languages (13.5%) than European languages (10.0%) (LOTE Report 2005: 32). In secondary colleges in 2005, 77.7% of LOTE teachers were female (LOTE Report 2005: 65). Table 10 gives the breakdown of secondary LOTE teachers by gender.

Table 10 Secondary LOTE teachers by gender7

Taking the top six languages it is possible to construct a teacher gender continuum based on the percentage of male teachers. This is given in figure 2.

Figure 2 Gender continuum based on percentage of male teachers in secondary schools

If we compare the teacher hierarchy in Figure 2 with the student gender hierarchy in Figure 1, there seems to be modest evidence of a teacher gender effect though there is no direct correspondence between teacher and student gender balance for different languages. Italian and French occupy the feminine end of both continua, with the Asian languages and German further from the feminine end. Japanese is closer to the masculine end on the basis of teacher numbers. While it may be possible that female teachers create a feminised culture around LOTEs, and have a slight differential effect across different languages, it may equally be the case that the preponderance of female teachers may be a result rather than a cause of the gendered culture of language learning, in which case another cause needs to be sought. It may not be the gender of the teacher, but the role of the language in the world, or the nature of classroom activities that motivate girls more than boys towards language study.


Brouwers (1999) studied the motivation of Year 9 boys in French and Japanese classes in an allboys school and found the strongest motivation came from the bonus mark awarded to LOTEs on the Tertiary Entrance Ranking. The boys also saw the language as being useful in the future, particularly for getting a job. These factors, along with enjoyment of language learning, were seen as more important than the influence of parents or encouragement by teachers. Integrative factors were of much less importance. In class, students enjoyed activities based around cooking, watching videos and oral work but were less keen about grammatical analysis and written tasks such as translation. The language programs were designed with a very practical focus, to capture boys’ interest in food, learning to drive, sports wear and so on, however Brouwers (1999) suggests that boys see language instruction as not catering to their ‘interests, needs and learning styles’ (p. 14).

The importance of teaching methods and classroom activities becomes evident in self-report data collected from male university students who were asked to reflect on factors which had contributed to or detracted from their effectiveness as language learners. One student who began studying Japanese at the age of 12 noted the importance of lively classroom activities. As a child he had been given games in Japanese, and he chose to study the language in order to understand the games. In class, the teacher used lively activities, with rewards in the form of Japanese food and Japanese toys for memorising vocabulary. This led to success which increased motivation, and the rewards created positive attitudes towards Japanese culture. His second year of Japanese learning was less successful. The teacher tried to speak only Japanese but the students found it difficult to adapt to, and did not understand instructions and explanations. Comprehension difficulties were compounded by dislike of the teacher, frequent tests, a lack of rewards, and little focus on cultural aspects of Japan and a monotonous style. The students were bored, unmotivated, less willing to learn. ‘The empathy and positive attitudes towards the culture fostered during my first year kept me and other students motivated and interested in learning. Providing rewards and making learning interesting seemed to be effective for those at an adolescent age at least. In contrast, the second year teaching style seemed less effective because the input was not comprehensible and quite difficult, which in turn made us less motivated. The lack of motivation and lack of incentive to learn Japanese also affected the extent to which we learned.’

Another student mentions the role of video games and animation as providing huge motivation in the early stages of his study of Japanese at school. At senior secondary level when the games were phased out, a three-week school trip to Japan provided a massive boost to his motivation. ‘After the trip I suddenly found myself enjoying Japanese classes a lot more to the extent that when I wasn’t in Japanese class I would be wishing I were.’

The role of lively activities was important in the learning experiences of a Greek heritage student who described his Greek classes in grade 4 as dismal. The teacher was a native speaker but not a trained teacher, and lacked confidence. He reports that ‘I can vividly remember my teacher finding it difficult to get us to understand what she was talking about when it came to Greek.’ By contrast his first Japanese classes at the age of 10 were a positive experience, though the teacher had limited Japanese knowledge. The classes used videos of puppets and people interacting, and interaction between students was encouraged. They played physical games where no English could be spoken, and the classroom was full of colourful pictures, drawings and mobiles with Japanese symbols and meanings. Less engaging were his high school Italian classes in a stark room with no mobiles or pictures. The teacher intimidated students by forcing them to speak, and threatening detentions for learners’ wrong pronunciation.

The pressure to participate is mentioned as a deterrent by another male student, who joined a beginners’ French class at university. He adds that in correcting mistakes, the teacher used foreigner talk, which he found humiliating in front of classmates, and sometimes intimidating. He says he coped better with writing. Literacy skills play a role in much classroom second language learning, and may be an impediment for some boys in secondary schools. At university, it is likely that students are better equipped with literacy skills which can support their language learning.

One male student from a very small country town reports taking up French at university, with a lot more enthusiasm than he felt for any other language he had studied. However he found the pace very fast, and sometimes difficult and frustrating. Tutorials were intimidating and nerve wracking because his fellow students had some background in French. Unsettled by the move to the city and the need to make friends, the pressure to speak in tutorials compounded his anxiety.

Lively teaching methods, entertaining materials and activities and likeable teachers are clearly important to the male students here, but also important is the freedom to remain silent and not be forced to perform in a humiliating fashion in front of peers. In her paper in this volume Duff (this volume) discusses the difficulties that English language learners in Canadian universities experience in engaging in class discussions, and the need to provide scaffolding and modelling to support students’ oral performance. This is clearly also the case in the second language classrooms described by the boys in this study. Duff (this volume) notes that ‘the expert/novice dichotomy tends to overstate and essentialise difference and legitimacy, and does not take into account the multiple competencies of individuals rather than simply their relative degree of expertise in just one area, or one narrow band of experience’ (p. 1.8). In the foreign language classroom, we can see that the requirement to speak before the learner is ready could have a powerfully negative effect on an adolescent struggling to form a sense of self as a competent member of a desired community of practice.

Martino and Pallotta-Chiarolli (2005: 16) have found that school students perceived a powerful need to conform to rigidly-enforced norms governing gender and social hierarchies, and that students who did not perform masculinities and femininities in socially sanctioned ways were bullied into conformity. The sensitivity expressed by the male students described above suggests the possibility that speaking a foreign language violates masculine norms in some classrooms. The concerns about speaking emerge in relation to primary, secondary and tertiary level language study, but it is possible that tertiary students may manage their language learning experience differently, bringing more resources to bear and being less constrained by the conformity imposed on adolescents. One strand of evidence to support such a claim would be different rates of participation in language study. In the next section I ask whether male participation rates in tertiary study mirror those of secondary schools.


In this section I consider the participation of male students in language classes at university. Table 11 gives the 2005 figures for male students in beginners level language classes at Monash University, compared with the final year of secondary school.8

Table 11 Male students by language at Monash & in year 12 classes, 2005

The figures in Table 11 show a rise in the proportion of male students in Spanish, French, German, Indonesian and Japanese classes at university compared to the final year of secondary school (though some caution is in order here as the school figures do not include independent schools which may show different participation rates). Some of this increase may reflect pent-up demand for language study which could not be realised for timetable reasons at school, but it is also possible that male constraints against language study are less rigid, as is the association of femininity with particular languages. It is possible that university study provides more room for individuals to construct an identity on new terms.

The gender hierarchy for tertiary language students is given in figure 3.

Figure 3 Gender continuum based on percentage of male students in university classes

A particular insight into the way in which individual gender constructs become attached to languages emerges from the male students’ reflective accounts. One student decided after leaving school to take up the study of Spanish, a language that appears at the more feminised end of the continuum above. However his motivation to study Spanish is based on a very masculine construction of Spanish that is consistent with his masculine identity. He was influenced by what he calls ‘textual heroes’. At 16 he became engrossed in ‘novels of courageous adventure’ written by authors such as Hemingway, Steinbeck and the writers of the Beat Generation such as Jack Kerouac.

Many of their novels dealt with simple, oftentimes oppressed characters that lived life on the periphery of society. Often set in the Spanish speaking regions that surrounded the southern United States, the texts are littered with Spanish speaking dialogue that comes to represent the voice of the lower social class of the time... [T]he language is representative of the fighting spirit for liberation; politically, economically and socially- or in the case of Hemingway, an escape from reality. What inquisitive sixteen year old boy could resist? This was my motivating seed to learn and to understand – to be part of what I saw as a globalising world.

The student’s engagement with literature has given him access to a universe of masculinity which offers an alternative to peer group constructs, and encourages him to associate Spanish language learning with rugged masculinity and the struggle for liberation of the oppressed. This observation, in conjunction with the tertiary figures given above, suggests that there may be some realignment of gender constructs in relation to language study as young men and women leave the more constrained sphere of the school.

Piller (2002: 5) observes that ‘[c]ommunities often have gendered gate-keeping practices in place that restrict access to the most valued forms of linguistic capital for certain groups’. It is clear that for boys in secondary schools speaking a foreign language is not valued as a form of social capital. In fact, conforming rigidly to monolingual norms may be seen as a more valued language behaviour. Heller (1999) shows that in the French Canadian school she studied, boys constructed the dominant discourses and girls aligned themselves around these. However Barton (2002: 12) notes that according to teachers, boys in single-sex groups have less need to impress male peers with their conformity to fashionable, anti-academic male stereotypes than in mixed classes. The presence of girls heightens sensitivity to this. Away from the opposite sex, both boys and girls seem more relaxed and more able to answer questions, and boys have less fear of being teased for demonstrating an interest in work.

However peer groups may vary, and it is possible if heritage language speakers reach a critical mass in a school they may construct an alternative peer group, along the lines discussed by Heller in her study of a Canadian school. One male student of Ukrainian heritage reports strenuously resisting his father’s attempts to make him learn Ukrainian as a schoolboy. At university he took some Ukrainian classes, and then a seven week trip to the Ukraine gave his motivation a major boost. ‘This came through discovering Ukrainian culture, and the way that Ukrainians my age speak to each other as opposed to classroom or father-son conversations, which are formal and different.’ The relationship between father and son had an impact on the son’s construction of his own language learning identity, which then changed when he escaped the family pressure to learn the language, and established his own peer connections.

Margaret Vickers (interview on Life Matters, ABC Radio National, 2005) argues that social dynamics in families need to be taken into account in understanding children’s motivations to study or undertake training. Fathers who have traditional male occupations (eg, timber workers) may discourage sons from training for more ‘sissy’ occupations such as chef, barista, office worker, but she argues that the labour force is increasingly feminised and boys will need to learn to construct a future for themselves in a world in which masculinity is differently constructed. Thus family may contribute in unpredictable ways to boys’ language choices.

Piller (2002: 6) notes the importance of the family as a discursive space in which gender is constructed.

Gender is a crucial variable that mediates bilingual practices. To begin with, gender structures access to linguistic resources as symbolic capital that can be converted into social and economic resources. In the context of the bilingual marketplace, research in a diversity of contexts has, to date, found that it is most likely women for whom access to highly valued linguistic practices is most difficult. At the same time, women often stand to gain more from actively pursuing those resources than men do, and therefore, language shift in a number of contexts is actively pursued by the women of a community.

Piller (2002) goes on to note that particularly in the family domain, life is governed by more than simply economic necessity: ‘[p]eople also become bilingual or give up their first languages for reasons rooted in their personal desires and dreams, in love, affection and affiliation’ (p. 6). Gendered construction of identity may be an important component of this.

The study of languages other than one’s mother tongue is, and needs to be seen as, a social good. Carr and Pauwels (2006: 21) note the increasing importance of cross-cultural skills in a globalising world, and language is crucial to this. It is important for the individual and for society as a whole. There are humanist, cultural and economic advantages for individuals and societies equipped with multilingual skills. It is desirable that all students have access to language study, and that students are able to continue to study languages that interest them throughout their school careers. Gendered constructions of languages and language learning potentially impede this. Martino and Pallotta-Chiarolli (2005: 7) suggest that ‘the real “crisis in masculinity” is the misogynist reaction to any perception of so-called ‘female’ thinking and behaviour, the accepted hegemonic culture of male violence and power, and the fear many men in educational authority have of sexual diversity and non-hegemonic masculinities’. An effective challenge to the gendered construction of language learning may increase the recognition accorded to languages as socially valued goods.


1     Jennifer Buckingham reports that boys constitute 43% of new university enrolments. Margaret Vickers notes that 80% of girls and 70% of boys finish high school, and suggests that greater work opportunities such as apprenticeships encourage boys to leave school earlier (Life Matters, Radio National, 7/12/05).

2     The Victorian School of Languages offers secondary students 43 languages, the most studied being Chinese, Turkish and Vietnamese (LOTE Report 2005, 16).

3     Compiled from LOTE Report 2005, p. 6. Includes students at the Victorian School of Languages.

4     Source: LOTE Report 2005, p. 88. No data were collected in 2004.

5     Department of Education and Training Victoria. 2006. Languages other than English 2005. Unpublished raw data (with thanks to Yvette Slaughter).

6     Source: LOTE Report 2005, p. 89. These figures do not include those studying through the Victorian School of Languages.

7     Source: modified from LOTE Report 2005, p. 93.

8     Robyn Spence-Brown has drawn my attention to the fact that the Japanese beginners class has a high number of international students, which might complicate comparison with secondary school numbers (though international students also study in the secondary sector).


Australian Government Department of Education, Science and Training. 2007. ‘Success for boys’. Accessed 13 June 2007. Available from: education/policy_initiatives_reviews/ key_issues/boys_education/ success_for_boys.htm.

Baker, C. 2002. Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. 3rd edition. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Barton, A. 2002. ‘Teaching modern foreign languages to single-sex classes’. Language Learning Journal 25: 8–14.

Brouwers, B. 1999. ‘Why bother: What motivates male students to continue learning a language other than English in the middle secondary school?’ M. A. minor thesis, Melbourne: The University of Melbourne.

Carr, J; Pauwels, A. 2006. Boys and Foreign Language Learning: Real Boys Don’t Do Languages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cryle, P; Freedman, A; Hanna, B. 1994. Unlocking Australia’s Language Potential. Volume 3, French. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia and NLLIA.

Department of Education and Training Victoria. 2006. ‘Languages Other than English 2005’. Unpublished raw data. Melbourne: Department of Education and Training.

Duff, P. A. 2007. ‘Problematising academic discourse socialisation’. In Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning, edited by Marriott, H; Moore, T; Spence-Brown, R. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 1.1–1.18.

Heller, M. 1999. Linguistic Minorities and Modernity: A Sociolinguistic Ethnography. London: Longman.

Marriott, H; Neustupný, J; Spence-Brown, R. 1994. Unlocking Australia’s Language Potential. Volume 7, Japanese. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia/NLLIA.

Martino, W; Pallotta-Chiarolli, M. 2005. Being Normal is the Only Way to Be: Adolescent Perspectives on Gender and Schooling. Sydney: UNSW Press.

LOTE Report 2005. 2006. ‘Languages other than English in Government Schools 2005’. Melbourne, Victoria: Department of Education and Training.

LOTE Report 1998. 1999. ‘Languages other than English in Government Schools 1998’. Melbourne, Victoria: Department of Education.

Life Matters. ABC Radio National, broadcast 7 December 2005.

McGannon, J; Medeiros, A. 1995. ‘Factors influencing elective language choice: a study of French language

students’. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics 18 (1): 95–108.

Norton, B. 2000. Identity and Language Learning: Gender, Ethnicity and Educational Change. Harlow, Essex: Longman.

Piller, I. 2002. ‘Gender perspectives on bilingualism’. Australian Language Matters 10 (1): 5–6.

Zammit, S. 1992. The Challenge: Choosing to Study a Language Other than English through High School. Canberra: Department of Education, Employment and Training.

Cite this chapter as: Bradshaw, J. 2007. ‘Are second language classrooms gendered?’ In Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning, edited by Marriott, H; Moore, T; Spence-Brown, R. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 18.1 to 18.17.

© Copyright 2007 Julie Bradshaw
All rights reserved. Apart from any uses permitted by Australia’s Copyright Act 1968, no part of this book may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission of the copyright owners. The fact that this book is published online does not mean that any part of it can be reproduced without first obtaining written permission: copyright laws do still apply. Inquiries should be directed to the publisher, Monash University ePress:

Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning

   by Helen Marriott, Tim Moore and Robyn Spence-Brown