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Girls' talk: girls' silence

Allyson Jule
Senior Lecturer in Education, University of Glamorgan, Wales

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh,
11-13 September 2003

This paper addresses a phenomenon seen in one language classroom where the seven year old girls displayed consistent silence in response to formal lessons as well as in small group talk between themselves. The project used ethnographic methods of participant-observer as well as video footage to document and to analyze the girls' discourse patterns. The analysis is set within the particular feminist linguistic theories of Coates (1996) with reference to Baxter's (1999) interpretation of girls' participation in classrooms.

Introduction

In this ethnographic study (1998-1999), the amount of talk in a language classroom was measured and analysed, settling largely on the lack of 'linguistic space' for girls in this context. This study borrowed Mahony's (1985) term as a way to explore the use of language in a Canadian language classroom. The particular classroom was located in one of the few independent private schools operating in British Columbia which enrols children of a particular cultural and linguistic heritage; in this case: Punjabi Sikh. Ethnographic research that seeks to explore and to analyse the actual experiences within such classrooms may contribute to a needed understanding on the part of language educators concerning what language experiences are occurring and how language classrooms also 'do gender' (Thorne, 1993).

This particular Punjabi Sikh classroom presents an important case for educational/ethnographic research, in part because of the Punjabi Sikh community's growing population in British Columbia, Canada, and the increasing numbers of Punjabi Sikh students in Canadian schools (Statistics Canada, 1991). Because all the students in this classroom are of the same ethnic heritage, attention is uniquely paid to gender as a learning variable. The possibility that it is gender that limits the participation of some students from certain educational experiences contributes to the discussion of results. In this regard, this study hopes to interrupt the positioning of being a girl in a language classroom and, in the process, explore the patterns of participation in this context.

The Study

The focus here is on the silence of the girls as found in over forty hours of classroom observation. The data was collected on a weekly basis beginning in September 1998 and concluding in June 1999. The classroom had twenty students: eleven boys, nine girls. The teacher was not of Punjabi ancestry; she was a Canadian-trained teacher of Anglo-Saxon heritage with many years of teaching experience at this school. (Her particular influences are more thoroughly discussed in Jule, in press.)

The words of the teacher and the words of the students were counted and translated into percentages to display the use of linguistic space in the room. Within student-talk, both the amount of boy-talk and girl-talk were separated and translated into percentages to further reveal the linguistic participation of the girls in such classroom moments. Following from the word-count analysis of full group lessons, the smaller, more intimate discussions are also discussed.

Findings

The Linguistic Space

What stood out immediately when viewing and reflecting on the transcripts was the incredible amount of time the teacher spoke. Such teacher-dominated discourse in formal lesson time is not surprising since the segments were pulled from the teacher-led classroom lessons. In each of the ten segments of similar lessons used to explore the use of linguistic space, the teacher used 80%, on average, of the linguistic space; the students divided the remaining 20% between them with the boys accessing most of it. The results of these measurements are demonstrated in chart form (and much more thoroughly discussed in Jule, 2003).

CHART 1: LINGUISTIC SPACE OF THE CLASSROOM

T: TEACHER B: BOYS G: GIRLS

When eliminating the teacher's talk from the analysis of linguistic space, it became clearer how much gender correlated with the linguistic space in this classroom. Chart 2, then, presents the same data but only the students' participation, presenting the contributions as divided along gender lines. In Chart 2, it is evident that the boys in this classroom used significantly more linguistic space than the girls:

CHART 2: THE GENDERED LINGUISTIC SPACE OF STUDENTS

B: BOYS

G: GIRLS

On average, the teacher spoke for 89.4% of the time (ranging from 78% to 97%). Her students were left, on average, with 10.6% of the remaining talk (ranging from 2% to 22%). Of this, the boys spoke for most of the time (88.3%). The girls contributed only 11.7% of the student-talk. Therefore, the girls spoke a mere 1.29% of the total classroom discussion time (ranging from 0% to only 3%). The boys spoke nine times as often; a 9:1 ratio of linguistic space in favour of the boys.

Again, these charts are presented here as a referral to earlier writings on this classroom. However, what this paper also seeks to explore is the more intimate 'girls talk' as witnessed in small group time. What patterns are seen in such groupings and what insights can be gleaned from an ethnographic look at the language used?

Girls Talk

It seemed to me that the teacher displayed little interest in engaging with the girls during formal lessons. Why do I say this? It is my contention that their lack of speech in formal lesson time was repeatedly constructed in the classroom through silent language patterns, even in more informal classroom moments. The classroom language (mainly that of the teacher) was pervasive, spontaneous, and functional. She did most of the talking and failed, as a result, to prompt her female students. However, their conversations with her also demonstrate reluctant speech.

1. In Conversation with Other Girls

In this first excerpt (and one shown on video as evidence), a group of girls has just finished their morning lessons and have been dismissed for recess. However, because of rainy weather, the class has been kept in for the fifteen-minute break rather than being permitted to go outside. The girls are all eating their snacks. They have gathered around one girl's desk where I am crouched down beside her, looking at her family album. At the beginning, there are only three girls in the conversation though this shifts to include all nine girls in the class (one remains close by seated at her desk). Girl 1 has brought this album to show the class as part of the Social Studies unit, 'All About Me.' I have not had opportunity to see any of the students' family pictures because such discussions will occur after I have already left for the day. The teacher has suggested I ask to look at the album which I am doing in this excerpt. I am eager to see this girl's family pictures; I am looking at the album, turning pages and asking questions.

Excerpt 1 - Video Sample

(Camera is focused on the family album. The camera pans in and out throughout the conversation, revealing various participants.)

Ally (ethnographer):

Which one's your mom in this picture?

Girl 1:

Here.

Ally:

Is that your dad in that picture? that one? No?

Girl 1:

That's my brother's dad.

Ally:

Ok to pick up the pace a bit? Go a bit faster? ((I say this to the teacher who has indicated that she wants to leave for her coffee break))

Are they dancing Bhangra?

Girl 2:

Yeah. Her birthday's in August.

Ally:

How do ... how do you dance Bhangra?

Girl 1:

I don't know.

Ally:

Is that what they are dancing?

Girl 2:

Yeah.

Ally:

How does it go? How do you do it? Show me. Navdeep?

Girl 3:

I don't know how to

Ally:

You don't you don't dance Bhangra? No?

 

(giggles-all girls)

Ally:

Do you can you show me? Show me how you... Why are you giggling? Can you? Can you show me? Come on.

Girl 2:

I do but I'm not going

Ally:

Ah, come on. I'll do it, too. If you show me, I'll dance too.

Girl 2:

First you do it, then I'll do it.

Girl 1:

You go first.

Ally:

OK. I think it goes like this.

 

(I stand and do a mock dance. The girls giggle. No one joins in.)

Ally:

Yeah? Is that right?

Girl 2:

Jasmine? You dance.

Ally:

Is that ok? No? Show me. Please? So they're dancing Bhangra. OK. So the arms ... yeah? Like that? Sort of?

Girls:

No.

 

((One girl begins to demonstrate))

Ally:

OK. Sort of? Show me. I'll follow. I'll follow what you do. What you do, I will do.

Teacher:

Be careful when you say that.

Girl 2:

She did it.

Ally:

Bhangra. Bhangra. ((I demonstrate again.)) They're dancing Bhangra.

Girl 4:

Bhan-agra.

Ally:

Bhangh-a-rah.

Girl 4:

Bhangra.

Ally:

Bhangra.

Girl 4:

Bhangra.

Ally:

Bhangra.

Girl 4:

Bhangra.

Ally:

Bhangra.

Girl 4:

Bhangra.

Ally:

Bhangra.

Girl 2:

P.

Ally:

Bhangra.

Girl 4:

Bhangra.

Girl 2:

p.p.

Ally:

Bhangra.

Girl 4:

Bhangra

Ally:

Bhangra.

Girl 4:

Bhangra

Ally:

Can you dance Bhangra? ((I ask Girl 1, touching her shoulder.))

Girl 1:

Yeah, she knows it.

Ally:

Show me. show me how to do it. I need some lessons. How can I know?

Girl 2:

WE have Bhangra lessons. Jasmine and me

Ally:

Really? Where do you go for

Teacher:

They don't dance that fast.

Ally:

No? It isn't that fast?

Teacher:

I haven't seen anything that fast.

Girl 2:

At another Punjabi school

Ally:

Where is that Punjabi School?

Girl 6:

I know where it is.

Girl 2:

It's by the...and they're big and they're somewhere there

Ally:

And you go there just to learn Bhangra dancing?

 

((Girl 2 nods))

Ally:

And do boys . . . do b ...can men and women dance Bhangra or just . . . ?

Girl 2:

Womens tell us how to do it, then they make us learn it.

and get a trophy at the end.

Ally:

So you really know how. You could show me.

Girl 2:

And we have to dance on the stage.

Ally:

Show me a little bit. What kind of music? What kind of music?

Girl:

Why?

Ally:

I just want to know.

Girl 2:

We have the music at the

Girl 5:

If you go outside, I'll try

Ally:

Oh, I'll go. You'll show me if I go outside? And when do you dance Bhangra?

Girl 4:

Bhangra

Ally:

Bhangra. Is there-is it everyone dances at the same time or a man and a woman dance together or a man and a man or women and women.

Girl 1:

Mans can dance and womans can dance.

Girl 2:

They get in a line, right? And

Girl 5:

in a circle. a circle

Girl 2:

and they do that same stuff as umh our teacher. Um, we have a Bhangra teacher at all our classes. There is two.

Ally:

So anybody at a birthday party can dance Bhangra?

Girl 2:

Yeah

Ally:

Brothers, sisters?

Girl 2:

My brother doesn't coz what if somebody sees him? He's shy.

Girl 4:

He's shy.

Ally:

How about grandma?

Girls:

No. No.

Ally:

Why not grandma?

Girl 1:

Coz they're old.

Girl 6:

They'll get stuck

Girl 3:

They're old.

Ally:

It's for young people

Girl 2:

My grandma, her legs..

Ally:

So it's not for ... it's for

Girl 2:

Moms and dads and kids.

Ally:

for not old people?

Girl 1:

That's my little sister

Ally:

What's her name?

(Classroom Visit #6)

As an ethnographer, I am present, playing an active role in the conversation by participating in conversation, even initiating the topic of discussion; I am a participant-observer. Apart from myself, the girls share their age and ethnic identity with the other discourse participants. Presumably, the only differences the girls feel among them are more personal, such as personality or other individual influences. Overall, the group has a great deal in common. At first glance, I followed the contradictions within this piece of discourse. The girls begin by telling me that they do not know how to dance Bhangra yet eventually reveal that they do dance Bhangra at birthday parties and that two of them take lessons and even compete for trophies. One girl (Girl 4) is very concerned that I pronounce 'Bhangra' correctly. Essentially, the girls indicate that they do not know how to dance Bhangra; then that they do dance Bhangra; that they do not want to show me; then they do want to show me (if we go outside); that only the young can dance Bhangra; then that the shy do not dance Bhangra. Though such seemingly contradictory truths appear rather delightful and charming (the conversation is a light-hearted, animated, and joyous one), a closer look at the conversation reveals it is a site of struggle concerning who speaks and who does not.

Girl 6 speaks very little, offering some back-channel support on two instances. She ignores my direct question, 'Can you dance Bhangra?' and permits another student to answer for her (that she does). Each girl seems attracted to the conversation to a certain extent, with more joining in as the conversation progresses and none leaving it. One girl (Girl 2) holds the floor longer and is more forthcoming regarding content, and there is much overlapping of speech (Coates, 1996).

And though some (like Girl 6) are very quiet participants, many of the girls say little or nothing at all. Even when the more out-spoken Girl 2 attempts to involve the others in the conversation, they remain reticent and reluctant to speak. It would be interesting to know how this conversation might have progressed without me: the white Canadian adult to govern the discourse. However, my white, adult presence in this conversation could be not all that different from conversations engaged in with their teacher, who marginally participates in the conversation from off the frame. But clearly it is. These seven year old girls are presumably in a comfortable classroom setting: this is not a formal lesson; they are on their break; I am not their teacher; they are not required to remain or participate but they all do-some by speaking and others by watching. And, in many ways, they hold the power of information to my ignorance concerning Bhangra. At one point, one girl asks 'Why?'-which is the only question asked by one of the girls. Perhaps she voices what they all wonder: why am I so interested in Bhangra dancing, and why should they reveal themselves to me? What concerns me is that so many say so little. Most of the girls mainly watch and appear to do so comfortably and willingly.

I am not convinced that the female speech tendencies identified in feminist linguistic work (such as back-channel support, tag questions, hedging, interruptions) are all that helpful in understanding this particular piece of classroom talk because so many of the girls are silent, in spite of their animation (seen so clearly in the video). With the exception of Girl 2 and 4, the girls are mainly hesitant to speak in this more intimate classroom conversation. They appear shy or coy and are reluctant to hold the floor for any length of time. These characteristics are assigned as female behavior to some extent in the literature (Spender, 1980; Wareing, 1994; Swann and Graddol, 1994; Coates, 1996).

Excerpt 1 may imply that these female language learners may be reluctant speakers even in casual, friendly conversations involving all females or that they are using other forms of communication other than words (such as physical positions, facial expressions). Such a possibility means much to language educators. If language teachers interpret the silence of some female language learners to mean inability or lack of confidence, they may be wrong. Various ways of participating in conversation, including silence, appear often in the girls in this class. Even in this sample of talk among those of the same gender, same age, and same ethnic group, many girls do not speak; perhaps, then, they are not speakers. Such an admission does not mean they cannot participate, for they do, but that they do not often speak. If these language students were in a classroom community of a more diverse nature they might also not speak. A language teacher might interpret such silence or shyness as something to do with their role as outsiders-that their ethnicity might explain such reserve. This could be a mistake. The classroom environment may not provide these girls with opportunities to speak and, as times, they do not appear to want to speak.

2. Female Speech Strategies

This section isolates and presents some of the female speech strategies explored in feminist linguistic literature (Zimmerman & West, 1975; Spender, 1980; Fishman, 1983; Wareing, 1994; Coates, 1996). To some, these strategies are evidence of weakness in a society, while others, such as Coates (1996), see such strategies as strategic ways of participating and creating relationships. Classroom moments where the female speech strategies of hedging, being interrupted, and failing to hold the floor are presented here.

2. A. Hedging

Excerpt 2.A.1

Teacher:  Some people do, but basically you don't. So that's a bib, goes around your neck, right. Keeps your clothes all neat and clean and tidy. Alright [Girl 1].
Girl 1: I---
Teacher:  Ball.
Girl 1: Ball with it. What is it?
Teacher: What is it?
Class: Mitt.
Teacher:  A mitt. Not a mitten. A mitten goes on your hand for winter-time. This is just a mitt. Now, print the words on the line. OK? Print the words on the line. OK? Don't forget your hanger-downers, sticker-uppers, or whatever. (stops at Girl 1's desk) What is that? What is that word?
Girl 1: (inaudible, but she's obviously made a mistake.) Teacher: Alright. That is not what it says. (Walks away.)

(Classroom Visit #6)

It is Girl 1's use of 'I---' and her admission of uncertainty after offering her answer of 'ball' that I have itemized as hedging. She immediately offers 'What is it?' and is corrected by her teacher and then ignored.

In this next excerpt, Girl 2 hedges and her hesitation is responded to with correction:

Excerpt 2.A.2

Girl 2:  My thing's black and...and...
Teacher:  You're talking to your bag and we can't hear you.
Girl 2:  It's orange and it's black and it's white and green and red.
Teacher: Wow!! Orange and black and white and green and red. And we don't yell out-remember we put our hand up.
Girl 2: KP?
Boy: Is it a ring?
Teacher: Is it a ring? (Girl 2 takes the object out of her bag) Oh! Good guess! Wow. Oh it's a...it's a...
Students: Ninja Turtle!
Teacher: Ninja Turtle -----. 
Boy: Ninja Turtle-I have -----.
Teacher:  Okay. (Girl 2 leaves the front)

(Classroom Visit #6)

In the following excerpt, Girl 3 tries to be clear with her use of words but she is heavily corrected by her teacher. She tries to speak using a hedge, 'it's kind of':

Excerpt 2.A.3

(Girl 3 comes up to the front with her back-pack for show and tell.)

Girl 3: (very quietly)  It's red with blue sparkles and it's white with brown and it's soft.
Teacher:  It's red with blue sparkles and it's white and it's brown.
Girl 3: It's soft.
Teacher:  Oh! And it's soft. Mmm.
(Students put up their hands and Girl 3 asks a girl.)
Girl: Is it a ---?---?
Girl 3:

It's kind of.

Teacher: Kind of. Alright. So you're really close.

(Girl 3 asks a boy in the front row.)

Boy: Is it a, uh, um, a ---?
(Girl 3 shakes her head and pulls out a teletubby.)
Girl 3: It's a teletubby.
Teacher: Oh... and what do they do? Just cuddle?
Girl 3:  They show the TV on their belly.
Girl: I watch that show.
Teacher:  Oh. (Girl 3 gets up and puts her bag away.) SN, would you like to tell us your favourite ----?--? Sh! Sh!
(Girl gets up and sits in the seat in front of class.)

(Classroom Visit #8)

The correction of the teacher in this next excerpt demonstrates Girl 4 as hedging while reading aloud her assignment. Girl 4's hesitation seems a reasonable response to the reactions of her teacher:

Excerpt 2.A.4

(Clip changes to the teacher checking over Girl 4's work.)

Teacher: She. She...
Girl 4: ...was walking.
Teacher: Walk-ing. (erases and writes something)
Girl 4:  ...walking on the street. There was a man hiding...
Teacher: Hidden... oh, hiding (erases and fixes it). Just 'ing.' Remember, we don't need to keep the 'e' in 'hiding.'
Girl 4:   Hiding in the trees. Then the man shot the...
Teacher: 

Shot. Shot. (erases and fixes it) Ooh, this is a good guy and a bad guy, isn't it? The...

 

Girl 4:  The ---?--- and the girl died.
Teacher:  Aaah. Uh. Alright. There we go. Okay. Okay.

(Classroom Visit #9)

When Girl 5 speaks with me in the next piece of classroom talk during playtime in 'the house', I ask her the name of the doll she is holding. She offers a one-word response ('Huh'?). Her lack of engagement seems to invite other girls to join in the conversation instead:

Excerpt A.5

Ally: I guess you feel it when he's going to jump. ...Yeah, I'm in the way.
  (I get up and organize my things. Girl 5, Girl 2, and a third girl are chatting and playing in the background. I go over to Girl 5, who is holding a doll in one hand and a baby crib in the other.) Okay, so what's your daughter's name?
Girl 5:  Lisa.
Ally: Lisa. Lisa. That's a nice name. How did you come up with that name?
Girl 5: Huh?
Ally:  How did you come up with that name?
Girl 5:

Uh... (doesn't respond; she and Girl 2 continue playing)

Ally: Does Lisa sleep a lot?
Girl 5: Yeah.
Ally:  Yeah? Is she a sleepy baby? Because some babies aren't really sleeping babies; some babies are always, you know, crying and punching. (Girl 5 is clearly more interested in what she and Girl 2 are playing, than in this conversation.) What are you doing? Are you making supper? What's for supper?
Girl 2: Soup. 
Ally: Soup. For Lisa.
Girl 2: Yeah.
Ally:  Yeah. Does she have any food allergies?
Girl 2: (shakes her head)
Ally: No.
Girl 2: I have.
Ally:  Do you?
Girl 2:  I have allergies.
Ally: Yeah? To what?
Girl 2: I don't know. (Girl 5 walks away.)

(Classroom Visit #9)

Excerpt 2.A.6

(10) (Students sort out who's doing what. A boy gets up and shares something about going to a wading pool; another boy shares his book of 'A Bug's Life'; a girl shares a toy that blows bubbles; Girl 1 gets up and tells a story.)

Girl 7: Um, uh, on Tuesday, I was, uh, at the store. It was Canadian Tire and my brother saw this, a baseball and then he started to bounce it, and then, um, my dad was calling my brother, and then, um, uh, when he was bouncing, my brother was bouncing the ball, and you know that fishing that where you catch fishes in?
Teacher: A net?
Girl 7:  Yeah. And it went in there and then my brother went to my dad and then they both went like that and then I tried to, um, pull it down, and then the ball just came out.
Teacher:  Was it a basketball?
Girl 7:  No, uh, a baseball.
Teacher:  I didn't think baseballs bounce.
Girl 7:  No, uh . . .
Teacher:  A volleyball.
Girl 7:  Uh, yeah (nods).
Teacher:  Ah, cause I'm not sure. A tennis ball? A little green thing?
Girl 7:  Yeah. Yeah, that one. (gets up and walks off)
Teacher: Okay. Cause I don't think baseballs bounce. But those little guys do. The tennis balls do. They go all over the place.
Boy: A soccer ball does.
Teacher: Yeah, but she knows what a soccer ball is. It must be a ball that she's not, uh, sure of. Great. Okay. If you have this star sheet, could you put it in here, please? If you have field-trip money, could you bring it over there? If you have library books that you're finished with, can you put them in here? Can you go get a pencil?

(Students get up and organize themselves.)

(Classroom Visit #29)

These segments of classroom talk reveal that the girls use hedging (such as 'kind of,' 'no, uh...,' and 'oh yeah...') to contribute to conversations and, as a result, there appears a lack of genuine or meaningful engagement in any real discussions. The girls appear routinely corrected, possibly to the point of discouragement.

2.B. Interruptions

In several conversations with classmates, the girls' speech appears to be interrupted. These next four excerpts demonstrate such a speech pattern. All four are small group moments with other girls.

Excerpt 2.B.1

(1) (Camera focuses in on two girls playing cards. Both girls hold up cards and it appears the higher card will win.)

Girl 1:

Put them back.

Girl 2:

In the middle. Let's just... (Shown cards again.) One again

Girl 1:

Yeah! Oh...Yes... Ah... (Each time showing cards

Girl 2:

Wait...

Girl 1: Hee ha! Oh you get it.
(Ding)
Girl 1:  Oh... that scared me. You get it. Faster. I win it. I win it. I win it.

(Girl 1 throws the cards in her lap and leaves after two minutes of the card game.)

 

(Classroom Visit #2)

In Excerpt 2.B.2, Girl 3 and 4 are playing cards in class during free-time. The conversation contains some full sentences but mainly one-word responses and discontinued or interrupted phrases:

Excerpt 2.B.2

(2) (Camera changes to focus on Girl 3 and Girl 4)

Girl 3: (reaches down for a card):  I want to shuffle them now.
Girl 4:  13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20. I've got twenty, hurry up! (bossy, commanding)
Girl 3: Nineteen! (smiles)
Girl 4:  (Deals more cards.) One is extra. Put this in this zip-lock--it's your duty.
Girl 3:

And tomorrow I'm. . . (gets distracted/intimidated because Girl 4 looks away. Girl 3 loses the attention of Girl and discontinues her sentence.)

Girl 4:

Ready?

Girl 3: 

(quietly) Yup.

Girl 4: 

Just wait! (bossy)

Girl 3:

Can I go first?

Girl 4:

Sure. Put this down here. (bossy/commanding)

(Girls put cards down in the middle)

Girl 4: 

What one do you got? You got six?

Girl 3:  Six.
Girl 4: 

So we have to put one in the middle. No you can't choose one now, you've already chosen that number.

(Girl 3 holds up a card)

Girl 4:

(whispers) Six. . .

Girl 3: Don't keep shuffling them! (commanding!)
Girl 4: I'm not, I didn't shuffle them. . .

(Girls continue to play by holding up cards and deciding which gets to keep both of them)

Girl 3:  I get it. I'm gonna shuffle them now.
Girl 4: I thought you said that you weren't.
Girl 3:  No I didn't!
Girl 4: Whatever. You said that's your last one--so now who shuffles? (Both girls have been actually saying something that sounds more like 'shoveling' the whole time but is best interpreted as 'shuffling.')
(Girls continue to play for a while in relative silence)
Girl 4: Eight. Five.
Girl 3: 

Put them on the ground. I like to pick them up. This is my card and this is your card. OK? I like to do it like that.

Girl 4:  No. Put them down.
Girl 3: Don't keep shuffling the cards (commanding)

(Girls finish the game-giggling.)

Girl 3: Hey. I'm going to put 'em by myself.
Girl 4:  OK. Count.
Girl 3: I'll pass them out.
Girl 4:  No! I told you! I told you--I get to pass them out!
Girl 3:  Tomorrow I'm going to pass them out.
Girl 4: Fine. Tell me what is -----. (repeats several times)
Girl 3: What??
Girl 4: What is yeash??
Girl 3:  Yeash??
Girl 4:

Shuffle. What is yeash?

Girl 3: I don't know.
Girl 4: It means: (makes a face) Duh! Don't you even KNOW something??
(Girl 3 slowly shuffles cards)
Girl 4:

 I didn't say that to you; I just said that Yeeeeeash. . .but really yeash means that you don't know anything but I'm just pretending to say it to . . .someone. . .Yeash!!! (points and says quietly:) Look!

(Girls both look at another student and then Girl 3 deals again.)

Girl 3: One. Two. Three. Four.

(Classroom Visit #3)

Girls 3 and 4 seem a lot more comfortable and confident on this one-to-one interaction than in a full classroom situation. Although Girl 4 is less dominant than Girl 3, Girl 4 interacts naturally with her game partner throughout the game. She even protests quite strongly at a couple of points when she's unhappy with her partner's behaviour. The other girl speaks marginally more often and for greater lengths of time. But even in this girl's speech, short phrases persist. The conversation is not a particularly friendly one and does not seem to portray a particularly genuine, happy time of play between friends. At one point, Girl 3 asks Girl 4, 'Duh? Don't you even know something?' though she quickly attempts to retract this.

More often seen, however, are conversations where girls begin to contribute but are cut off. The next segment centres on a brief classroom conversation about Chinese New Year and the various animals in the Chinese zodiac:

Excerpt 2.B.3

(Camera pans over to Girl 6)

Girl 5: 

You know when I was born? The year I was born? 1992.

Girl 6:

I was born in 1992, too. I was too. (excited!)

(Girl says something to Girl 1)
Girl 6: 

Yeah! I was born on the third too. Teacher! I was born in 1992 and I was -----. (very humble and intimidated in her approach)

Teacher:  That would be a different animal if you were born in 1992.
Girl 5: We were both the same.
Girl 6:  She was born...and I was...
Teacher:

All right-how are we doing? Have we got those animals sort of out and about now?

(Classroom Visit #18)

I am not too certain how to interpret these particular conversations, though they do reveal interruption. What these conversations might suggest is that language is not serving as an intersubjective tool in this instant, though it appears that the girls may be experimenting with language. There appears to be no real connection between the girls so that, in spite of a shared ethnicity, there is little evidence of a genuine relationship.

2.C. Holding the Floor

There are a few examples in the data where the girls appear more confident. I have labelled these attempts to claim linguistic space as 'holding the floor'. Even when a girl attempts to contribute, her attempts seem short-lived.

Excerpt 2.C.1

(Camera pans to Girl 1, who is sitting backwards on her chair, leaning on the desk behind her and talking to the boy in the desk. She then turns back around, picks up her scissors and gets to work cutting. Girl 1 continues working silently at her desk for a few minutes.)

Teacher: (off-camera) 

OK, if you have a minute left over and you brought your book back to trade, you can do that. Grey books right here.

Boy:  Put down my name, put down my name!
Teacher: JT, we do not yell. OK, we do not yell all over the place.
Girl 1: (to girl in desk behind her, whose work she's back observing-she hops out of her chair and points to the girl's work.) You didn't get corn.
Girl 2: 

Huh?

Girl 1:  Corn.
Girl 2:  What?
Girl 1: 

(assertively) That's corn. It's supposed to go there. (raises her voice) It's pointing there!

 

(She sits back down at her desk.)

(Classroom Visit #6)

Excerpt 2.C.2

(As camera focuses on various students the little conversation they do have is obscured by the loud music and the general noise of the classroom.)

Girl 3: Who is putting all the junk on my one?? Who keeps putting all the junk on mine??

(Students continue working-Girl 3 cleans up the scraps and returns to her work. Students continue gluing-approximately 20-30 minutes. Students speak Punjabi with each other toward the end.)

(Girl 3 counts aloud the number of paper leaves she has attached to her wreath)

(Student drops box of pencil crayons)

Girl 3:

 Now you stepped on that!! (meaning the microphone, presumably)

(Microphone cuts out momentarily)

(Classroom Visit #12)

Excerpt 2.C.3

(Camera focuses on Girl 4)

Girl 4:  You just have to go like this. It's like this... You just have to go like that and then you can hold it...
Teacher: 

All right-oh lots of you will need help. I can guarantee that. (gives individual instruction throughout the class)

(Camera focuses back on Boy.)

Boy:

(holds up his piece of macaroni) I got it!

Student: Hey you can't help people!
Boy: I just picked up two. That one fell but I picked up two.
(Camera clip changes-focusing on Girl 1 who is picking up her piece of macaroni with the chop sticks and laughing)
Girl 4: KP look! (pretends to be playing the drums)
Girl 5: No! You won't get it how it is.
 Girl 4:

Huh?

Girl 5: You won't get it how it...
Girl 4:

Yes I will-I still do. Now another one fell. Hey that's hers! (makes a sarcastic face to someone behind her. Very eager to show off her skills. Seeking approval from the teacher) Lookit! I've got it. This is how you do it! Yours fell. I it already! (drops the macaroni on the ground and squeals)

(Classroom Visit #18)

Each of these three excerpts reveal how the girls attempt to enter the linguistic space but how they are to be stopped by the teacher or by the classmates or they stop themselves.

3. Silence

The next few excerpts are samples of classroom moments that reveal the silencing of the girls in this classroom. It is difficult to provide evidence of what kind of moments keep them so quiet, apart from measuring the linguistic space (Charts 1 and 2). Because so much of their classroom time is spent saying nothing, such silent classroom moments were prevalent. As such, I have selected three pieces from the data that represent 'typical' moments: that a girl sits at her desk, saying nothing at all, with her teacher often walking right past her or pausing only to offer correction. Are the girls quiet because of teacher practices or are they quiet because they 'just are'? Is the teacher disengaged from them because they are so quiet? Have both realities impacted each other?

Excerpt 3.1

(Clip changes. Class busy working quietly. Girl 1 is helping two other girls pass out the books.)

Teacher: 

When you find the next page you'll have to start right away! The P's I want you to make the bubble first and then start the back. Remember on the d's, the little guys, you do the ball first and then the stick. Ball first and then the stick. Ball first and then the stick. Then it comes out really nicely.

(Begins assisting students individually. She pauses at Girl 1's desk.)

Teacher:  Put your name on the top. This one right here. Show me...(she moves on)

(Classroom Visit #5)

Excerpt 3.2

(Camera pans back to the teacher helping students with their work.)

Teacher: 

Do not put two the same (in a sing-song voice) If you want to trade your book, you can do that for a minute, while we just finish up here. (Girl 2 continues sitting patiently at her desk.) Remember please that you pick two from here, two from here, and then you pick one more from either space. It doesn't matter. Whatever you want, but you need five altogether.

(Clip ends. The teacher never checked over and helped Girl 2 with her work.)

(Classroom Visit #7)

Excerpt 3.3

(Students work on their own. Camera focuses on Girl 3, who prints and then erases her work. The teacher can be heard in the background, circulating around and checking and correcting students' work. After about a minute, camera pans out to show most students getting up and walking away from their desks, evidently finished. Girl 3 continues working on her own. After another minute, Girl 3 finishes and gets up. She never asked for help, nor did the teacher offer any.)

(Clip changes to boy standing on his own, reading a book aloud. After a few seconds, the teacher sings the carpet song.)

(Classroom Visit #27)

The girls appeared not to be having rich discourse experiences in this language classroom. This may be partly due to the teacher's attitudes and practices in general, seeing girls as uninteresting participants or perhaps the girls themselves were not particularly talkative in class discussions or even in smaller group talk.

This last excerpt reveals a brief moment of revelation about the gender injustices in the classroom:

Excerpt 3.4

(Students all get up to hand in their homework. Lots of chatter as two boys hand out workbooks. Girl 4 sits silently at her desk, for awhile, until...)

Girl 4: (to girl next to her) I don't know why the boys always do it [hand out books]. I don't care, but I'm gonna throw it. That's what I always do.
Girl 2: (says something inaudible in response)
Girl 4:  The boys keep throwing ours down, the girls' down, when, when I'm gonna pick the girls I want, right...
Teacher: Okay, spelling books OPEN.

(Classroom Visit #27)

Discussion

It was the intention of this paper to explore the way girls in this classroom participate through examining typical, recurrent discourse structures and by interpreting the possible functions of these speech strategies within their classroom experiences. By exploring ordinary day-to-day classroom talk, gender can be seen to be a variable in linguistic experience. However, to what extent female speech patterns contribute to the construction or revelation of gender is up to interpretation. The teacher dominates the linguistic space (as previously discussed) and because the girls take up so little of the remaining linguistic space, it was difficult to document many moments of them speaking. When they do speak, they reveal some of the predictable gendered speech strategies explored in Western feminist linguistics. As such, they appear in keeping with a socialized gendered self, whilst their silence may be heavily influenced by the teacher.

It is possible that these girls are quiet girls in other circumstances too. This situational possibility is why single case research cannot offer generalizations to other circumstances; this is just one case. What is revealed is that the classroom talk can and does construct participants to a large extent, and that gender is a powerful indicator in this regard. Language teachers need to be concerned with the linguistic opportunities allowed all students. However, the linguistic choices reveal that some may need particular attention and particular teacher practices to elicit more language use (Baxter, 1999).

The analysis of both the claiming of linguistic space and the particular types of speech acts produced in this language classroom (however glossed over in this limited analysis) reveal a complexity around the amount of talk on the part of the girls in this classroom. In an expanded view of Hymes' (1972) early influential concept of 'communicative competence,' it is clear that the girls did not have, or did not take, complete freedom in their classroom to demonstrate their 'communicative competence,' despite a safely assumed focus on developing fluency in English in their language classroom. Perhaps their silence was a response to the particular ways their teacher engaged in speech acts or perhaps their silence was influenced by other variables, such as cultural norms or age-related behaviors. Regardless of the many possible explanations for their silence, the girls rarely participated in full-class talk and they rarely joined in on the narratives of others. This appears to be a part of a fundamental lack of engagement with their teacher. Their silence may be viewed as passive or it may be, in fact, active resistance to the attention given to the boys (Baxter, 1999).

What may be disturbing, though, is not just the clear imbalance of boy:girl attention and participation in this classroom, for much of what we have been led to expect from feminist studies of classrooms matches the discrepancy; it is that an ESL classroom is supposedly a language-learning classroom and yet one group within it is hardly speaking at all. The lack of the use of linguistic space among the girls in this ESL classroom may alert ESL educators to the possibility that, in spite of efforts that have gone into exploring gender in classrooms, the ESL classroom might have been forgotten in the search for an understanding of language acquisition.

Ultimately, the results of this study show that a culturally-specific ESL classroom community, implicit with its assumed shared ethnic values, did not interrupt the power gender played in the classroom experience seen in Western feminist thought. That some students are girls figured largely into the amount of speech used in this classroom. Such a discovery may implicate ESL teacher training by the suggestion that there may not be adequate emphasis placed on gender as a variable in language classrooms. Being a girl is an important variable that may be a more significant predictor in the ESL experience than previously acknowledged in ESL teacher training programs.

Of course, generalizations cannot be made based on one example of one language classroom; however, this study contributes to larger insights and to the need for more reflective, ethnographic classroom practice and research concerning ESL and gender. Because gender may be a powerful linguistic predictor of language use, this study suggests that the classroom relationships, such as teacher to student, can be heavily influenced by being a girl. Classrooms are 'sites of struggle' (Walkerdine, 1990; 1997). What may be the struggle of ESL girls is the opportunity to speak at all. Such possibilities of a constructed silence need to be seriously considered by ESL teachers and by future ESL research.

This ESL classroom is just one particular case and is dependent on local understandings. But even the local complexity can implicate other ESL classrooms, each filled with unique and local issues. What all ESL classrooms share with this one is the variable of gender and its potential to influence speech production. Such recognition of gender as a prime linguistic variable challenges ways of thinking about ESL education as benign or neutral. This study invites further ethnographic examination of gender construction in the ESL classrooms.

Acknowledgements

This research was initially funded by Metropolis (RIIM) Project at Simon Fraser University.

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The Author

Allyson Jule (PhD, Roehampton - London) is Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Glamorgan, Wales.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 28 October 2003