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Gender Construction and its Negotiation in the Course of Second Language Learning

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The study of a foreign/second language should lead to a positive understanding of not only the linguistic knowledge of the target language (TL) practices and the TL-mediated public personae they wish to project (Kasper and Rose 2002; Block 2007). With the promotion of communicative language teaching (CLT) which aims to develop learners’ ability to use language in real communication, it raises the crucial issue of the way learners act socially and how they negotiate their social identities, including gender identity, in a different cultural and social context. The sociocultural background in China (i.e. gender issues are treated as unmentionable and are under-researched, especially in the education field) and the wide adoption of CLT in English teaching in Chinese schools make research on gender and second language education in China particularly urgent and meaningful.

My work investigated Chinese adolescents’ construction of their gender identity and the way it is negotiated in the course of learning English as a foreign language (EFL) from a sociolinguistic, sociocultural and sociopsychological point of view. It foregrounds the EFL classroom and the school as places of social and cultural reproduction and explored the extent to which the learning of EFL and the discourse of the EFL classroom mediate Chinese students’ gender awareness and performance. It documented the unseen connections between the micro-level of the students’ face-to-face verbal and non-verbal interactions and the macro-level of the role of learning EFL that can play in students’ construction and negotiation of their gender identity.

A case study design was used with multiple types of observation and interview, and focus groups conducted in a state secondary school in south-east China. Altogether, 27 pairs of students took part in the research. Communicative tasks and the popular American TV soap ‘Friends’ were used to elicit data. Sensitivity to the sociocultural research context and individual participants’ circumstances was maintained throughout the data collection, analysis and interpretation.

As a whole, the study showed that SLL pedagogy which integrates CLT can be a major tool for opening up opportunities for the improvement of gender awareness in cultures where gender and sex are not linguistically differentiated. It can be educationally valuable with regard to making students and teachers think about a number of social and intercultural issues alongside cross-linguistic issues. The fieldwork of the research showed that interventions directed at attracting students’ attention to gender roles and the way they behaved in interactions in English highlight an educational function of the place of EFL in the curriculum which is so far unrecognised in China.

This talk is part of the Second Language Education Group series.

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