Why Are Boys Opting Out?: A Study of Situated Masculinities... Foreign Language Learning 1. Introduction

Why Are Boys Opting Out?: A Study of Situated Masculinities and
Foreign Language Learning
It may not come as a surprise to anyone living in the UK that modern foreign languages
are declining in popularity and perceived importance (Wikeley and Stables, 1999). Why
should students learn to speak French, Spanish or German when their European
counterparts speak English as a foreign language; when the television adds English
subtitles to foreign movies; and when the internet reinforces their complacency by
spreading English as a world language? These are all perfectly reasonable explanations as
to why students might want to opt out of foreign languages; but they do not tell the whole
story. They certainly cannot explain why significantly more boys than girls abandon
language learning. In 1995/6 16,666 females chose to study French at A-level compared
to only 6,859 males (Clark, 1998). The effects of this ‘gender gap’ are then felt at
university level with far fewer males applying for undergraduate language degrees and
fewer still enrolling on PGCE language courses (The Nuffield Foundation, 2000). For
anyone concerned with the current state of modern foreign languages in the UK, this
‘gender gap’ warrants serious concern. For language teachers like myself, it also warrants
an investigation into boys’ attitudes towards and perceptions of foreign languages as a
first step towards closing the gap.
The aim of this paper is to illuminate some of the reasons why boys are deselecting
themselves from foreign language classes. I use data from interviews with a sample of
14-15 year-old boys in three different schools to explore their attitudes towards and
perceptions of foreign languages and their motivations for selecting and deselecting their
GCSE subjects. By including a focus on subject choice, I am able to gauge the status of
modern foreign languages within the entire curriculum and garner a wide range of factors
that impact on their decline in popularity amongst boys.
Operating within a post-structuralist framework, I also look for the various discourses
boys use to construct gender and identify dominant constructions of masculinity with a
view to illustrating how these can influence both achievement and subject choice.
I begin in Section 2 by defining what I mean by the term ‘masculinity’. I then discuss
post-structuralist ideas of identity and the influence of this new approach on gender and
education research before narrowing the focus of the review to two specific areas:
achievement and subject choice.
Section 3 concerns methodology and it is here I present my initial research question and
provide information regarding the nature of the schools, the participants, and my methods
for data collection and analysis.
In Section 4 I identify those factors which impact on boys’ decisions to continue or
discontinue studying foreign languages and discuss them with reference to the nature of
the schools, and social class and ability where appropriate. I also use this section to
review and re-evaluate existing hypotheses as to why boys are opting out.
Finally, in Section 5 I highlight the implications of my findings for the schools involved
and offer ‘suggestions’ for raising boys’ enjoyment of the foreign language class and for
challenging those versions of masculinity which are incompatible with schoolwork.
Literature Review
Gender Identities
What is Masculinity?
In order to understand what masculinity is, or in fact what it is not, it is first of all
essential to make a distinction between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. Unlike ‘sex’, which refers to
the biological differences between males and females, ‘gender’, as I shall use it here,
refers to those attributes of males and females which have been socially constructed by
parents, schools, the media and various other institutions, and their linguistic and non-
linguistic practices. Thus, concepts like ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are, as MacInnes
(1998) argues, purely ‘ideological’ - they only exist as various “fantasies about what men
and women should be like” (p. 2). Moreover, the attributes commonly associated with
masculinity and femininity are not strictly dichotomous nor mutually exclusive, but
messy and contradictory. They are better thought of as representing tendencies people
possess to varying degrees at different points in time. Hence, I do not consider gender to
be fixed; instead I see it as an on-going process. Furthermore, it is a process which not
only shapes but also is shaped by language, for gender identities are constituted and
reconstituted daily through discourse (Weedon, 1987).
Masculinities and Education
The school is just one of those institutions which moulds gender identities. It does so by
“offering interpretations as to what it means to be ‘male’ or ‘female’” via images,
narratives, terms of address and teaching practices (Haywood & Mac An Ghaill, 1996:
50). This is not to say, however, that students themselves do not take an active role in
shaping their own identities - they do so on a continuous basis by positioning themselves
in and accepting or rejecting the various discourses operating both within and outside the
This post-structuralist view of identity has had a tremendous influence on gender and
education research in the last decade. Prior to this, much of the research was based on the
assumption that students were passive to initiate change and resist the guidance of the
school. Girls’ comparative failure in the education system was explained in this way - as
a natural by-product of a school system that reinforced traditional sex roles and
assumptions in society about girls’ inferiority to boys.
But when girls started to outperform boys academically and enter the workforce in
greater numbers, gender and education research shifted gears. Researchers began to view
boys and girls as complex human actors, capable of not only ‘reading’ but ‘re-writing’
meanings about gender made by schools in an effort to develop or change their own
identities (Kenway et al., 1994). They also started to focus more and more on masculinity
and indeed masculinities1 - the plural form emphasising that there is no single version of
masculinity. Even within groups where sexuality, class, race or ability act as common
denominators, individuals may still choose to construct their masculinity in different
ways to each other.
This new identities approach to gender and education research has provided a framework
in which to situate boys’ underachievement in the curriculum as a whole relative to girls
and, more specifically, in foreign languages. Much of the subject choice research,
however, has tended to operate within a ‘difference’ paradigm, focusing on gender
differences in subject choice. The purpose of such research was to illuminate female
disadvantage in the light of dominant perceptions that subjects like sciences and maths,
and subsequently high-status and well-paid jobs, were ‘not for girls’.
It is to these two prominent areas of gender and education research - achievement, and
subject choice - that I shall now turn. Although my focus in this paper is on boys and
language learning, I would be painting an incomplete picture of the current state of affairs
if I did not make comparative references to girls in both areas. I have also drawn on nonlanguage classroom research where language classroom research has proven sparse.
Boys, Education and Language Learning
2.3.1. Achievement
Boys’ underachievement has been the focus of much research in the field of gender and
education in the past decade2. With the publication of league tables in the UK drawing
attention to a ‘gender gap’ in performance between boys and girls, the debate on ‘boys’
underachievement’ has also flourished in the popular press3. With so much attention, the
whole issue seems to have lost all sense of perspective. Here I would like to put it back
See Connell (1989) and Mac An Ghaill (1994) for the various types of masculinity boys take up in
secondary school, and Redman (1996), Epstein (1997) and Martino (1999) for critical examinations of the
role education plays in creating heterosexual masculinities.
See Pickering (1997); Epstein et al. (1998); Power et al. (1998); and Francis (1999 and 2000b).
Headlines include ‘Girls doing well while boys feel neglected’ (Guardian, 26 August 1995), ‘Perils of
ignoring our lost boys’ (Times Educational Supplement, 28 June 1996) and ‘Girls outclassing boys’
(Guardian, 26 November 1997).
into perspective by addressing two questions: ‘Are boys really underachieving?’ and if so
From a historical perspective, the answer to the first question, at least according to Cohen
(1998), would be ‘no more so than before’.
In the 19th century in particular,
underachievement was expected of gentlemen, at least of those who possessed
‘character’, a notion antithetical to scholarly achievement (ibid: 28). From a more current
perspective, one could still argue that boys have always underachieved, for even in the
1970s and 1980s, more girls than boys were gaining five O-levels (Arnot et al. 1999 cited
in Francis 2000b). However, because these O-levels were obtained in traditionally
‘feminine’ subjects such as needlework rather than in traditionally ‘masculine’ subjects
like science, girls’ achievement was considered insignificant, if considered at all.
This suggests to me that the relatively recent panic over boys’ underachievement is not so
much due to the fact that boys are underachieving but that they are now underachieving
in ‘masculine’, hence ‘important’ or valued subject areas4. Although the difference is
marginal, there is evidence from both Younger and Warrington (1996) and Arnot et al.
(1998) which suggests girls are beginning to outperform boys in maths and sciences as
well as arts and languages. Specific subject areas aside, boys have not been keeping
apace with girls’ gains; 48% of girls nationally received grades A-C in GCSE level
subjects in 1995 compared to 39% of their male counterparts (Arnot et al, 1998: 8).
Another potential misconception about ‘boys’ underachievement’, apart from the fact that
not all boys are underachieving, is that boys’ underachievement is pervasive throughout
the education system, when it is really only confined to GCSE level. Males still
outperform females in A-level examinations and stand at the top of the academic tables in
further and higher education (Baxter, 1999). Outside the realm of academia, they also
continue to occupy the more powerful positions in the working world.
Yates (1997) suggests that the underachievement debate really only took off in Australia when more girls
started taking maths and proportionately more boys started failing.
As far as foreign languages are concerned, the disparity between boys’ and girls’
performance is one of the most marked in the curriculum. In 1996 only 20% of boys
nationally obtained grades A-C in French at GCSE level, compared to 32% of girls
(Clark 1998: 1). But again, the picture changes at A-level, where the few boys who do
take foreign languages actually outperform girls - although this ‘gender gap’ is narrowing
(Arnot et al., 1996 cited in Sunderland, 2000: 204). It would appear, then, that those
boys who choose to take foreign languages at A-level are the very able and highly
motivated ones. Unless it is the case that when boys have to take foreign languages
(GCSE level) they do not put in as much effort as they do when they have the option to
take foreign languages (A-level).
Other factors which have been identified as contributing to the ‘gender gap’ in
performance include: assessment procedures (Bolger & Kellaghan, 1990; Sunderland,
1995); pupil attitudes (Powell & Batters, 1985; Loulidi, 1990; Clark & Trafford, 1996);
teacher expectations (Kruse, 1992; LaFrance 1991; Younger & Warrington, 1996), and
developing concepts of masculinity (Connell 1995; Mac an Ghaill, 1996). Harris et al.
(1993) have also attempted to link the issue with the effect of equal opportunities policies
in schools and with boys’ responses to girls’ increased career prospects and ambitions.
Although the above factors transcend subject boundaries, I shall illustrate here how they
operate in the language classroom. With regards assessment procedures, Sunderland
(1995) identifies three ways in which tests can potentially favour either male or female
testees: topic, task and tester. It is the task that is of particular relevance here. Girls have
been found to do better on open-ended or essay-type questions and boys better on
multiple-choice questions. Since coursework is becoming an increasingly significant
feature of the foreign language class it begs the question whether boys are at a
disadvantage (ibid.). There is yet another implication of the findings that boys do better
on multiple choice questions; that is, they may have a general learning style which is
more compatible with short bursts of hard work than with constant application and
commitment. Considering the cumulative nature of language learning, i.e., vocabulary
and structures are built up gradually one stage at a time, application and commitment
seem vital to success.
Studies investigating pupils’ attitudes towards foreign languages have been somewhat
contradictory over the years. There has been some evidence to suggest that boys rate
French as more difficult (Clark & Trafford, 1996), less important (Powell & Batters,
1985) and less relevant to their future lives than girls (Pritchard, 1987). However, there
is other evidence to suggest that there are no gender differences in terms of perceived
difficulty (ibid.) and that languages are equally important to both boys and girls (Batters,
1986). Despite these contradictions, Loulidi (1990) suggests it is inevitable boys will
have more negative attitudes towards language learning than girls because social norms
dictate that being a good language learner is commendable for girls but ‘unmanly’ for
boys (p. 40). She then cites Gardner and Lambert’s (1972) findings in support of the link
between negative attitudes and underachievement.
Yamashiro (1996 cited in Sunderland, 2000) warns that teachers themselves may
reinforce the notion that boys are bad at language learning if they see girls as the better
language learners. Biased teacher expectations are bound to reflect the way teachers treat
their students in the classroom. A very possible outcome is that teachers will devote their
attention to girls assuming boys are uninterested in language learning anyway. Thus,
there seem to be at least indirect implications here for boys’ achievement if less attention
means less language learning opportunities.
Finally, for those boys who hold an oppositional view of gender whereby masculinity
equals ‘not femininity’ then underachieving in the foreign language classroom may be
one way of asserting a masculine identity in a site associated with femininity. Of course,
this theory relies on the assumption that some boys perceive foreign languages to be
feminine in some sense. In fact, it may be perceived as feminine in several senses if boys
consider girls to be better at it; if they consider perhaps typical topics like wine, cooking,
haute couture and perfumes to be “feminine in orientation” (Pritchard, 1987: 69); and if
they consider the linguistic norms associated with the ‘communicative’ nature of the
class, i.e., co-operation, collaboration and listening to others, to be more in tune with the
linguistic norms of females than of males.
2.3.2. Subject Choice
Prior to the mid 1990s subject choice research was mainly preoccupied with girls and the
reasons why they were not taking, or rather why they were being channelled away from,
subjects like sciences and technology. Although this research has had positive effects in
terms of encouraging girls to pursue these areas of study through projects like WISE
(Women into Science and Engineering) and GIST (Girls into Science and Technology), a
strict focus on girls has meant that boys’ biases in subject choices have been neglected.
This is something that I hope to rectify with this paper. Considering the general decline in
popularity of modern foreign languages, it seems fitting to focus on this subject area in
particular. Apart from Loulidi’s (1990) review of the reasons why boys might want to opt
out, most of the research into foreign languages has either been concerned with
achievement or has addressed both achievement and subject choice without making
enough of a distinction between the two (cf. Clark & Trafford, 1996; Clark, 1998). And
although Loulidi’s review is an important step in the right direction, it is no substitute for
asking boys themselves about their attitudes towards foreign language learning. As a
segue into my own study, then, I would like to review relatively new developments in the
field of subject choice research.
Recent research has gone beyond identifying gender differences in subject choices and
has attempted to link these choices to perceptions of subjects as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’
and to attitudes towards sex stereotypes. Many of these studies (Archer & Macrae 1991;
Colley et al. 1994a; Stables & Stables, 1995; Whitehead, 1996) have reached similar
conclusions regardless of age group: science, maths, technology, IT and PE are rated as
‘masculine’ and favoured by boys, whilst English, humanities, music, PSE, and RE are
rated as ‘feminine’ and favoured by girls.
According to Whitehead (1996), why some subjects become defined as appropriate for
one sex and not the other is very complex with perceptions shifting over time and varying
between particular societies. But once defined in this way “they can take on a
significance for pupils that goes beyond the subject-matter involved; they can become a
way of demonstrating sex-appropriate behaviour and thus help establish an individual’s
gender identity” (ibid: 149). This means that for some boys, deselecting subjects in the
‘feminine’ half of the curriculum - foreign languages included - can become a way of
confirming or asserting their masculine identity. And, of course, the same applies for
some girls in reverse; deselecting ‘masculine’ subjects can become a way of constructing
a feminine identity.
Since the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988, avoiding non genderappropriate subjects has become harder to do, at least at GCSE level, because English,
maths, science, a modern foreign language and design and technology have become
compulsory for all students. It seems likely, then, that the National Curriculum is partly
responsible for gender differences in subject choices decreasing over the past decade, as
evidenced by Arnot et al. (1996) and Wikeley and Stables (1999). Parents and teachers
are also likely to have contributed to the decrease by giving boys and girls more similar
advice than they used to in the past (Arnot et al., 1998; Wikeley & Stables, 1999).
Unfortunately, the signs at A-level are not as encouraging as they are at GCSE level.
According to Whitehead (1996), far fewer females than males take sciences and far fewer
males take arts subjects. Arnot et al. (1998) draw the same conclusions and add that over
the last decade male dominance in terms of uptake has actually increased in physics,
technology and economics (p. 15). Whilst Whitehead (1996) has found willingness on
the part of girls to enter traditionally ‘masculine’ subject areas, boys, and particularly
those who hold stereotyped attitudes towards sex roles and occupations, continue to
eschew ‘feminine’ subjects. Instead, they are opting for subjects like chemistry and
physics, believing these to be the subjects that will lead to well-paid jobs.
If boys are carving out a ‘breadwinner’ role for themselves, as the above findings
intimate, they may not be able to associate the study of foreign languages with a wellpaid career. And this may provide another possible explanation for the huge disparity in
A-level French entry numbers by gender. In 1990 approximately four times as many girls
as boys took A-level French (Thomas, 1990). More recently, Whitehead (1996) revealed
that in her sample of 342 male and female A-level students, 37% of the girls were taking
French compared with only 5% of the boys. This disparity in uptake at A-level then has
knock on effects at postgraduate level, where there were only 255 men specialising in
foreign languages on PGCE teacher training courses compared to 1154 women in 19992000 (The Nuffield Foundation 2000: 71). The end result is that there are far more female
than male foreign language teachers in schools.
Although researchers (Powell & Batters, 1986; Clark & Trafford, 1996; Clark, 1998)
have investigated whether the predominance of female language teachers contributes to
the perception amongst students that foreign languages are ‘feminine’, their findings
suggest otherwise. What might contribute to the perception that foreign languages are
‘feminine’, however, is the notion that girls are better at languages than boys - a notion
that found support in Whitehead’s (1996) research with A-level students.
If this
perception prevails at A-level, where boys are actually performing better than girls, I
would imagine it also prevails at GCSE level, where boys’ underachievement may
actually be a way of maintaining their gender identity until the time comes when they can
drop foreign languages for good.
The possibility that boys in mixed-sex schools feel pressure to make sex-stereotyped
choices as a way of maintaining their gender identity seems even more real when one
considers the huge disparity in uptake of foreign languages at A-level between boys from
mixed-sex schools and boys from single-sex schools. Only 8% of boys from mixed-sex
schools chose modern languages in 1995 compared to 23% of boys from single-sex
schools (Cheng et al., 1995: 11 cited in Arnot et al., 1998: 49). Unsurprisingly, Stables
(1990) found that languages were also more popular amongst 13-14 year-olds in singlesex schools than they were in mixed-sex schools and so too were drama and biology.
Although Stables (ibid.) and Colley et al. (1994b) both attribute these results to subject
preferences being less polarised by gender stereotypes in single-sex schools, there are
other factors which may come into play when deciding whether or not to take foreign
languages at A-level.
The first of these factors is achievement; Cheng et al. (1995, cited in Arnot et al., 1998:
48) found it to be the most important variable in decision-making at A-level. Because of
the selective nature of some single-sex schools, there may be more boys at these schools
performing better in their foreign language exams. The second factor is also related to the
selective nature of some single-sex schools. There is a possibility that these schools put
more emphasis on the importance of studying foreign languages by offering students a
wider range of languages from which to choose and by requiring students to study more
than one or even two languages. This certainly seems to be the case at the single-sex
school in my study (see part 3.2 in ‘Methodology’). The last factor is the teacher. Without
girls to take up the role as the ‘better language learner’, boys in single-sex schools may
get more encouragement to pursue foreign language learning. They may also be taught in
ways that complement a general learning style that favours boys, making language
learning more appealing for boys in single-sex settings.
Apart from the possibilities that foreign languages are seen as ‘feminine’ and are
incompatible with the traditional male as breadwinner role, other competing hypotheses
as to why boys are opting out of foreign languages will be reviewed and re-evaluated in
the light of my own findings in Section 4. Fortunately, my findings come from two
mixed-sex schools and a single-sex school, which means they may also be able to shed
some light on the comparisons often made between these two types of schools. First
though, I shall outline the methodological framework for my study.
Initial Research Question
I wanted to explore the idea that boys may perceive foreign languages to be ‘feminine’
and therefore inconsistent with an oppositional view of gender whereby masculinity is
defined as what femininity is not (Sunderland, 2000). Simply stated, my overarching
research question was: ‘Are boys opting out of foreign languages because it is
inconsistent with masculinity?’ Other research questions, which were designed to answer
this overarching question, are outlined below as they are specific to the schools involved
in this study.
All three schools in which the research was conducted are situated in the North West of
England. I wrote to five schools in total and three agreed to provide me access to their
students for interview purposes. Sheridan and Collegiate High Schools are mixed, aged
11 to 16 comprehensives and Ridgemount is a selective, 11 to 18 all boys’ grammar
school. The names of the schools and of the participants have been changed to preserve
The diversity of these three schools, not only in terms of student composition and
academic standing but also in terms of their foreign language provision, proved to be
very useful for research purposes. In all three schools, pupils begin learning French in
Year 7 (first year in secondary school). Whilst Sheridan High School just offers French,
upper band students at Collegiate High School may also choose to study German in Years
9, 10 and 11. At Ridgemount, apart from studying French, students must also begin
studying Latin in their second year and one of Spanish, German or Greek in their third
year. With the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988, the study of a foreign
language at GCSE level (years 10 and 11) was made compulsory. For students at
Collegiate and Ridgemount this means that opting out of French is no longer possible.
For students at Sheridan High School, however, the school’s extremely flexible
interpretation of a disapplication reform under the Education Act 1996, allows them to
deselect modern foreign languages for specific purposes, i.e., if they are “making
significantly less progress than other pupils of [their] age” (DfEE, 2001). What makes
Sheridan’s interpretation of this reform so flexible (to the point of misinterpretation) is
that even top set students, ones whom the teachers deem to be good at French, are
allowed to deselect themselves.
These different school policies, combined with the fact that Ridgemount is the only one
of the three to have a sixth form, provided me with the opportunity to seek answers to
three different research questions. At Sheridan High School where students are allowed
to opt out of French, my question took the form of: ‘Why are/aren’t male students taking
GCSE French?’ At Collegiate High School where students must study French at GCSE
level my research question varied slightly: ‘Why would/wouldn’t male students continue
with French if they had the choice?’ Finally, at Ridgemount where students can continue
their study of foreign languages at A-level I wanted to know: ‘Why are/aren’t students
planning to continue with a foreign language beyond GCSE level?’
Once the schools had provisionally agreed to my interviewing their students, I wrote to
the heads of the Modern Foreign Languages departments to ask if they would choose five
Year 9 male students with varying academic abilities, ethnicities and social class
backgrounds. I deemed five students from each school an appropriate number for the
length and depth of analysis this paper will allow me. I do realise, however, that this is a
relatively small sample size beyond which any generalisations ought to be treated with
As they are nearing the end of Year 9, the students in my sample are all aged 14 to 15
years. This is a crucial age group for two reasons. The first is that prior to the interviews
in May, they had been involved in choosing the subjects they will study at GCSE level
over the next two years. This meant I could explore students’ motivation for selecting and
deselecting subjects. The second is that this age is an extremely sensitive one whereby
adolescents, according to social learning theorists, are “consumed with the concern to
define their sex role identity, to establish themselves as masculine or feminine” (Measor
& Sykes, 1992: 74). It would follow then that boys at this age might want to choose sexappropriate subjects and behave in ways they perceive to be associated with masculinity,
e.g., underperforming. Thus, I could also probe what, if any, gendered decisions students
make with regards to subject choices and in what ways boys perform masculinity in the
foreign language classroom.
Despite my attempt to select a sample representative of varying abilities, teachers at the
comprehensive schools were quick to point out that lower set students would be unlikely
to give up part of their lunch hour to be interviewed. This meant that at Collegiate High
School all of my participants were from the upper set but from different bands of ability,
i.e., two were upper band students and three were lower band students. At Sheridan High
School, three of my participants were upper band, upper set students and the other two
were both lower band middle set students. I was able to avoid some of these
methodological pitfalls at Ridgemount Grammar School firstly because the students were
allowed out of their lessons to be interviewed consecutively over the course of one
morning and secondly because French is not setted. Although the participants were of
varying abilities, i.e., one from the top, two from the middle and two from the bottom of
the class, due to the selective nature of the school the ability levels represented are
unlikely to be on par with those of the comprehensive schools.
Because ethnicity and social class also affect gender constructions, I attempted to include
both of these as background variables to the study. In terms of ethnicity, I think it suffices
to say that all of the students are white apart from one Asian student at Collegiate High
School. As regards social class, the majority of the participants from the comprehensive
schools come from working class backgrounds whereas those from the grammar school
come from middle-class backgrounds. Thus, social class is of considerable importance to
this study and does inform my analysis where applicable.
Primary Data
Because I was interested in how and why boys make the subject choices they do and, in
particular, their perceptions of and attitudes towards foreign languages, I had the option
of using questionnaires or interviews. I chose the latter for two reasons. The first is that
interviews are adaptable; they allow for ideas to be followed up, responses to be probed
and motives and feelings to be investigated (Bell, 1999). The second is that I felt busy
teachers would be more willing to take time out to talk to me one-on-one rather than fill
out and then return questionnaires.
Whilst I appreciate that a group interview allows a discussion to develop and hence a
wide range of responses to be collected, I decided on individual interviews largely
because of the time consuming nature of group interviews. Simply put, they are not
feasible in a school setting where they require more time than that allowed for lunch
break. I also considered that boys might be more relaxed and talkative in the presence of
other boys but after talking with other academics who have had experience of
interviewing boys, I came to the conclusion that there were no guarantees with either
The interviews were usually 25-30 minutes in duration and were audio-recorded with the
permission of the interviewees. The interviews were semi-structured based on a list of
core questions divided into three sections in order to probe: 1) masculinity as a selfconcept 2) boys’ motivations for subject choices 3) boys attitudes towards foreign
languages. In the first section I was interested in the ways in which boys attempt to
achieve masculinity and thus focused my questions on hobbies, friends, role models, TV
programmes and reading material. I started from the assumption that if I was to
understand the influence of masculinities on subject selection and foreign language
learning I would first have to develop some idea of how boys go about constructing
themselves as boys. This section also allowed me the chance to establish some sort of
rapport with the participants and gently ease them into the interview.
Sections two and three of the interview schedule were developed in response to the nature
of the school. In the mixed-sex schools I could probe masculinity vis-à-vis femininity by
asking about boys’ subject choices and academic performances relative to girls’ in the
second section and about boys’ level of participation and underachievement relative to
girls in the foreign language classroom in the third section. The grammar school proved
more of a challenge in trying to determine how boys construct their masculinity when
femininity is removed from the equation. I decided to follow the same interview schedule
as per the comprehensive schools but omit the questions pertaining to girls. I also
prefaced some questions with ‘do you think boys tend to...?’ and asked boys to qualify
their own answers at times with ‘is that partly because you are a boy?’ The interview
schedules for the different types of schools are provided in Appendices 1 and 2.
Despite the theoretical complications of my decision to interview students from a singlesex school, I felt it was too good an opportunity to turn down. I would like to stress that
rather than being a strictly comparative study, I am treating the data as three linked case
studies. Whilst it may prove fruitful at times to draw comparisons between the schools, I
am primarily concerned with situated masculinities. At the same time, I am also aware of
the diversity that exists between the participants within each school.
The interview questions were piloted beforehand with two male students from different
high schools who provided me with important feedback regarding question overlap and
wording, which informed the design of the final interview schedule.
Secondary Data
3.5.1. Classroom Observations
In all three schools I observed a French class in which all or some of my informants took
part - where the classes were setted, it was not possible to observe students from differing
bands of ability. The purpose of the observations was to put my interviews with the
students into context, to observe their behaviour and to look for evidence of any gendered
It also gave me the opportunity to look for gendered constructions in
different interactions, for boys are likely to construct themselves differently one-on-one
with me than they would in a language classroom full of their peers and in front of their
teacher. The classroom observations were not audio recorded but contributed to my field
3.5.2. Discussions with Foreign Language Teachers
Although I had originally planned to conduct semi-structured interviews with the
students’ foreign language teachers, these digressed into informal chats and discussions
in between lessons and over lunch hour, basically whenever I could catch up with them.
It was for this reason and for the reason that one of the teachers did not want to be
recorded, that I abandoned recording for note taking in all three schools. I was very
conscious of the fact that some of the teachers were treating me like an inspector, waiting
for my feedback at the end of the interview sessions despite repeated assurances that I
was not there to evaluate them or their students. Nonetheless, I found that putting away
the tape recorder actually had a calming effect on the teachers, allowing them to speak
freely without fear of being held accountable as such.
The discussions were largely based around the following themes: how they thought boys
perceived foreign languages; reasons why boys might be avoiding foreign languages;
boys’ attitudes to work and participation; activities or strategies that seem to appeal to
boys; masculinity and what it means to be a ‘real’ boy, especially in the context of the
foreign language class; what they thought would have to be done to get more boys
interested in foreign languages; and interesting issues raised by the students in their
Both the discussions with the teachers and the classroom observations served the
purposes of triangulation (Cohen & Manion, 1994), whereby the information collected
was used to shed light on and lend support to my primary data.
Data Analysis
In order to identify patterns in the data, I began by reading, re-reading and making notes
on the data as and when I collected it. Some themes were already established in response
to specific interview questions, for example, reasons why students select or de-select
subjects and what they liked most and least about French. Other themes, however,
emerged from the data as I read and re-read. Basing my approach on grounded theory
(Glaser & Strauss, 1967), I constantly cycled back and forth between data and theory
until I could no longer see new patterns emerging. At this point I took three transcripts,
one from each school, to the Gender and Language Research Group at Lancaster
University so as they too could look for patterns and themes for the purpose of validation.
The categories upon which the analysis is based, therefore, are ones that have been
validated or offered new by the Gender and Language Research Group. The excerpts of
data selected for analysis have been chosen based on typicality, exceptionality or
Apart from theme analysis, I also looked for the various discourses which boys draw on
to construct gender, thus taking up Francis’ (2000b) challenge to feminists to “identify
and analyse the various gender discourses, so that these may be better understood and
potentially deconstructed” (p. 20).
Analysis and Discussion
What emerged quite quickly during data analysis was that foreign languages are not
necessarily perceived as incompatible with an oppositional view of gender whereby
masculinity is constructed as what femininity is not. None of the boys interviewed
suggested that French was in any way ‘feminine’ when giving their reasons for opting out
of it or for wanting to opt out of it now or in the future. Interestingly enough, however,
two students from Sheridan High School and one student from Collegiate High School
did explain boys’ comparative underachievement in French in terms of ‘natural’ gender
differences when they suggested that boys are not actually interested in or are less
interested in learning languages than girls. The two boys from Sheridan High School
went even further to say that “girls think a lot more about learning new languages than
boys” and that “a lot more girls like it”. This suggests to me that, at least for these boys,
foreign language learning may be more consistent with femininity than masculinity (see
The data suggest that the reasons for selecting or deselecting foreign languages are multifaceted, interrelated and sometimes specific to the individual or individuals within a
particular school. The fact that the following categories are not totally exclusive but tend
to overlap illustrates just how complex the whole issue is. Due to spatial restrictions, the
categories represent six of the thirteen factors identified as having an impact on the way
foreign languages, and French in particular, are perceived by my participants. Within
each category I have made separate reference to each school, except where all the
comments from the three schools are similar, in which case I have only included one
excerpt from one school as a typical example.
It is clear from the data that students view subjects in terms of relevance to their current
lives, i.e., interests outside school, and to their future professional, academic or social
lives. It seems that French holds little relevance to students’ current lives, especially to
those students at Sheridan and Collegiate High Schools who have very little if any
opportunity to use French outside the classroom. Hence, those students who chose to
take French, to continue with it if they had the choice and to take it at A-level usually did
so based on its perceived relevance to their future lives, i.e., it would be useful for travel,
living abroad or a career.
Sheridan High School
Like Clark and Trafford (1996), Stables and Wikeley (1997), and Clark (1998), I also
found that subject choices are closely linked with career aspirations. This was no more
the case than at Sheridan, where all of the participants know what job they want to
pursue. Considering that many of the students here will leave school at the age of 16,
GCSE subjects may well be their final preparation before beginning their careers. With
this in mind, it is not surprising that a Sheridan student explains his claim of boys not
liking foreign language learning in the following way:
Lewis: just like not helping them in later life so no point in learning any of it
On the other side of the coin, those who did choose French can see the relevance of it to
their future lives and careers:
English Lit because then you can get a higher degree in whatever you do French in case you
like cos I want to go in Army and it’ll be better if you if you lear- have more than one
language so if you go to France and PE to keep yourself fit since in the Army that’s what
I do keep myself fit and that
When asked if they could think of any jobs that would require a foreign language, many
of the students were hard pressed to answer. When they did, they tended to offer jobs
specific to the airline and travel industries. Moreover, many of these were stereotypically
‘feminine’ jobs like 'air hostess' and 'holiday rep'5. Hence, it is not unreasonable to
suggest that students might find it difficult making a connection between foreign
languages and ‘masculine’ jobs.
In attempting to understand the relevance of French to students’ current lives it is
necessary to take social class into account. For most of the students at this school, there
is little prospect of ever using the language outside of the classroom. Unfortunately, what
prospects they did seem to have were destroyed with the cancellation of a school trip to
France because parents simply could not afford it. One student sums up the prevalent
attitudes of his classmates in the following way:
u:m they think that they they cos they’re not gonna go to France there’s no point in learning
so (.) they’re not gonna go to France why learn the language
mm (.) yeah but you said you were going to go
yeah (2) I’m gonna go so I thought [well if I might go over then I mi-might as well le-learn
a bit of the language
Although it is unfortunate that learning French is viewed as useful only for visiting
France, it is not surprising given the geographical separation of the UK from the rest of
Europe and what seems to be an increasingly prevalent attitude that everyone else speaks
English anyway. The reality of these students’ lives is such that a relationship between
them and the target language, the target language speakers and the target language culture
is all but non-existent apart from a few hours of French class every week6. To use
Norton’s (2000) terminology, they have no ‘investment’ in the language7. In other words,
Similar stereotypically ‘feminine’ jobs were also offered by the students in Clark’s (1998) study.
If the lesson I observed is typical of other French lessons, which I presume it is, then the students here are
not exposed to that much French at all considering the lesson was conducted almost entirely in English and
more time was spent on discipline than it was on language learning.
Norton defines ‘investment’ as “the socially and historically constructed relationship of learners to the
target language and their often ambivalent desire to learn and practice it” (2000: 10).
by viewing its usefulness in such narrow terms and perhaps by feeling the types of jobs it
leads to are more fitting of men than women, the students are squandering both the
cultural and the material capital that could be gained from language learning.
Collegiate High School
Unlike at Sheridan, where students seem to be channeled into career paths fairly early,
most of the participants here are as yet undecided what to do in the future. Hence, the
connection between careers and subjects is not so strong. Those students who said they
would continue with French if they had the choice felt it would be useful for future travel
or holidays. What is particularly noteworthy at this school is the relevance of other
subjects to students’ lives, which to my mind serves to accentuate the irrelevance of
French. The core subjects are consistently mentioned, and not just by students here but by
students at all three schools, as the ‘important’ subjects - the ones that “your job probably
relies on”. Not only can students see maths and English as important to their future lives,
but they can see them as essential to their lives at the moment in terms of knowing how to
count money at the shops and write properly. French, on the other hand, does not seem to
have the same sort of status.
It may be the core subjects which students perceive as important, but it is IT and PE
which they typically mention as the subjects which are really pertinent to boys:
mm it’s like boys think computers and that like play on computers
um because boys would be more stimulated with PE and like want to run around and that
(.) and girls would probably find it a bit boring and just can’t be bothered
This last comment is particularly worthy of further explication as it highlights the
significance of sport to boys’ lives. Not one boy of the fifteen interviewed neglected to
mention sport as a hobby. Like Martino (1999), I too found that sporting ability is a
crucial signifier of a hegemonic form of masculinity. Moreover, it provides boys the
opportunity to construct their masculine opposition to girls and all things ‘feminine’, for
sport appears to be a distinctly male domain from which females are excluded both inside
and outside the school.
Ridgemount Grammar School
Here the students’ socio-economic status affords many of them foreign holidays where
they can actually put their language learning to use. However, it seems to be the case that
any sort of investment, ability or even enjoyment that students have in language learning
is typically outweighed by good grades and relevance to career when it comes to deciding
whether or not to take French at A-level:
just French ok u:m do you think you’ll continue with that at A-level
I’m not sure right now it depends uh (.) I might do it depends what grade I get in my GCSE
and what A-levels I need to take to do what I want to do for a job
right right so you wouldn’t then just take it for interest sake or because you’re good at it
it no it’d have to be if it aided me in later life then I would definitely take it
mmhm mmhm even though you like it and you’re good at it
Thus, it looks as if many of the boys in my study take relevance to future lives and
careers very seriously in their subject selections. If, as Ludwig (1983) suggests, boys are
more instrumental than girls in their subject choices, it would seem to provide just one of
many plausible explanations for their under-representation in foreign languages at Alevel.
Boys’ lack of concentration is a recurring theme in the data regardless of school type.
Boys in the comprehensive schools tend to frame their lack of concentration in
surrounding discourses of ‘boys get distracted’ and ‘boys can’t be bothered'. Girls on the
other hand are constructed as the ones who concentrate and get on with their work.
Because it is a condition of boys, many of the participants do not necessarily see
concentration loss as a problem specific to the foreign language class but endemic of
most subjects. Some boys at the grammar school also seem to suffer from “short attention
spans” but more so in French class where switching off appears to be a function of
Sheridan High School
It is typically ‘natural’ gender differences between boys and girls which are called on to
explain boys’ underachievement in French:
I’m interested wh-why is this always the case I just wondered if you had any theories
concentrate more (.) than boys boys lose their concentration more easier
Whilst most of the boys, both here and at Collegiate, do not attribute blame to one
particular subject, there is an exception:
do they
Lewis: boys not actually interested in languages
Lewis implies, then, that the reason boys do not concentrate is because they are not
interested in languages. Conversely, girls are interested so they concentrate. For me this
line of reasoning is over-simplistic, relying on a static and essentialist view of gender. For
boys like Lewis, it can provide a perfectly natural explanation for underachieving and
wanting to opt out of foreign languages - it is more appropriate for girls.
Collegiate High School
Along similar lines to Lewis, there is one student from Collegiate who suggests that boys
are underachieving in French because they are not really interested in it, or in any other
subject apart from PE:
[well maybe just could be just think it’s probably harder to keep boys
interested what it is to keep girls interested with school (.) obviously things out of school
and everything
so that’s not particularly French then I mean=
=it’s pro it probably really (.) it probably really is all subjects apart from like PE what the
pupils are really interested in
yeah ok apart from PE why apart from PE
I just think like it’s something what boys like they can do what they like to do out of
school as well
Jon’s comments are particularly intriguing for two reasons. The first is that he equates
‘pupils’ with ‘boys’, thereby constructing boys as generic and girls as other. The second
is that he seems to blame boys’ underachievement on the distractions that they face
outside of school rather than on their own lack of effort. Interestingly enough, one of his
teachers also relies on the argument that boys face more distractions to justify their lack
of concentration in the classroom. Like Jon, she suggests that because boys’ social lives
are organised around sport and girls’ are organised around homework, it is
understandably harder for boys to concentrate on schoolwork than it is for girls. Whereas
girls just get on with their work as they would even outside of school, boys have more
interesting things to think and talk about, namely football.
One student actually cites these gender differences as the reason why he will not sit with
girls in class:
they’re not as talkative and not being sexist
What is so fascinating about this remark is that it reverses typical stereotypes of the
‘chatty’ female and the ‘indifferent’ male. It is a remark that can only be understood
within a post-structuralist framework whereby individuals “perform gender differently in
different contexts, and do sometimes behave in ways we would normally associate with
the ‘other’ gender” (Cameron, 1998: 272). Obviously within the context of the classroom,
chatting about anything but the lesson is one way of performing masculinity. At the same
time, boys are constructing their opposition to girls by devaluing that which they do schoolwork. I shall discuss the complex interplay between masculinities and schoolwork
in more detail in subsequent categories.
Ridgemount Grammar School
Boys from Ridgemount also suggest they suffer from a lack of concentration, but it seems
to be exacerbated in French class due to their incomprehension:
I think they lose concentration more in French class because it’s in a different language
and they can’t understand it
Because the class is conducted predominantly in the target language it can stretch
students’ concentration to the limits. This is especially true for those students who have
trouble understanding what it is the teacher is actually saying. The incessant use of
foreign language seems only to demotivate and turn these students off French (see also
‘Difficulty and Unfamiliarity’).
Difficulty and Unfamiliarity
Students from all three schools mention that foreign language learning, or at least parts of
it like changing the tenses, is a relatively ‘new’ thing and that their difficulty stems in
part from not being used to it. Without having interviewed girls it is impossible to say
that these boys perceive foreign language learning to be more difficult than girls do, and
as I mentioned in the literature review, the research is divided on this question. Certainly
girls are no more used to foreign language learning than are boys. There is some evidence
to suggest, however, that girls are likely to persevere in the face of adversity. In Graham
and Rees’ (1995) study on learning difficulties over half of their female respondents
claimed they dealt with anxieties about their progress by working harder (p. 18). Boys on
the other hand may decide to opt out if unsuccessful. Boys’ under-representation also
appears to be linked to the fact that compared to other subjects foreign languages require
constant practice, revision and overall commitment - things which are antithetical to
dominant versions of masculinity.
Sheridan High School
Although the following comment is an extreme form of that expressed by other boys, it
illustrates just how unfamiliar foreign languages are to some students:
Lewis: yeah I find it tricky cos like different kinds of words and you’re just not used to it it’s
The trickiness apparently stems from the ‘weird’ words that students have to try to
memorise, spell, and pronounce - three tasks which, as I shall illustrate, are potential
stumbling blocks for boys. This is particularly true of pronunciation considering the
amount of peer pressure boys face (see ‘Pronunciation and Potential Embarrassment’).
Collegiate High School
Again the difficulty, at least with French, seems to lie with the unfamiliarity of the words:
I find it difficult I think German’s easier than French
in in what way
it’s easier to learn like (2) it’s the words like (.) more like English and you can they just
stick in your head
Several boys echo the sentiment that German is easier because the words are closer to
English. Because they are closer to English I am assuming they are not only easier to
remember but also easier to pronounce, thus removing the ‘weird’ factor.
Ridgemount Grammar School
Here the difficulty with French is conceived of in three ways: it is a “brand new thing”; it
is incomprehensible; and it takes more effort than other subjects. Because I have already
dealt with the first two issues, I shall focus on the latter one here. Basically the
cumulative nature of language learning demands an academic work ethic which is
incompatible with a construction of masculinity which has at its core a notion of
‘effortless achievement’ (Cohen, 1998). Boys like the ones Brad is referring to below
seem to want to achieve but without the hard work, and this is something unlikely to
happen in foreign languages:
ok so what is it about the subject itself
it being hard and hard to learn and it’s it’s not as easy as anything else
ok so it’s it [takes effort
[I mean they don’t want to try to do it they just want to be able to go and sit
down and be able to do it at the end of it not having to work to do it
Although I do not doubt that many boys would like to achieve without any effort, I would
argue that hard work is not actually a threat to a boy’s masculinity until another boy
witnesses it. Thus it is appearing to work hard which has the potential to destroy a
masculine image. Let me illustrate this point with an example from Collegiate High
School. One of the trainee teachers mentioned that a couple of her male students had
indicated to her via written feedback that they would be more willing to answer her
questions if she nominated students rather than asked for volunteers. Obviously having to
answer a question is not appearing to work whereas volunteering is. In the first instance
a boy is behaving in a way that is compatible with an increasingly dominant anti-
schoolwork construction of masculinity (Epstein, 1998; Martino, 1999; Francis, 2000b).
In the second instance he is behaving in a way that is more compatible with femininity
and thereby risks being ostracized. Arguably, then, a comparatively difficult subject like
French puts more pressure on boys to try to reconcile being ‘real’ boys and doing the
work they have to do in order to pass.
Maybe those boys who are incapable of
reconciling the two decide to give up French altogether.
Speaking and Spontaneity
Research investigating boys’ attitudes towards speaking has been far from clear. Some
researchers (Beswick, 1976; Powell & Littlewood, 1982; Loulidi, 1990) have suggested
that boys do not enjoy speaking out in the public sphere, especially at a time when voices
are breaking and making ‘strange noises’ in front of girls may end in embarrassment. In
contrast, other researchers have suggested that boys not only welcome the opportunity to
practice speaking (Batters, 1986; Clark & Trafford, 1996; Graham & Rees, 1995) but
rank it as their favourite of the four skills (Alpin, 1991; Barton, 1997). My work supports
both of these positions; some boys enjoy speaking whilst others do not. One student at
Sheridan High School “loves speaking different languages”. For another student at
Collegiate it depends on the topic and for another at Ridgemount it depends on how the
activity is organised, with speaking in pair-/group-work, especially with friends,
perceived as easier than speaking in front of the whole class. Two other students at
Ridgemount claim they are “no good” at it, but one of the two still prefers speaking to
What is most interesting with regards speaking, however, is an overriding concern with
the nature of the speaking activity. The data suggest that most boys do not mind reading
aloud from a book but when it comes to spontaneous speaking - when they are not exactly
sure what to say or how to say it - not only are they unable to speak but they are reluctant
to even chance it. The reasons, which I shall bring to light in this section and the next,
appear to stem from a sense of insecurity that accompanies language learning and from
fears of being wrong and subsequently ridiculed by peers.
Ridgemount Grammar School
Although spontaneity is also an issue for one student at Collegiate High School, it seems
to be a bigger issue for more students here at Ridgemount:
reading out of books what if then she just asked you something and you had to do it off the
top [of your head
[no I can’t do that
no so would you ever volunteer to do something like that or do you
Justin: no {laughs}
This reaction might explain why only a handful and always the same handful of more
able students participate in French class - something that my interviewees avowed and I
also observed. Actually volunteering an answer off the top of his head without the aid of
a text is a ludicrous idea, and not only for Justin:
Darcy: French what do I I enjoy about French I don’t mind speaking it that’s alright but um I don’t
like when you have to it’s things to do with like making it up and things and trying to work
out what you’re meant to say when you don’t have anything to look at like your book you
can’t say what you want to and things but I don’t enjoy too much about French
Therein lies the crux of the language class - it has the power to make an otherwise selfassured person feel extremely vulnerable by stripping them of their normal linguistic
resources and leaving them incapable of saying what it is they want to say. This is a
difficult thing to come to terms with for any student, but for a student like Darcy who is
very articulate and obviously successful in every other realm of his life, it may be even
more difficult.
Pronunciation and Potential Embarrassment
This category is closely connected with the former and draws on the same body of
research that claims boys are embarrassed at having to produce strange noises in the
presence of girls (Beswick, 1976; Loulidi; 1990). In order to evaluate this claim in the
light of my own research it requires some unpacking. The first presupposition embedded
within it is that boys consider foreign languages to consist of strange noises. The second
is that they get embarrassed. And the third is that they get embarrassed in front of girls
(rather than boys). My research validates the first two of these presuppositions but not
necessarily the third. As already explicated, because French is relatively new to them,
students like Lewis from Sheridan High School do seem to find it ‘weird’. Because he
relates the weirdness directly to the words, I assume that it is trying to pronounce these
‘weird’ words that causes him distress. Other students also give me the same impression:
that formulating words in one’s head is fine but actually vocalising them is a different
story altogether.
It is this vocalisation that causes or could cause embarrassment.
However, as I shall illustrate, the embarrassment does not necessarily stem from having
to speak in front of girls but from sounding foolish in front of male peer groups.
Sheridan High School
The following exchange highlights the potential for embarrassment that lurks in all
classes but particularly in a language class:
happens more [in a language class yeah cos like when you get like a word wrong everyone
goes ahh and {points}=
=yeah and start laughin at you
who laughs at you
=everyone it’s just (.) [anything really innit
[something that people does
and would they laugh at you if you had to u:h say put an equation on the blackboard
in Maths class would they laugh at you then
Lewis: only if you got it wrong
The reason there is more potential for embarrassment in a language class is because there
are so many more opportunities to get things wrong. Not only do students have to know
the meaning of a particular word they then have to get the gender and the pronunciation
right. One simple mistake could make them the butt of the classroom banter.
Although girls also engage in the banter, the boys admit that they are the worst and this is
confirmed by my observation. Being disruptive, ‘having a laugh’ and making jokes at
other people’s expense are all key components of what Francis (2000b) calls the ‘laddish’
construction of masculinity, taken up to “gain or maintain social status with peers” (p.
94). The implication of this construction for subject choice could be that boys are opting
for those subjects in which maintaining social status is easier because there are less
chances of making mistakes.
Collegiate High School
As one might expect, classroom participation also appears to be affected by the potential
for embarrassment:
no it just all like the person who sits next to me he’s on the A team and I’m on the B
team and he tells me the answer cos he doesn’t know how to pronounce it and then I say
it and we get the point (.) so then he’s losing it
Considering that the above comment comes from a very mature, athletic and seemingly
popular student, for him pronouncing a word wrong might not enact the same kind of
repercussions as it might the other boy. What is important to note, and what I hope the
teacher realises, is that it is not a lack of knowledge which prevents the other boy from
participating but a lack of confidence that he will pronounce the word correctly.
Ridgemount Grammar School
If, as the theory goes, boys are more reluctant to speak in front of girls for the fear that
they will do the exact opposite of impress by making strange noises, then one would
presume that in a single-sex environment boys would be more comfortable speaking out.
But this is not what the data from Ridgemount indicate, as the following exchange
French uh I don’t like talking as much cos I find it difficult sometimes to pronounce the
words and I can form the words in my head but it’s just saying them out loud it’s just
a bit difficult
ok what what part is difficult
I think it’s because there’s other people in the class I’m just a bit nervous
yeah mm do you think other people feel that way as well
I think so as well
It looks as if peer pressure and the necessity to preserve one’s image have more to do
with the reluctance to speak than does the presence of girls. Here, even more so than at
the other schools, it was painfully clear that ‘taking the mickey’ and offering other
students wrong answers only then to laugh at them are considered normal masculine
accomplishments within the context of the foreign language classroom. Granted I only
observed one class and this was with a female exchange teacher who had only taught the
students for one year. The students may have been taking advantage of a teacher they
perceive as an outsider or as very lenient. They may also have been acting up more than
usual due to my presence. I also think it is worth considering that they may have acted
differently with a male teacher - certainly the teacher whom I observed felt that the boys
were less respectful of female teachers than of male teachers8.
Regardless, the fact remains that boys like Brad are reluctant to pronounce French words
in front of other boys, presumably afraid that they will lose their social status amongst
their peers. Interestingly enough, the distinct lack of support boys receive from other
boys was highlighted by two students who felt that having girls in the classroom might
result in them getting the help they feel they need.
Rules and a Sense of Control
Although the need for rules and explanations is only mentioned by one student at
Ridgemount Grammar School, I feel it warrants a category of its own not least because it
contradicts calls by Graham and Rees (1995) and Harris (1998) for more learner
autonomy. These researchers propose that boys would be more motivated to learn foreign
languages if they had more control over what they learn and how they learn it. However,
as Darcy indicates below, he needs less independence from the teacher and more written
rules and grammatical explanations:
something I need I need to have notes written down on what it is and [why it’s like that
[what do you mean
notes on what it is
Darcy: well like the perfect tense and stuff like that he would give us notes about it like saying it
it changes to this because and things like that
oh right so you’d have like some rules to follow
Darcy: yeah I understood it a lot more back then
When I asked one of the boys about this he professed that his class is “pretty disrespectful to most
teachers” and that their behaviour depends on the teacher’s personality and whether the subject is perceived
to be important - something that French is obviously not.
Interestingly, his argument for writing is the exact same one he uses against speaking;
that is, writing does not involve an element of spontaneity:
Darcy: =cos I prefer things like that like we had to do an essa:y we had like two weeks to do it in
and that was quite good cos I knew what I was going to say and how to say it and things
Darcy: and I also had a text to work from in the textbook there was quite a similar thing so I could
work from that and-
Thus, I too have an argument for more control over learning, but it is the type of control
that can only be gained by dependence on and guidance from the teacher, books, models,
rules, and explanations. It is based on deductive as opposed to inductive learning and it
comes from the feeling of knowing exactly what and how to say or write something.
Finally, and most importantly for boys it would seem, it diminishes the chances of being
Implications for Schools
The discussion presented in the last section holds many implications for the schools and
their staff regarding what needs to be done to get boys selecting foreign languages. It is
these implications that I wish to explore in this section.
Although I have been careful throughout this paper to present a portrait of situated
masculinities, the recommendations that follow are not context-specific due to spatial
restrictions. I recognise that not all of them will suit every learner and every teacher in
every school. That is why I also recommend that schools carry out their own
investigations into boys and language learning, soliciting student opinion and formulating
their own responses9. For now though, I put forth the following recommendations in the
If teachers are at a loss as to how to do this without creating substantially more work for themselves, I
suggest they consider ‘exploratory practice’ (Allwright, 1992). Exploratory practice complements what
teachers are already doing in the classroom by using existing methodology to develop understanding of a
particular ‘puzzle’. So if teachers wanted to solicit students’ attitudes towards one of the skills, they could
do so with a simple worksheet asking students to fill in the blanks with the correct form of the verb and
then provide a reason using the present tense, e.g., j’aime _____ or je n’aime pas _____ parce que _______.
Exploratory practice also encourages teachers to come together, to identify common ‘puzzles’ and to share
findings, which means that teachers and/or departments need not feel isolated in their endeavours.
belief that they can raise the status of foreign languages in the eyes of both boys and girls,
for it must not be forgotten that any sort of innovation must work to the advantage of
both sexes.
The students made it quite clear that it is not footballers or action heroes who hold the
potential to inspire them to speak a foreign language but their very own teachers. In this
respect, teachers are probably the most important resource for promoting the value of
foreign language learning. They can do this by telling students about why they chose to
study foreign languages, and by relaying stories about how other people put their
language skills to use in careers. In this way they can impress upon students the
opportunities foreign language learning opens up in terms of travel, friends, employment
and cultural understanding. When talking to a trainee French teacher at Ridgemount
Grammar School it was exactly this sort of enthusiasm from one of his teachers that made
him want to become a language teacher himself. Although promoting language learning
in this way ought to begin with the teacher, it should ultimately become part of school
policy to raise the status of foreign languages within the curriculum as a whole.
Hopefully when this happens, more students will begin to view foreign languages an
‘important’ subject.
In this respect, collaboration between language teachers and careers teachers would also
help by providing students with a wider range of careers associated with foreign
languages, including those which might be perceived as more appropriate for boys. With
regards the latter point, teachers may find they need to add a masculine perspective to
textbooks such as the one at Collegiate High School that only feature women in the
careers section. On another level entirely, they may want to work with careers teachers to
put together some promotional material surrounding jobs like journalism, law, the
diplomatic service, accountancy, banking, and management. If, as my study suggests,
relevance to future lives and careers plays a major role in subject selection, then the link
between modern foreign languages and potential careers is vital from an early age.
Finally, considering that parents also influenced students’ subject choices, advising their
children as to which subjects were important and which were less important, it is
imperative that they too are aware of the cultural and material benefits to be gained from
foreign language learning. Again it is up to language teachers and careers teachers to
send this information home with children and to discuss the merits of language learning
at parents’ evenings. If it is the case that parents are encouraging their children to take
gender-appropriate subjects, then they too will need to take responsibility and re-evaluate
their gendered attitudes.
Because speaking spontaneously poses a threat to many of the boys interviewed,
activities which are scripted and rehearsed before having to go public seem like sensible
alternatives to more teacher-fronted approaches. Activities like role-play, drama and even
producing simple television commercials or trailers for films seem especially suited for
boys for several reasons. The first is that it gives them the opportunity to work in groups
with people whom they feel comfortable speaking in front of. The second is it devolves
responsibility for mistakes to the group as a whole thereby taking pressure off
individuals. The third is that it allows them to be as expressive as they want and yet
preserve their image because they are portraying a fictional character.
School Trips
The data suggest that school trips abroad do act as motivation for language learning. This
is also supported by teachers from Collegiate High School who, having seen the
gratification students get from being able to use the language in a real situation, believe
trips to be a fundamental component of their foreign language programme.
Unfortunately, not all parents can afford to send their children on trips. For these
students, contact with the target language speakers may have to come in the form of email exchanges with schools in France or letter writing to French football clubs for
This is an idea developed by the Modern Foreign Language Department at Collegiate High School.
In the last section I established that schoolwork lies in direct opposition to many
constructions of masculinity. Schoolwork that requires concentration and constant
application, like that associated with foreign languages, is likely to be even more opposed
to these constructions. Thus, it is reasonable to suggest that these dominant constructions
have implications for boys’ achievement in foreign languages. I would also argue that
they have implications for subject choice. More specifically, boys who take up these
constructions may be opting out of foreign languages and into those subjects in which
achievement comes with less effort. They may also be opting for those subjects in which
maintaining social status is relatively easy compared to foreign languages, where there
are so many opportunities to make mistakes and thus be ridiculed by peers.
It is for these reasons that schools need to start challenging ‘laddish’, anti-schoolwork
constructions of masculinity and make acceptable to students other versions of
masculinity that are compatible with schoolwork and with notions of support in the
classroom. One way to do this is through the use of classroom-based activities such as
those created by Askew and Ross (1988) and Jackson and Salisbury (1996) which aim to
change detrimental patterns of male behaviour. Change can only come about, however,
when students and teachers alike recognise that boys have agency. This means that
discourses like ‘boys get distracted’ must also be challenged. By blaming external factors
for boys’ behaviour, this discourse only perpetuates thinking that boys behave the way
they do because they have no choice in the matter. Because one of the teachers drew on
this discourse to justify boys’ lack of concentration, it is obvious that teachers themselves
need to re-evaluate their own gendered assumptions. Hence, the incorporation of
masculinities work and more gender-aware and equal opportunities work in general into
teacher training programmes would not go amiss. Neither would the introduction of fullscale staff development initiatives in individual schools, for as Jackson (1998) says
“...school institutions, from headteacher to caretaker, need to confront what hidden
messages they give out about how to be a man or a boy” (p. 88).
My primary aim in this study has been to explore reasons why boys are deselecting
foreign languages. What the data have suggested is that there is no single reason but
many interrelated factors, which together serve to turn boys away from foreign language
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the characteristics which make the foreign language classroom
unique are, by all accounts, the same characteristics which make it difficult, confusing,
anxiety producing and potentially embarrassing.
The cumulative nature of language
learning usually means that hard work and commitment are required in order to achieve,
but hard work and commitment are incompatible with an anti-schoolwork construction of
masculinity. The fact that the lesson is conducted partly or predominantly in another
language can cause students to lose concentration or to become confused, frustrated,
anxious, and ultimately demotivated. Finally, because speaking is a skill that has to be
practiced, there are plenty of opportunities to make pronunciation errors, which can lead
to embarrassment and a loss of social status. When all these factors are combined with
perceptions of foreign languages as unimportant and irrelevant to future lives and careers,
the puzzle that is boys’ under-representation becomes a little bit closer to being pieced
Based on my own analysis and students’ recommendations, I have offered suggestions
aimed at the classroom level for increasing boys’ enjoyment of foreign languages and at a
departmental level for raising the status of foreign languages within the curriculum as a
whole. Any attempts to raise students’ awareness of the personal, cultural and material
benefits of language learning must also be met by similar attempts aimed at parents, for
the data indicate that they can influence students’ perceptions of foreign languages. I
have also suggested that teacher training programmes and schools incorporate
masculinities work so that teachers can re-evaluate their gendered assumptions and learn
how to get their students to challenge dominant constructions of masculinity that are
potentially impeding their learning and keeping them away from foreign languages.
Of course masculinities work should not come at the expense of raising opportunities for
girls within the school system and beyond. Ultimately male and female teachers should
work jointly with boys and girls in what Jackson (1998) envisions as a more “inclusive
approach to gender work in schools” (p. 92). Within this approach restrictive, essentialist
and dichotomizing discourses which position girls as the ones who concentrate and get on
with their work and boys as the ones who get distracted and can’t be bothered should also
be challenged by students and by teachers. By the same token the equal opportunities
discourse which so many of the students drew upon in my study should be encouraged
and valued.
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Appendix 1: Interview Schedule Mixed-Sex Schools
Part One
TV programmes
Books or magazines
Role models - who do you have on your wall?
Part Two
GCSE Subjects
Why did you choose these subjects?
Why didn’t you choose these subjects?
Did anybody help you make your choices?
What advice did they give you?
Do you know yet what you want to do or be in the future?
Are there any subjects you would drop if you could?
Are there any extra subjects you would like to take?
In which subjects do you feel it is important to get the best grades?
In which subjects would you like to do better?
Do you think being a male or a female makes a difference to the subjects students
12. Do you think being a male or a female makes a difference to how well you do in these
Part Three
1. Why are you continuing with/dropping French? (Sheridan High School)
Would you continue with French if you had the choice? (Collegiate High School)
2. What do you enjoy most about French or German?
3. What do you enjoy least about French or German?
4. Can you think of any jobs that would require a foreign language?
Would you like to do these jobs?
5. Here are the GCSE results for boys and girls in French. Why do you think girls are doing
6. Do boys and girls participate the same amount in French class?
What about in maths class? IT?
7. Has there ever been a time in French class when you have felt particularly uncomfortable
for some reason? What happened?
8. Can you tell me anyone you know (famous or otherwise) who speaks more than one
9. Do any of these people inspire you to speak another language?
10. Can you think of anyone who would inspire you if they spoke another language?
11. What would have to happen for you to enjoy French class more?
Appendix 2: Interview Schedule Single-Sex School
Part One
TV programmes
Books or magazines
Role models - who do you have on your wall?
Why did you choose the Grammar School?
Are there any advantages of attending an all boys’ school?
Any disadvantages?
Part Two
GCSE Subjects
Why did you choose these subjects?
Why didn’t you choose these subjects?
Did anybody help you make your choices?
What advice did they give you?
Do you know yet what you want to do or be in the future?
Are there any subjects you would drop if you could?
Are there any extra subjects you would like to take?
In which subjects do you feel it is important to get the best grades?
In which subjects would you like to do better?
Part Three
Do you plan to continue with a foreign language at A-level?
What do you enjoy most about the foreign languages you study?
What do you enjoy least about the foreign languages you study?
Can you think of any jobs that would require a foreign language?
Would you like to do these jobs?
Why do you think more boys in all boys’ schools than in mixed-sex schools continue
studying a foreign language beyond GCSE?
Do you think the students participate as much in a foreign language class as they do in
say an English or Maths class?
Has there ever been a time in French class when you have felt particularly uncomfortable
for some reason? What happened?
Can you tell me anyone you know (famous or otherwise) who speaks more than one
Do any of these people inspire you to speak another language?
Can you think of anyone who would inspire you if they spoke another language?
What would have to happen for you to enjoy French class more?