English Language
Deficit Approach

Deficit Approach

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The Concept of the Deficit Approach in Language and Gender Studies

The deficit approach, also known as the deficit model or theory, is a widely studied concept in the field of language and gender. This approach investigates the differences between men and women's language use and how it reflects societal norms. Let’s delve deeper into the meaning of this approach and the perspectives of linguists who support or critique it.

The Definition of the Deficit Approach

A deficit-based approach focuses on identifying the limitations and shortcomings of individuals or groups, instead of examining larger societal issues.

Language Differences and the Deficit Approach

The deficit approach argues that there are significant disparities in how men and women use language. It asserts that men's language is considered the standard and superior, while women's language is deemed inferior because it deviates from this norm.

To remember this definition easily, think of the "Two S's and Two I's":

  • Men = standard and superior
  • Women = insufficient and inferior

The Deficit Approach and the English Language

The English language has the power to influence how others perceive us and reflects our experiences in society. By examining the perspectives of both supporters and critics of the deficit approach, we can gain a better understanding of the connection between language and gender.

Supporters argue that gender plays a significant role in language use, and the approach reveals how men and women's language differ in terms of inadequacy. Some linguists have identified women's language as "lacking" in various ways.

However, critics point out that the deficit approach may portray women unfairly. They argue that it highlights inequality between genders by labeling women's language as deficient compared to men's. Moreover, they highlight that societal power imbalances may not solely be due to women's language, but also the language used by both men and women in vulnerable positions.

Image caption: Supporters argue that gender plays a significant role in language use. (Pixabay)

Examples of the Deficit Approach

Now, let's take a closer look at the views and findings of linguists who support this approach.

Otto Jespersen

Otto Jespersen, a Danish linguist, analyzed the grammar of the English language in his book Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin (1922). In a chapter titled "Women," Jespersen described the shortcomings of women's language in the following ways:

  • Talking more frequently
  • Using simpler words due to a smaller vocabulary
  • Having more false starts and unfinished sentences due to impulsive speaking
  • Tending to exaggerate
  • Using excessive adjectives and adverbs
  • Being perceived as emotional rather than grammatical
  • Having a more indirect communication style, viewed as less effective than men's direct style

Jespersen also compared women's language to "indispensable small change," suggesting that it may be necessary for communication, but is not as influential or desirable as men's language.

On the other hand, Jespersen believed that men's language was more impressive and significant due to the following reasons:

  • Having a larger vocabulary and using more complex words
  • Being responsible for introducing new words in the English language

In his own words, "there is a danger of the language becoming languid and insipid if we (men) are to content ourselves with women's expressions." In simpler terms, he believed that if men adopted women's style of speaking or continued to permit them to speak in that way, the language would become weaker and less interesting.

Do Jespersen's findings, which are over 100 years old, still apply in today's society?

Robin Lakoff

Robin Lakoff, an American linguist teaching at the University of California, examines women's language in her book Language and Women's Place (1975).

The Impact of Gender on Language: The Deficit Versus Diversity Approach

According to language expert Robin Lakoff, there is a belief that women's language is weaker compared to men's and reflects their lower social status and lack of power in society. But why is this the case? Lakoff argues that this difference in language stems from societal inequalities and male objectification of women. Women are often reduced to dependent objects in the language of men, further highlighting the unequal treatment of women in society.

One of Lakoff's significant findings on the features of women's language include their tendency to use more "backchanneling" expressions, such as "Uh-huh" and "Mm," to show agreement or understanding. Women also tend to use more "hedging" expressions, like "Sort of" and "Kind of," to soften their opinions. Additionally, they may use intensifiers, apologies, tag questions, modal verbs, empty adjectives, wh- imperatives, indirect commands, diminutives, euphemisms, direct quotes and polite forms, as well as utilize italics for emphasis.

However, women tend to use less slang, swear words, and insults, implying that they may use more polite and formal language and are less aggressive than men. Lakoff also observed that women have a weaker sense of humor and are not as good at telling jokes.

While the deficit approach, supported by linguists like Otto Jespersen and Lakoff, focuses on the supposed deficiencies of women's language, it has been heavily criticized for portraying men's language as the standard and women's language as inferior. This approach reinforces gender stereotypes and inequality by implying that there is something wrong with the way women communicate.

On the other hand, linguists William O'Barr and Bowman Atkins support the Diversity Approach, which argues that one's level of power in society is not solely based on their gender. In their study on courtroom language, they found that both men and women use language typically associated with women when in a vulnerable position or lacking authority.

For those interested in studying the role of women in language development, linguists Terttu Nevalainen and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg conducted a study analyzing 6,000 personal letters written between 1417 and 1681, which revealed that women adapted their writing style quicker than men, leading to the creation of new language.

Interestingly, the genre of Science Fiction is often credited to novelist Mary Shelley for her book Frankenstein, considered to be the first science fiction novel.

In conclusion, while the deficit approach may have its supporters, critics believe it only perpetuates gender stereotypes and inequality. On the other hand, the diversity approach recognizes that power and authority are not solely dependent on one's gender. It is essential to view language in a more nuanced and diverse manner, taking into account societal structures and individual experiences.


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An Asset-Based Approach: Recognizing Strengths and Resources in Societal Challenges

In the world of language and literature, the study of historical sociolinguistics has shed light on the dynamics of language change throughout different time periods. One notable example is the Tudor and Stuart era in England, as explored in the work of Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg in 2003. Similarly, in the realm of social issues and struggles, it is important to shift the focus from individuals or groups to the larger systemic factors at play.

Rather than placing blame on the weaknesses of individuals or communities, an asset-based approach acknowledges the strengths and resources that they possess. This approach recognizes that these strengths and resources can play a crucial role in overcoming challenges and creating positive change.

Just as Frankenstein author, M. Shelley, portrayed the negative consequences of a deficit-based mindset in 1818, modern-day society can also learn from this cautionary tale. By taking an asset-based approach, we can work towards addressing societal issues in a more effective and collaborative manner.

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