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Deficit Approach

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English

The deficit approach (also known as the deficit model or theory) is an approach that you will often come across when studying language and gender.

We will begin by taking a look at the meaning of the deficit approach before focusing on what it can tell us about the differences between language and gender. We will look at the views of linguists who agree with the deficit approach and explore their findings. We will also consider possible criticisms of the approach.

Deficit approach: meaning

In a broad sense, a deficit-based approach puts a focus on the weakness of a person or group rather than the wider societal problems.

Deficit approach: language and gender

The deficit approach aims to prove that there are differences in the way men and women use language. It argues that the language that men use is the standard and, therefore, superior. On the other hand, the language that women use is viewed as insufficient as it differs from the norm and is therefore inferior.

Want an easy way to remember this definition? Just memorise the words in bold above!

Let's call them the Two S's and Two 2 I's:

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

Deficit approach: English language

The language we use can affect how we are perceived by others and reflect our experiences in society. Depending on supporters or critics of the deficit approach, we are able to gain an understanding of how language and gender can be linked.

Supporters of the deficit approach can tell us that language use is influenced by gender. In particular, the approach demonstrates how men's and women's language can be differentiated by their levels of deficiency, as some linguists have identified women's language as 'lacking' in multiple ways.

However, critics of the deficit approach can tell us that there may be problems with the ways the deficit approach views women – the approach suggests inequality between genders as women's language is seen as deficient to men's. They also highlight that the power imbalance in society may not be due to the language used solely by women but due to language used by both men and women in vulnerable positions.

Supporters of the deficit approach can tell us that language use is influenced by gender, Pixabay.

Deficit approach: examples

We will now take a look at the views and findings of linguists who agree with this approach in more detail.

Otto Jespersen

Otto Jespersen was a Danish linguist who focused on the study of grammar in the English language. Jespersen believed that men's language was seen as the standard and normal, whereas women's language was deficient.

In his book Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin (1922), Jespersen explored the differences between the use of language by men and women. Particularly, in a chapter titled Women, Jespersen explored the language used by women. Below are some of his findings:

According to Jespersen, women:

  • Talk a lot.
  • Use simpler words as they have smaller vocabularies.
  • Use more false starts and unfinished sentences because they speak before they think.
  • Exaggerate more.
  • Use too many adjectives and adverbs.
  • Are emotional, not grammatical.
  • Are more indirect and, therefore, less effective than men.

Jespersen also described the language used by women as the:

Indispensable small change of language . . .

This suggests that, although the language women use is necessary to the development of communication, its influence is not as extensive or desirable as the language men use.

So, what did Jespersen say about men's language?

According to Jespersen, men:

  • Have a larger vocabulary and use more difficult words.
  • Are in charge of establishing new words in the English language.

This suggests that the language that men use is more impressive and more significant than the language used by women.

Jespersen then stated:

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 were to speak in the way that women did, or if they continued letting women speak in such a way, the language would become weaker and uninteresting.

Otto's findings are over 100 years old. Do you think they are still relevant in today's society?

Robin Lakoff

Robin Lakoff is an American linguist who teaches Linguistics at the University of California. In her book, Language and Women's Place (1975), Lakoff explores the language used by women. She argues that the features of language used by women are 'weaker' and more uncertain than the language used by men. She refers to this weaker form of language as 'women's language.'

So why is women's language seen as weaker?

Lakoff believes that the differences in language between men and women reflect their social status and the amount of power they have in society. As a result, she believes that the language that women use is weaker because it reflects their lower social status and lack of power in society.

Lakoff also argues that the powerlessness of women is not only reflected in how they speak but also in how men speak about women. This is because when women are spoken about by men, they are often objectified and seen as reliant on men. This highlights the unfair treatment of women by men in society.

Below are some of Lakoff's findings regarding women's language:

Women use more:

Examples:

Backchannelling

'Uh-huh', 'Mm', 'Yeah'

Hedging

'Sort of', 'Kind of'

Intensifiers

'Very', 'So', 'Really'

Apologies

'I'm sorry, but…'

Tag questions

'You live here, right?'

'You sing, don't you?'

Modal verbs

'Could', 'Should', 'Ought to'

Empty (meaningless) adjectives

'Gorgeous', 'Adorable', 'Lovely'

Wh- Imperatives

'Why don't we…'

Indirect commands

'It's cold in here' indirectly means 'close the window'

Diminutives (pet names)

'Honey', 'Sweetie', 'Darling'

Euphemisms

'Passed away' instead of 'Died'

Direct quotes

(instead of paraphrasing)

Polite forms

'Would you mind if…'

'Italics' (change in stress)

'This is so great'

'I am very tired'

Women may use these things more than men, but they use less:

  • Slang.
  • Swear words.
  • Insults.

This implies that women tend to use more formal language, are more polite, and are less aggressive than men.

Lakoff also observed that women don't have a good sense of humour and are bad at telling jokes...

deficit approach, woman laughing, studysmarter

Women are bad at telling jokes according to Lakoff, Pixabay.

Criticisms of the deficit approach

Overall, the deficit approach could be seen as problematic as it focuses on the 'deficits' in women's language while portraying the language of men as the 'norm'. This view implies that there is something wrong with the way that women use language, as it differs from the standard set by men. As a result, this approach negatively represents women's language, as it is viewed as inferior to and weaker than men's language.

Another criticism comes from William O'Barr and Bowman Atkins, who are supporters of the Diversity Approach. In their article titled 'Women's Language' or 'Powerless Language'? (1980), they explored the language used by people in a courtroom. They found that the language Lakoff referred to as 'women's language' was actually used by both men and women who were either in a vulnerable position or had a lack of authority. This led them to assume that the power someone has in society is not necessarily dependent on their gender.

Do you support or oppose the deficit approach?

Are you are interested in studying the importance of women in the development of language? If so, the following study may intrigue you:

Linguists Terttu Nevalainen and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg1 conducted a study that analysed 6,000 personal letters written between 1417 and 1681. They found that women adapted their way of writing quicker than men, which would have had a positive impact on the creation of new language!

Also, did you know that the Sci-Fi genre was arguably created by a woman? Novelist Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein2, deemed the first science fiction novel!

Deficit Approach - Key takeaways

  • The deficit approach focuses on what an individual is lacking as opposed to wider societal issues.
  • In the English language, the deficit approach focuses on men's language as the standard and women's language as insufficient as it differs from the norm.
  • Otto Jespersen and Robin Lakoff are supporters of the deficit approach.
  • William O'Barr and Bowman Atkins oppose the deficit approach. They support the diversity approach instead, which suggests that the amount of power someone has in society is not dependent on their gender.

References

  1. T. Nevalainen & H. Raumolin-Brunberg. Historical sociolinguistics: language change in Tudor and Stuart England. 2003.
  2. M. Shelly. Frankenstein. 1818.

Deficit Approach

Deficit model thinking focuses on the idea that students who are of a lower socio-economic background lack the effort and ability to achieve highly in school.

A deficit-based approach puts a focus on the weakness of a person or group of people, viewing them as the issue instead of looking at the wider societal problems.

Final Deficit Approach Quiz

Question

Which of the following best describes a deficit-based approach?


A: Blaming individuals who lack something

B: Blaming societal issues

C: Trying to fix societal issues

Show answer

Answer

A: Blaming individuals who lack something

Show question

Question

Which of the following best describes the deficit approach in language and gender?


A: Women’s language is the standard, men’s is insufficient

B: Men’s language is standard, women’s is insufficient

C: All language differs from a set standard

Show answer

Answer

B: Men’s language is the standard, women’s is insufficient

Show question

Question

Who is not a supporter of the deficit approach?


A: Deborah Cameron

B: Robin Lakoff

C: Otto Jespersen

Show answer

Answer

A: Deborah Cameron

Cameron is a supporter of the diversity approach.

Show question

Question

According to Lakoff, what do women use less than men?

Show answer

Answer

Slang, swear words and insults

Show question

Question

According to Jespersen, which of the following is true of men?


A: Men have smaller vocabularies

B: Men use simpler words

C: Men have larger vocabularies

Show answer

Answer

C: Men have larger vocabularies

Show question

Question

The deficit approach views men’s language as the norm.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Lakoff’s work is 100 years old.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False.


But Jespersen’s is!

Show question

Question

Jespersen’s work could be seen as sexist.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Lakoff conducted her own research.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

According to Jespersen, why do women use more false starts and unfinished sentences?


Show answer

Answer

Because they speak before they think.

Show question

Question

What is an example of hedging?


A: “I know”

B: “Sort of”

C: “It’s okay”

Show answer

Answer

B: “Sort of”

Show question

Question

What is an example of an intensifier?


A: “Sweet”

B: “Funny”

C: “Very”

Show answer

Answer

C: “Very”

Show question

Question

What did O’Barr and Atkins find out from their study?


Show answer

Answer

The language used by people is not dependent on the gender they are, but how much power they have in society. 

Show question

Question

Which of the following is the focus of deficit thinking in education?


A: Students of a lower socioeconomic background underachieve.

B: Students of a lower socioeconomic background overachieve.

C: Students of a higher socioeconomic background underachieve.

Show answer

Answer

A: Students of a lower socioeconomic background underachieve.

Show question

Question

If a teacher uses the deficit model, they believe in what?


A: Bringing out the best in all students.

B: Fixing students who are lacking in some way.

C: Letting students find their own strengths.

Show answer

Answer

B: Fixing students who are lacking in some way.

Show question

Question

What is the deficit approach to language?

Show answer

Answer

The deficit approach is a sociolinguistic perspective that puts a focus on the weakness of a person or group rather than wider societal problems. 

Show question

Question

What are the 2 S's and the 2 I's?

Show answer

Answer

  • standard and superior
  • insufficient and inferior

Show question

Question

What might be a better indicator of the power imbalance between the genders than the individual language use of each gender?

Show answer

Answer

The language used by both men and women in vulnerable positions could be a better indicator of why the societal power balance exists.

Show question

Question

True or false, Otto Jesperson is a supporter of the deficit approach.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

According to Jesperson, which gender generally uses longer and more complicated vocabulary?

Show answer

Answer

Men

Show question

Question

Which of these is a tag question?

Show answer

Answer

'I've put the pie in the oven, is that ok?'

Show question

Question

What three linguistic features do women use less frequently than men, according to Lakoff?

Show answer

Answer

  • slang
  • swear words
  • insults

Show question

Question

According to Terttu Nevalainen and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg, which gender has the ability to modify their writing style more quickly?

Show answer

Answer

Women

Show question

Question

What novel is widely considered to be the first science-fiction novel?

Show answer

Answer

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Show question

Question

Which gender is more likely to use euphemisms according to Lakoff?

Show answer

Answer

Women

Show question

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