25 Nov 2016
Do women have a natural talent to learn foreign languages?
During my time as both a student and language trainer on different continents, I have often seen more women than men in language classrooms.
Experts confirm my observation and state that approximately 70% of all language students are women. This raises a lingering question: is this because women have a natural talent to learn new languages or do they simply have more interest in learning them? I admit that it is problematic to assert that there are any specific traits belonging to a specific gender. In so doing, we can be making sweep generalizations and promote stereotypes and misconceptions.
What are the usual arguments that support this belief in women´s natural language talent?
- have the ability to listen more attentively than men.
- like to talk more.
- tend to deliver longer sentences compared to men.
- are more motivated in school.
- are less likely to feel embarrassed when they make a mistake.
- care more for people (as wives, sisters and mothers) and need to communicate.
- girls start speaking earlier than boys.
- see language learning less as a competition than men.
Even if we accept that women have better communication skills than men, this does not necessarily mean that they are better at language learning per se. It could just show that they have a greater interest in communicating and this can be the result of cultural and social conditioning.
What speaks for women´s greater interest in languages?
- There are more women taking liberal arts and language classes in college. Is this because they are more intuitive?
- There are more men involved in mathematics. Does it mean that they are more analytical?
- More chef cooks are men: does that demonstrate that they cook better than women?
- Great linguists are almost always men. Does it mean that they have a special talent for languages?
The answer to all the above questions can be that men and women simply have different tastes, desires and professional ambitions.
If we do a bit of history, we can see that in the 19th century the study of foreign languages was reserved for an elite –for the aspiring ladies in particular. Afterwards, the lower social classes adopted this language learning emphasis through various reforms in general education.
What do scientific studies tell us about language aptitudes?
We are at the early stages of understanding how our brains work. Still, studies reveal that different genders process language in different ways. Women use a language encoding center in charge of abstract processing. Men use visual and audio sensory areas before the information goes to the processing center. We also know that women use both brain hemispheres and men the left one. We use our brains differently, but we arrive at the same result.
So, do women have a natural talent to learn languages or they just have more interest in them? The answer is that we don´t know for sure. What we know is that women seem to be better social communicators than men; often developing such communication into an art form (as one blogger indicates). That is an area where we, as men, can certainly improve upon – in any language.