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Why Women Are Better Language Learners


This – on International Women’s Day – will answer all your questions. Or give you new ones. Which, you know, is almost as good. Foreign language learners: why are men better at it than women?

Martians are Taciturn, Venus Girls – Gregarious

Women are not better at learning languages than men. Nor are men better polyglots than women. There, I said it.
“But, but, but,” I hear you say, “surely the brain studies, the thickness of corpus callossum, the evolution and genetic makeup, the traditional role of-”
“But there must be-”

Big ideas, good excuses

It’s tempting, though, isn’t it? Saying that something is so – just because someone happens to be a certain way. Settling for less, safe in our knowledge that it’s good enough.
Everything, after that first step to mediocrity, follows a pattern. You read papers that confirm your excuse (and ignore the other ones). You listen to news that mention your theory (and drown out conflicting views). Your excuse grows stronger.
There is another way of going about this.

What can you change?

  • There are three tenses in Polish.
  • Japanese alphabets are different from European ones.
  • English uses the passive voice more often than other languages.
  • It’s impolite to use certain French words in formal contexts.
  • People’s brains differ.
  • You need a good IELTS grade to get into a UK university.

These things are unlikely to be different just because you work hard. They won’t change if you throw money or effort at them. They’re your hard landscape: everything that happens with your language study, happens in relation to facts such as these.
It’s a good idea to know your language-learning landscape well: just as in real-life journeys, it helps you figure out where you’ve been and where you’re going.
But spend too much time on it, and you’re on to something counter-productive. It’s one thing to know what grade is expected of you during your IELTS test – and quite another to read all academic papers produced by IELTS researchers. Don’t you have a language to learn?
The difference in male and female brains – and its effect on language learning – is certainly a feature of the “hard landscape.” If it’s there, it’s undeniable (although maybe you could change it with meditation).
The point is: you should be obsessing about the things you can change.

  • Knowing 700 Spanish words is different from knowing 650 words.
  • Being able to write a postcard in German is different from being able to write a work email.
  • Understanding Italian jokes is good – being able to tell an Italian joke is better.

These things are your movement, your journey, stages of your language-learning itinerary. They are to be celebrated, planned and accomplished.
It probably matters if you’re a man or woman.
But it probably matters a lot more whether you’re willing to get going – or looking for excuses not to.

(Photo credit: Creative Commons License Dominik Golenia via Compfight)

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