Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Are females better at learning foreign languages?

This lady's mad language skilz have failed to impress her friend.
It looks like babies aren't the only ones we guys should be jealous of for their language abilities. According to Cracked:
The areas of the brain responsible for language are over 17 percent larger in women than men, making them the well-hung studs in the horse stables of conversation. Not content to just be bigger, women's brains also multi-task; processing language in both hemispheres while men generally keep the conversation going with just the dominant side of the brain.
Looking at children learning their native language, The Scientific American adds this:
Girls completing a linguistic abilities task showed greater activity in brain areas implicated specifically in language encoding, which decipher information abstractly. Boys, on the other hand, showed a lot of activity in regions tied to visual and auditory functions, depending on the way the words were presented during the exercise.
If you don't trust Cracked as a source (and, really, why would you?), and if The Scientific American still isn't enough, how about the National Center for Biotechnology Information? They write:
Our results suggest that females have proportionally larger Wernicke and Broca language-associated regions compared with males. These anatomical differences may correlate with superior language skills previously demonstrated in females.
Translation? While dudes may drive better (sorry, ladies, Cracked told me so), the ladies got some mad language skills that men just can't match.

Here's the thing though: these studies seem to be focusing on native-language acquisition. I did some quick Googling around, but I couldn't find anything that provided any convincing evidence of the same for foreign languages. Does the same apply?

If there is a difference in the way males and females learn foreign languages (and, based on studies like the ones cited above, I'm inclined to think that there are), then that could very well mean that what might work for a man might not work for a woman and vice versa. There's a lot of chatter about how to customize your language learning to you, but, if these gender differences can be pinned down, that could be a big clue as to what might work best for you.

The same Scientific American article referenced above offers one suggestion:
[The difference between boys and girls] implies that boys need to be taught language both visually (with a textbook) and orally (through a lecture) to get a full grasp of the subject, whereas a girl may be able to pick up the concepts by either method.
I'm not sure what kind of wicked logic equates "visually" with "textbook" and "orally" with "lecture", but visual and aural versus visual or aural is a clear enough suggestion. But, again, this is speaking of children in their native language. Indeed, the article also notes that "the male sensory 'bottleneck' may disappear as boys develop into adults", so these differences may disappear later in life.

I can't think of anything off the top of my head that stands out as a clear difference between adult males and females in terms of language learning. I do note that most of the students in pretty much all of the high-level language classes I ever took were female and females seem to outnumber males on sites like Livemocha (you can often see the pattern when you search for speakers of your target language). On the other hand, the language-learning blogosphere seems to tilt male (although that probably says more about who blogs than who's better at learning languages).

So what do you think? Have you noticed any specific differences in the way males and females learn foreign languages that might help figure out how to tailor their approaches?


  1. It is interesting, I studied sign language for five years and only ever had two men in the class.

    Other language classes I've taken have always been short on males, maybe it's not a learning thing just less willingness to admit they can't do something without help...

  2. Men needing help? I don't think that has ever happened in the entire course of history, so why would we need to ever admit it? ***blocking back-of-the-head smack from wife***

  3. "I'm not sure what kind of wicked logic equates "visually" with "textbook","

    Uhh... The fact that you use your 'eyes' to 'read' rather than 'ears' to 'hear'?

    As an adult, I haven't seen any differences, personally.

  4. visual : textbook :: aural: rote repetition

    To go from "visual" to "textbook" shows the author's assumption that classroom learning is the way to go. Why not websites? YouTube videos? Comic books? Movies? To equate visual with textbook is to equate it with one of the most painful examples of something visual. Thus, wicked.

  5. It was an example, not a comprehensive list.

  6. Yeah, that crossed my mind, but without a "like", "such as", "e.g.", etc., it sounds to me like the author's being prescriptive rather than simply providing examples.

  7. Wikipedia's list of polyglots speaking 10 languages or more is dominated by males.

  8. Perhaps males are just more prone to self study than to attend classes. I personally find that I learn much faster studying by myself than at the pace of the slowest member in the class. Women tend to enjoy the social aspects of a class. When I did take one language class two years ago, the class body consisted of me and a large group of women, who were all friends taking the class together. They all thoroughly enjoyed the class and speaking to each other in their "new language". I however found the pace too slow, and my own self study was much more effective than anything I learned in the class.

  9. Interesting I don't know which sex is best at acquiring second and further languages but have heard about womens better brains for language before, however I have observed some traits that may counter this and possibly tip the balance to males.

    Competitiveness, powered by greater levels of testosterone.

    Mimicry, notice how boys are generally much better at making novel sounds in game play. Also notice how few women make a career out of imitation (voice).

    Obsession, this is a two edged blade on one side it puts us males more likely to fall in the autistic spectrum (even there you may have language savants) but just enough of this gives a nice dose of the obsessional behavior and assuming you don't attach it to a sport or other hobby then it can drive many males quite a long way in language learning.

  10. Males are probably overly represented at the other extreme too, that is, those who can barely manage a grunt. That seems to be the general pattern. More geniuses and more idiots. The bell curve is flatter. I wouldn't be surprised however to find that women as whole are better *on average*.

    Personally, I compensate for my lack of natural ability with a near-obsessional focus on improving. Just from observation, it appears to me that monomania is much more prevalent in males than in females. That's another difference.

  11. That's interesting; I don't think I've ever heard of a bunch of friends all getting together to study a language at once, but I can certainly see how that'd make it more fun. Even digging a ditch could be fun if you do it with 10 of your good friends.

    It would still do nothing to resolve the need of a class to attend to go slow enough for everyone.

    Still, even with a group of friends, I doubt I'd recommend the typical class to anyone, women or men. A discussion group with native speakers or the like would be more along the lines of what I'd suggest.

  12. A similar thought crossed my mind. The same thing that leads males to be more likely to be anime geeks, comic book nerds, etc., might lead them to obsess over languages as well. So instead of an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Wars, a few will end up as among the most successful language learners.

  13. The obsession thing does seem to make sense, as I noted below.

    Competitiveness has never played much of a role for me. I've hardly ever been on a starting line where I could effectively race anybody, so it seems to me that it's hard to see the competition with others. I'd also say that the obsessive thing would also result in more self-study, which make competition unlikely.

    The mimicry factor does seem to make some sense. I'm not sure that that would result in overall better language acquisition, but it would result in better accents. That said, I can't say for sure that I've seen the results work out with males ultimately having better accents than females. It might be an example of a flatter bell curve, as dangph describes below.

  14. I'm glad somebody brought up competitiveness! Competitiveness has played a huge role for me. Being better than something (a norm, requirement level, another person) is a huge motivator, and ambition is a way better predictor of someone's eventual accomplishments than inherent talent is. I find that competition and obsession are very closely related. I also find self study is like "training" for the competition, and I get the same satisfactory feelings after good mental training as I do physical training.

  15. I've never heard of ambition being a better predictor of accomplishments than inherent talent, but it does make a lot of sense. All the more reason to set your language-learning goals high.

    Beating norms and fulfilling requirements are less competition that they are reaching goals, I'd say; they're a finish line rather than a competitor.

    But comparing self-study to training is a great analogy. It especially works when comparing it to a sport like running, which is my sport of preference. Most of the time you're on your own, pushing ahead. Your primary competition is yourself: comparing with earlier speeds, distances, etc. But once in a while you get together with others for a race. The race in language learning would be any sort of communication.

    That idea might need its own post...

  16. Yes as you mention competing with yourself, I am not sure that Women do that so much generally (just a hunch).

  17. Female runners do that all the time.

    Any ladies wanna chime in one this?

  18. We are talking about trends here, I went to college with a member of the British Ladies white water canoe team, she was pretty competitive ;).

    Ladies I am sure may have plenty to say about every point made here ;).

  19. I dont know about any of it, but yes I believe we can multi-task better, but that also might mean we dont focus as much as one should when language learning. I know myself, Im just plain lazy, even if the scale does tip in my favor, I have a hard time motivating myself to compete with myself. If I was in a class, I know I would work my butt off, so I would do well and not look stupid in front of anyone. Women are generally more self-conscience, so maybe we learn to read and write better in another language, but I also find that we are more scared to make mistakes while speaking. Men usually just laugh it off when they make mistakes, I envy that dont care quality.

  20. The comments here seem to be pointing to women getting more benefits from classroom learning and men getting more benefits from hacking at it alone. That might explain the anecdotes of more women in language classes than men.

    I wonder if this holds up over larger numbers of people...

  21. You know what, now I that I think about it, this may be right. I have two kids, a boy and a girl. The boy is already two years old but can't speak fluently yet. His sister,aged one is already speaking on the same level her older brother is. I'm no expert, I'm not sure if it has something to do with the developmental difference of male and female or if it's because I often read to the girl when I was still pregnant with her.

  22. I teach English as a foreign language in Japanese High School, and I gotta say that as far as speaking and listening skills, there is no contest. The girls just dominate.