But there’s a potential gender difference in how men and women approach language learning, their motivations, and their communication skills, which may be behind the general trend for women to learn more languages than men. In this article, we’ll discuss the top ten reasons why this might happen.
1. Women Have Better Communication Skills in Their First Language
Is it nature, or is it just that girls and young women are expected to be good at social interaction and are therefore exposed to it more frequently than boys?
Studies suggest that girls have a communication advantage when it comes to writing, reading, and verbal reasoning in their first language. Girls also show larger vocabularies and sentence variety at an early age.
This could be due to hormonal causes or differences in the way men and women use their brains. Or, it could be due to how the adults around them interact with girls when they’re developing. Whatever the reason, it may give women a head start when it comes to learning a first language and more confidence to tackle a second or third.
2. Women Learn More in General
It hasn’t been long since women were allowed to get a degree. It was only in 1840 that Catherine Brewer became the first woman to earn a Bachelor’s degree. Now, women outnumber men at US colleges, making up 60% of the college population. And, since 1960, the percentage of women completing high school has risen from just 42.5% to 91.3%.
All of this gives women more opportunities to study languages in an official educational setting. Gone are the days when women were expected to stick to needlework. The world is now their oyster. Those who have a higher level of education are not only more likely to learn languages in a formal way, but also to have the skills (and money) to self-study or take classes later in life.
3. Women’s Brains Process Language Differently
Some research suggests that women’s brains may process language in a different way than men’s. When learning languages, women’s brains light up in areas to do with language encoding, but men’s brains tend to light up in areas related to sight and sound. This might mean that women find it easier to learn a language because they need fewer stimuli to commit it to memory. Whereas men need to both see and hear the words.
Women’s brains also tend to light up on both sides during language tests rather than just the logical left hemisphere, which is common for men. More connections in the brain lead to more learning. Finding language learning a little easier might make women more enthusiastic about taking on more languages.
4. Women Use a Wider Variety of Methods
Some research shows that women tend to use a wider variety of methods to learn a language. For example, they’ll cover reading, writing, speaking, and listening, whereas men might stick to just one or two skills. Learning a language is not only easier and quicker when you pursue a variety of methods, but practicing all the key skills is vital for reaching fluency.
Again, this may lead to a better language learning experience, which means that more women feel enthusiastic about tackling languages.
5. Women Find It Easier to Build Community
When it comes to language learning motivation and practice opportunities, women may have an advantage. Some studies suggest that men may find it more difficult to make friends and build community. This won’t be true of everyone, but it might give women a bit of an edge when it comes to learning languages. It’s all about communication, after all.
Having a wider social circle can lead to more advanced skills in your native tongue, but can also give you more opportunities to practice speaking a foreign language and more reasons to try.
6. Women Can Be More Disciplined
Some studies suggest that women may be more disciplined when it comes to learning languages. Research by the language learning app Babbel shows that slightly more women than men study on the app every day (25% vs 21%, respectively) and have more established routines (34% vs 31%, respectively).
The evidence for areas outside language learning suggests women may have more self-control—in other words, they are better able to regulate themselves when it comes to concentrating and studying. This may well lead to a more pleasurable learning experience rather than a fragmented, distracted one.
7. Women Have Different Motivations Than Men
Men may be more motivated to learn languages for work or schooling, says research by language company MosaLingua. Work seems to be a particularly driving factor for males, with 45% of men saying it’s their focus for language learning, versus just 22% of women. This is a specific, external motivator that may be tied to traditional gender roles, with the man being seen as the breadwinner of the family.
On the other hand, women in MosaLingua’s study are more motivated by the pleasure of learning or personal development. These are more intrinsic forms of motivation that might lead women to continue learning for longer, try more languages, or simply be more focused.
8. Women Learn For Travel
Although both men and women love to travel, it seems that women are more interested in learning a language in preparation for their upcoming adventures. At least, that’s what evidence from MosaLingua and Babbel suggests. Being able to use languages in situ can be highly motivating and give learners a real boost when they can practice their target language in real-life settings.
For example, the buzz of ordering your coffee in Italian while seated in a Roman piazza or speaking French while buying a fresh baguette in Paris is hard to beat. And with so many places to travel worldwide, this might give women the motivation to try out more languages over time!
9. Women Choose Less Challenging Languages to Learn
Babbel’s user data suggests that men and women often choose different languages. Women are more likely to pick romance languages like French, Italian, and Spanish, while men are more likely to pick Portuguese or Russian. There’s even a marked difference between two very similar languages—women prefer Dutch, while men prefer German.
While there could be lots of reasons for these differences, German and Russian in particular have a reputation for being technically challenging and having complicated grammatical rules. These may take longer to learn and therefore hold men back from adding more languages to their rosters.
On the other hand, pursuing romance languages could make it easier to learn more than one, given the similarities in grammar and vocabulary.
10. Women Have More Female Role Models
It’s possible that people just see more women learning and teaching languages! Language teachers for children and teenagers may be more likely to be female, as women are overrepresented in school teaching in many countries. This may lead to an association with foreign language being a women’s subject.
On the flip side, many of the most well-known polyglots are male—a common theme when hobbies turn into expertise. Nevertheless, it’s probable that seeing women using foreign languages when they’re young can help female language learners feel more confident. This could partially explain why women are overrepresented in language degree courses, for example.
There are no easy answers when it comes to explaining why women seem to learn more languages than men. Research is ongoing, and we’ll likely continue to uncover more interesting features of how different people approach language learning in years to come.
Is it because of our innate brain structures? It’s possible, although neuroscience is always evolving, and we may discover that male and female brains aren’t really that different after all.
Is it because of social norms and expected behavior? Again, it’s possible, and these are strong forces that can definitely shape the ways we live.
We also have to consider that men and women may have different levels of motivation and focus that can impact how many languages they learn and to what extent. Nevertheless, people of any gender can enjoy and excel at language learning. For travel, work, or simply having fun, learning languages is open to everyone.