Do Men And Women Really Learn Languages Differently?

  • Shannon Kennedy
    Written byShannon Kennedy
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Do Men And Women Really Learn Languages Differently?

This week I’m happy to share a guest post from Shannon Kennedy of Eurolinguiste.

Shannon’s one of the organizers for an upcoming online event (March 8-11) called ‘Women In Language’ which aims to “champion, celebrate and amplify the voices of women in language learning”. There are 25 polyglot speakers taking part.

I think it’s a tremendous idea personally as we tend to forget (or maybe avoid) discussions on the fact that men and women are different in so many ways, including the way we learn languages.

We have a lot to learn from each other plus it’s always fun to hear different perspectives on learning too. 🙂

Find out more about the event through the link above.

As an independent language learner, I always felt a little out of place.

To start, I’m shy and because of this, many of the “get out there and speak” tactics appear too intimidating.

For me they’re often out of reach. I’m also an introvert, so taking on such a social endeavor seemed, at times, counterintuitive.

When it comes down it, I’d rather study on my own than put myself out there.

And finally, many of those I looked up to, at least at the beginning, were very different from me in yet one more respect.

They’re men.

As a professional musician, this was something I wasn’t too surprised at. But in a field that is said to be dominated by women (France reported that 74% of its language students were female), it still felt as though I were alone.

A quick search for well-known polyglots returns articles with nary a female listed. Even in Wikipedia’s list, men far outnumber women.

I began wondering where all of these women were hanging out.

I know what you’re probably thinking…

Why does it matter if women language learners have female role models? A good language learner is a good language learner regardless of their gender.

It’s important because aspiring polyglots need to see women as leaders in the field.

Not just as another domain that was and will be dominated by men.

They need to see themselves as an integral part for the benefit of both men and women.

Plus… according to research reported by Scientific American, women are better language learners than men.

But if this is truly the case, why does it seem as though the majority of the well-known figures in language are men?

Women and Men Learn Differently But That Doesn’t Matter

Men and women are different.

Neuroscience shows that as we grow, boys have larger brains, but girls’ brains grow more quickly.

Other scientific studies prove that boys’ cerebral cortex is more defined for spatial relationships (which means they tend to learn better through movement and visual experiences) while the hippocampus (the part of the brain that plays a big part in language) develops more rapidly in girls.

But these differences don’t inhibit what either a girl or a boy, a man or a woman are capable of learning.

In fact, their peers and environment play a bigger role in determining this.

When their peers, however, are potentially only the opposite gender, they’re more likely to move to other interests where they feel at home.

Seeing ourselves in the things we’re interested in, knowing that it’s possible and that you aren’t alone, shows us that it’s acceptable and even encouraged to go after something that we love.

Something like serious language learning.

It isn’t just women who need to see more women in language learning, though.

Men need to see them, too.

Seeing how others approach their language studies, careers, and materials, especially when studies show that men can benefit from reinforcing what they know from mixed methods.

Here are a few of the ways scientific studies have shown that men and women learn differently and how we can use these differences to be mutually beneficial:

Males prefer conversations that are more direct and to the point while females prefer conversations that include more details

Communication is not just about saying what you mean, but how you say it.

If you’re typically more direct in your speech style, you may have trouble adapting to a language spoken by people who are culturally more indirect.

And the reverse is true.

Knowing that you already have experience with how to be more direct or indirect in your native language because you have a diversified set of language role models is a great source for finding ways to shape your communication styles to be more appropriate for new contexts.

Females tend to be better at picking up social cues like facial expressions

When interacting in a new language, you’re juggling a lot of information.

It’s easy to think that you can get by well knowing the words and grammar, but communication is about more than this. For women, sometimes learning to ignore facial expressions and gestures can be a benefit.

When you read into things too much, it can be a stumbling block along the path of becoming fully confident in your target language.

You are so caught in the details that you keep yourself from moving forward.

For men, the opposite could be a huge benefit.

Gestures, facial expressions, and other non-verbal cues are an important part of being an effective communicator.

And not just learning to read them, but learning to implement them, too.

Different languages have different cues, and while some may be similar across many cultures, others are drastically different.

Learning to pick up on these would equally be a big step forward in becoming a better communicator in your target language.

Males learn best visually and aurally whereas females, at least when it comes to language, seem to be able to process more abstract information

This means that when a man learns something visually, he’s likely to perform well visually and when he learns something aurally, he’s likely to perform well orally.

In other words, if he learned something from a textbook, he’ll use that information well in written form and if he learned something by listening, he’d do well with it as far as speaking/comprehension.

Women tend to be able to use the information they learn in different ways than how they learned it a little better, at least between the ages of 9-15.

This difference is believed to become less apparent with age.

So what does this mean for language learners?

It means that we can learn to better reinforce new language material by looking at what others are doing and by being better aware of what our strengths are.

Women are more likely to memorize entire words (learned) and phrases whereas men were more likely to memorize parts (learn + ed)

When struggling with memorization or grammar, it helps to know that there’s a new spin you can put on what you’re doing.

If you’ve focused on memorizing words or ideas as entire units, perhaps trying out memorizing parts will give you the flexibility you need to keep pushing forward.

Or maybe the reverse is true.

Whenever you get stuck, it helps to know that there’s another strategy you can employ to change up your routine, even if it’s just to prove to yourself that what you’re doing is working.

These are, of course, generalized conclusions from the results of various studies.

There are always exceptions to the rule on both sides.

Either way, we can all stand to gain by widening our perspectives and expanding our conversations about language learning to include more voices.

The Benefit of More Female Voices in the Language Sphere

When it comes to learning a new language, women are just as capable as men.

And having more female voices in the language sphere would be incredibly beneficial to both genders.

Because men and women learn and process differently, they contribute diverse perspectives to the discussion.

They do things differently and build confidence in the material they learn in varying ways.

This means that both men and women are able to communicate their approaches in a unique fashion.

Just as women have benefitted from learning about the methods, materials, and strategies employed by the men who became successful and well-known figures in language learning, men to can benefit from the increased presence of female figures in the field.

This is why Lindsay Williams, Kerstin Cable, and I organized Women in Language, an online language event designed to champion, celebrate and amplify the voices of women in language.

It is a four-day event with more than 25 female speakers covering everything from learning a new language to mastering those you’ve already started, from living with languages to building a career around them.

The event is of interest to anyone who loves language, regardless of gender.

The event will be March 8-11, 2018, but if you aren’t able to attend the talks live, recordings of the event are available to you with your ticket.

You can learn more about the event and register to attend here.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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4+ @MirandaB I had the opposite experience about the same things you didn”t like. The thing I remember most about the book was the fact that a GIRL was the one who got to rescue someone. And not just anyone, but two MALES. This was the first (and probably the only) book I read in my childhood in which a female character was more powerful than a male. It made me aware that girls can do whatever boys can do, which made a huge impact on me. Granted, this was about 50 years ago, so your perspective is probably a bit different from mine.



Thank you Amy, you are very kind.

Elisabeth Ruth (Thảo)

Elisabeth Ruth (Thảo)

Interesting comparisons! I think a lot of it is individual too, like Shannon mentioned being an introvert affects her way of learning.

Shannon, do you have a reference for memorisation of phrases v parts? I’d like to read it. I’m very interested in the Lexical Approach which prioritises learning phrases and collocations.



Hey Elisabeth,

I do. I like to memorize sentence patterns, set phrases and once I start to get comfortable with those two things, I’ll then add individual words to the mix. For me, vocabulary is really important, so it’s my main focus. I then learn grammar as needed. This isn’t to say I completely ignore grammar. I do read those sections in my textbook, but I don’t focus on it. I’ve done that in the past, and I end up burying myself with it and don’t make any real progress.



Thank you Donovan, for inviting me to post and share a bit about Women in Language!

Donovan Nagel

Donovan Nagel

No worries! Happy to.

Thanks for sharing.

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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