Are Women Better Language Learners?

Last week, one of my Twitter friends asked what he should reply to a student who asked what he needed to do to be as successful at English as his wife. The query made me think of my own classroom experiences and how with a few exceptions, most had been filled with women who excelled at learning English and men who struggled to learn and acquire English.

I posted up a survey on our ELT Professionals LinkedIn group and here are the results. The comments are enlightening and I’d like to highlight and summarize the thoughts of the many much more “expert” than myself on this topic. Why do women succeed more often than men at reaching higher levels of language fluency? Or do they?

  1. There was a definitel agreement that we just don’t know enough yet on how gender differences operate vis a vis language learning. One person even shared he research to this same conclusion.
  2. Many did think anecdotally and through their own experiences that women were more successful overall at learning language. But the exact causes wer a cause of contention with not all agreeing on the underlying cause of this.
  3. There was a sense that women as caregivers had developed a better “language instinct” – spending more time socializing through pre-history and history than men. This seems to be backed up by research into women having a better handle on grammar and the finer details of language than men.
  4. Some thought that it was culture that really was the driver in this. If women were better, it would be because that culture created the conditions for women to be more language sensitive and linguistically developed. Caregiving practices where girls play inside and with dolls, imagination whereas boys are sent outside and are less communicative and more “rough and tumble” was noted. Also, the bias of our educational system makes women have more of a drive to succeed at school and pushes many women more toward language rich subjects.
  5. Personality. There was discussion that maybe women just have more patience for language learning. Women rather than men will sit down long hours with books or watching Netflix whereas men don’t spend as much time on these activities. But this could be our own confirmation bias operating.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Is there an underlying cause to women being better at language or is this just plain wrong? A brain is a brain is a brain? Let us know here or on the LinkedIN group!

I highly recommend this read and debate between Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke dealing with gender differences. Fascinating and Pinker covers a lot of territory.


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