Sex and Language Learning

August 23, 2013 by totalityservices

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Having studied languages at various stages in my life, school, university (under and post graduate) it has always been evident that languages were more of a ‘girls’ thing’ rather than a boys’. In classes, for every one guy there was at least five girls; a favourable ratio perhaps for the Lotharios of the world! But why is this the case? Do girls simply prefer learning languages? Or is it because their sex/gender has predetermined that they will perform better at learning languages than their male colleagues?


Socio-linguistic studies in the past, and more specifically the study of foreign language learning, have looked at the social variables of age, education, religion, ethnicity, sex and gender on how and why people learn languages. For this article the variable of sex will be discussed.


Girls are better than boys. Or so it seems when it comes to language learning. Though it may seem like a sweeping generalisation it is statistically proven that girls outperform boys in language based assessments/examinations. This may be due to the fact that, generally, girls are better at verbal skills (essential for language learning) whereas boys tend to have better proficiency in spatial skills in terms of cognitive ability. The different make-ups of the brain also contribute to the learning strategies employed by the sexes. For example studies have shown that men learn grammatical rules faster, whereas women are quicker at recalling vocabulary and idiomatic phrases.


We have seen in previous articles that there is generally a decline in students taking up language learning, but boys more so in this case as they are more likely to see language learning as irrelevant to their career path. Girls on the other hand, thanks to career and vocational stereotypes (administrative roles for example) are more likely to view languages as important for their career.


So if guys do decide to sign up what affects their success in foreign language learning? Personality, motivation and innate aptitude are certainly factors. As previously mentioned the two sexes have different cognitive abilities which would suggest that women have a better suited language learning aptitude. But what is clear from studies is that certain language learners have a ‘gift’ for picking up different tongues irrespective of their sex.


In terms of motivation, studies have shown that girls have more positive attitudes, and ergo more inclination to succeed, towards not only the language they are learning but also the culture and people (integrative motivation). Boys’ motivation for language learning is generally more goal specific e.g. to get a specific job (instrumental motivation). In a study, Krashen (1988) concluded that integrative motivation was more favourable to language learning than instrumental.


Lastly we’ll consider personality as a factor. Here it seems that girls are more linguistically self-confident than boys, both in terms of speaking and in their ability to learn. Perhaps this stems back to the fact that it is widely thought that the fairer sex is better at language learning. Males, therefore, are generally pre-disposed to the idea that the girls are going to outshine them, resulting in reduced self confidence in their language abilities. Having this negative attitude about their aptitude impinges on their success.


We’ve only just scraped the surface of sex as a variable factor in language learning in this article, but hopefully it has given some linguistic insight. I encourage you to read some of the socio-linguistic studies, past and present, investigating this field. What you don’t need a study to tell you, however, is that sexual motivation (attraction to a potential foreign love interest) is more than enough motivation for successful language learning. I would highly recommend it!




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