Do women learn differently than men? The question popped into my mind when I run into an article Are women really better at learning languages?. This slightly leading title prompted me to ask myself about the methods of language learning. We have all read about and tested a variety of learning methods, setting on the ones that most fit our personalities and learning styles. There is no “better” or “perfect” style of learning and the number of approaches probably matches the number of learners. Is it ever possible to generalise any differences between the approaches to learning taken by men and women?
To celebrate the International Women’s day we thought it would be a good idea to ask this question to a number of prominent female figures of the language learning scene. These writers, bloggers and polyglots have a wealth of experience in language learning, teaching and research and below they share their perspective on differences between male and female learning as well as their own favourite learning methods.
If you don’t know all of these language celebrities—you’re in for a treat! You’ll have a few blogs to check out after reading this ;-)
I would say that men need more structure when they learn foreign languages. They prefer to have detailed explanations of everything during the lessons; to be able to speak fluently, they sometimes need to learn grammar and vocabulary by heart. Women are normally more flexible and they are better at speaking because they just speak more than men. :)
When I learn foreign languages, I like to combine many learning methods. I think the most effective way is to start with a teacher, preferably with a native speaker, and then, when you reach the level B2-C1, you can go on by yourself, do language exchanges on Skype, read different kinds of texts, listen to the radio, etc.
Judith Meyer speaks 9-13 languages and blogs at Learnlangs.
I haven't noticed differences in the way men and women learn languages, other than the differences that come with being introvert or extrovert. I personally am an introvert. I often aim for reading knowledge of a language first, because I love to read. However, even when I set myself a speaking challenge, I tend to pre-study grammar and vocabulary on my own (using Teach Yourself or Colloquial or Assimil, plus Anki) and then use conversational classes mainly to try out what I learned. That is, I memorise things best when nobody else is around, I don't expect to memorise anything completely new during class.
Some of the best tips I discovered quite late: tracking my daily time in an Excel sheet, learning common chunks rather than individual words, being ready to take a big red marker to the textbooks and remove all vocabulary that isn't useful to me at this stage.
We have to recognise that we don't have infinite motivation or discipline, and that real life will interfere sooner or later, so it is crucial to reach a useful level in our target language BEFORE we run out of steam.
Once a language is useful, odds are that we'll keep using it, at least enough to maintain that level.
Anne Merritt, MA in Applied Linguistics, is a Canadian ESL instructor and education writer who has taught in five countries on 3 continents.
I think that when teaching adult learners, the nature of their personalities and careers and background cultures play a much bigger role in shaping their learning habits. A person who works in science or business and is analytical by nature may try to understand language through formulas and rules. A person who works in customer service and interacts a lot with others may ask a lot of questions and seek continuous confirmation.
There's that classic notion that women are better communicators than men, and that may have some truth to it, but culture is such a big factor in that assertion.
In my experience, students from cultures that are very hierarchical and deferential can have a tough time communicating, simply because they have less experience articulating their own opinions in their native language, let alone a second one. Students from more community-oriented cultures are often more comfortable with communicating, or at least, with the expectation that they will be asked to share opinions.
In my own learning I take the time to carefully choose quality textbooks and tools that suit what I need and what I like. I think my teaching instincts influence my own learning instincts, because I have a picky mental checklist for what makes a book worth teaching (is it relevant? holistic? logical in application?). But, I think that scrutiny pays off when you find something that you want to keep coming back to, be it an app or a book. Also, music is such an asset! Catchy pop or folk songs with simple catchy lyrics are a great way to connect to a language.
Lindsay Dow learns, teaches, blogs, vlogs, eats, sleeps and breathe everything language related. You can follow her journey at Lindsay Does Languages.
Hmm… I'm not big on the whole divide between women and men. Yes, we're different in many ways but bottom line is we're all human, right? I think differences in language learning methods and habits tend to vary more based on personality and situation than on gender.
In terms of my own learning methods I always gravitate towards Memrise first so I guess that would have to be one of my favourites! I think it's because I know I'm pretty likely to find something there in whatever language it may be to get me started.
However, once I get a bit deeper, I prefer to look for language specific resources. For example, with Korean, which I'm learning right now, there's so many great websites that are dedicated to just Korean that I would never have known to start with from the beginning.
Having something like Memrise is so useful to give you something to dive in right away but I do love to diversify and find niche language resources as I go further into it.
Anna Breslavskaya is a language coach and a blogger who writes about learning and teaching English on anna-edu.com
When it comes to learning a foreign language, I’m sure it’s not the gender that makes a difference but the methods used. Right motivation and right methods corresponding a personal learning style pave the way to success.
I know that I learn best when my interaction with a language is meaningful, that is when I don’t learn it for the sake of the language itself, but when this language becomes a tool of discovering something else.
For instance, now I’m working on my Spanish through studying the history of Spanish literature. I read and listen to the most prominent books in Spanish, thus developing my vocabulary and listening skills.
If I were to start learning a new language from scratch, I’d need three pieces in my “goal A1” puzzle. Memrise to quickly learn 400 most common words, a very good textbook with lots of dialogs, texts and audio recordings, and lots of podcasts for beginners.
Agnieszka Murdoch is a language coach and blogger at 5-Minute Language. Her mission is to help language learners find effective strategies, move on towards fluency and stay motivated. She tweets at @agamurdoch.
I'd be hesitant to make generalisations about the way men and women learn foreign languages. Having said that, I believe that our learning style is to a certain extent a product of our environment. Language learners differ from each other depending on their cultural background and the way they were encouraged to learn in the culture they grew up with. So in that respect, there may be differences between learners. However, I don't see men and women as distinct types of language learners.
Whenever I start learning a new language, I begin with very clear goals in mind. I write them down and make them really specific and measurable.
For example, I recently started learning Japanese. My initial goals were to be able to introduce myself, talk about where I'm from and what I do, and about my family.
I then work backwards from there and ask myself: what actions should I take immediately to make sure I meet my goals? With Japanese, it was: learning the scripts, the vocabulary I need to talk about these things and practising speaking.
I evaluate my progress frequently and adjust my goals to make sure I'm always moving forward.
I'm also a big fan of making the most of 'dead time' to learn languages - listening to podcasts on my way to work, reading recipes in my target language whenever I'm making food, or fitting vocabulary learning into 5-minute periods of time whenever I'm in between doing things.
Kerstin Cable is a language learner, teacher, and podcaster blogging at Fluent Language.
While I don't think men and women intuitively choose different study methods, I do perceive different ways of talking about it. Men may be more confident when it comes to demonstrating their skills and stay 'lone wolves'. It might also be true that they're more confident in sharing their own methods online - the internet has not always been a kind place to women (see Gamergate). In fact, when you look at the enrolment numbers for languages in traditional education you see a big female dominance. But in the language blogging world, things are not only more equal but even focused towards men as role models. I'm grateful for every female out there making her voice heard!
My own study style focuses on learning with a focus on enjoying this hobby. I often write about ways to find self-compassion, nurture the growth mindset and find individual joys and successes in language learning.
Susanna Zaraysky speaks eight languages and specializes in helping people learn foreign languages using music, TV, radio, movies and other media via her book, Language is Music.
I always start learning a new language with its sounds, focusing on the melody of the sentences and how the language flows. I find the musicality of the language when it is spoken. To really get the flow of the language under my skin, I listen to songs in the language that I like, sing along and then learn the lyrics. I explain my methodology in my book, Language is Music.
Check out Susanna's video on the topic of women and language learning:
Jana Fadness is an American language learning enthusiast and nomad who has spent much of her time in Japan.
I don't think there's any significant difference in the way men and women learn. Certainly people have different learning styles and learn in many different ways, but I haven't noticed any correlation between these differences and gender.
Personally, I’m not very good at answering questions about methods because I don't really have a specific method I follow. I'm always trying out different things and adjusting my routine based on my situation at the time, the particular language I'm learning, and so on. But I suppose I can say that if I were to start learning a new language now, I would probably look for a textbook or course that contains lots of audio recorded by native speakers, and also pushes you right into the active use of grammar and vocabulary with exercises writing in the target language.
Kirsten Winkler is an edtech writer, the founder of EDUKWEST and an education technology-focused online publication Fair Languages.
While I'm not sure whether there is a pronounced difference in how women and men acquire language, I have certainly witnessed different preferences. My (adult) male students seemed to perform best when they had a deadline coming up. The motivation might have been an exam or the necessity to reach a certain level for their job.
Women I trained often saw language learning as one way of personal development and a social/cultural endeavour.
My female students often were also actively looking to practise their new skills with language exchange partners either online or in real life. I usually encourage students to get to the speaking part as soon as possible in order to transform their passive knowledge of a language into active knowledge. Even if you make mistakes it doesn't matter because speaking your target language will really make you advance and also make you see your own progress.
Shannon Kennedy is a professional musician and passionate language learner
who writes about her adventures, love of food, and shares language
learning tips over at Eurolinguiste.
I don’t know if I would say that men and women learn languages differently, but I know that different personality types prefer different approaches. I, for example, am an introvert, and so, the materials and resources that I choose would be quite different from those of someone more outgoing or extroverted than I am. I think that our personalities play a much bigger role in determining how we study than our genders do.
I recently started learning a new language—Korean—and I’ve documented how I’ve gone about it since taking it on.
I find that each time I start a new language and as I progress through the languages that I’m already learning, my methods are constantly changing.
The few things that I seem to do pretty consistently are:
1) learn a lot of vocabulary really early on and then focus on grammar much later;
2) work with a tutor or native speaker;
3) use a course book like Assimil to help give me some direction; and
4) make sure that I’m getting a lot of listening practice in even if I don’t understand everything that I’m hearing.
I think that the most important thing, however, no matter how you go about learning a language, is to absolutely love the language that you’re learning. If you fall in love with a language, you’re more likely to stick with it and push through all of the frustrations and plateaus you might experience.
What do you think—do men and women learn differently? Let us know on Twitter!