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Are Women Better Language Learners?

I’ve been teaching English for well over 12 years now. And I have taught all types from children to adults, from company presidents to housewives. I’ve learned that everyone tends to learn a little differently and is motivated to learn a language by different things.

I’ve always wondered if there is a significant difference in how men and women learn a language. I’ve noticed anecdotally that men tend to make certain mistakes or have certain speaking styles while women will make different mistakes and will have different speech patterns.

I’ve never actually sat down and clearly documented the differences or done any kind of empirical testing. However, it seems like women tend to dominate the higher classes and go on to become better speakers while men are typically left behind or don’t stick with it to the higher levels. That’s how it is in Japan anyway. In Europe, where I did some of my EFL training, it seems like the higher classes are filled more with men.

Sometimes this difference in abilities is attributed to men being more likely to speak up and make mistakes in class and so advance more easily with language learning. Of course, adult students in Japan tend to be more disciplined and reserved, so things balance out a little more. High school students in Japan on the other hand tend to be just like high school students everywhere.

So it seems like different genders tend to learn differently based on their behavior in class. But, it turns out that men and women use their minds differently in order to produce and use language.

Declarative Memory

Declarative memory is the memory we use to remember lists of information like historical facts or vocabulary words. Some studies suggest that women are better at using their declarative memory than men.

A lot of researchers believe that this is why women tend to be better across all subjects in school. In fact, women have been graduating from college at a much higher rate in recent years. Some believe that this might be because the curriculum favors more information recall.

In language learning, this could mean that women are better at memorizing and using words and patterns. A recent study that involved young children using irregular verb forms found that girls made more mistakes by over-regularizing the past tense for words. Scientists hypothesized this error was caused by the use of declarative memory for language processing.

Rules of the Language

Language use seems to involve numerous parts of the brain, but two parts that are commonly used are declarative memory and rule-based processing. In order to use a language well, one must internalize the rules of its structure. Basically, these can be anything from higher level grammar rules to simply how words are formed.

Boys (and maybe men) tend to be better at applying the rules. In the previously mentioned experiment, the boys had less trouble with irregular verbs, because the words that they had learned earlier were not interfering with how to form the irregular verbs. Instead, they were using rules to form the new words.

The study suggests that the average male will have less trouble with the use of the language that doesn’t fit a pattern, in other words, is irregular. This is because the patterns of things they previously learned will not interfere. However, they might have a harder time using patterns with new words.

Men at a Disadvantage?

It seems to be commonly understood that women are generally better communicators than men. Of course, there are always outliers that buck that. However, that doesn’t mean that men are going to be completely hopeless at communicating. I have met numerous men in Japan that have reached an extremely high level of fluency.

I think knowing this information can come in handy when deciding on a study plan and thinking about language. Knowing your weaknesses can help you design something that is better suited to your way of learning.

One last thing to consider is a study that tested boys and girls ability to process language visually or abstractly. The study suggests that boys tend to be more visual and less abstract about language learning. The researchers hypothesized that boys would be better at being able to write words they have read, and speak words they have heard. Whereas girls can transfer the knowledge between writing and speaking for example.

This is just means that if you are a man, your studying may have to be more diversified in order to strengthen all your skills. Simply reading a lot doesn’t mean you will be able to use those new words in conversation. Just as doing a lot of listening and speaking practice might not transfer to reading and writing.

No matter the gender, Japanese and the JLPT really requires you to spread out your studying between the 4 skills in order to pass the test and be fluent. I know a lot of good speakers of Japanese that can barely read it, and vice versa.

Keep in mind that most researchers agree that men are just as capable of learning and using a language as women. It’s just that women might be better communicators because of their environment and social pressures. So, you can become just as good of a communicator if you surround yourself with a lot of speakers.

Do you think there is a gender difference in language learning?

Tell me about it in the comments below.

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