Male students are outnumbered by female students in most subjects at most UK universities. But when it comes to language learning, the statistics are worse than most. In 2013, of all UK university languages students, 69% were female (19,775) and 31% were male (8,935). A much debated topic, there are many theories for the reason behind this drastic gender gap. The most popular theory is that girls and boys process languages differently. It has been proven that when learning languages, girls’ brains show greater activity in the areas used for language encoding. Boys’ brains, on the other hand, show more activity in the areas associated with visual and aural functions. Thus, while girls can more easily process an abstract piece of language, boys need some sensory reinforcement to process the data. For males, the most effective way to study language is to learn visually (seeing the word written down) as well as orally (through listening and repetition). Men’s brains are more analytical and thus they tend to prefer structured work, whereas women tend to be more intuitive and prefer the liberal arts. Furthermore, girls are more likely to get creative with the learning process than boys. Female learners will engage in all types of language learning, from speaking and reading and pronunciation, whilst men will stick to only a small and limited handful of study methods, holding them back from advancing with languages. Studies have also proven that female learners are four times more likely than males to chat with native speakers of their target language and that women are more willing to risk embarrassing themselves, an essential part of studying a foreign language at one time or another. The social connections and friendships that can stem from a conversation are also stronger motivators to women than to men. Furthermore, it has been suggested that women are more driven by personal rewards (and language learning is known to be a very rewarding skill) whereas men are driven by other factors such as status or position.
Part of the problem is perhaps the fact that languages are perceived as a female domain (in the way that engineering may be perceived as a male domain). The stereotyping of ‘female’ and ‘male’ subjects surely leaves its effect on us at some point down the line. For example, language teachers at primary and secondary school levels are typically women, meaning that children from a young age associate languages with their female instructors and therefore more girls will look up to them as role models.
So is it to do with innate or cultural conditioning, or maybe a combination of both? At BLS, we think it is more to do with environment than gender and hope that the language proficiency of a person is dependent on interest and exposure to a particular language rather than their gender. In fact, the team of translators we work with comprises of about 50% men and 50% women, which just goes to show that your gender is neither help nor hindrance when it comes to working in our industry.