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Learning French? Women and men pick up languages differently

Research shows gender does affect how we learn and remember a new language

Women and men store verbal information in different parts of the memory, due to their hormonal make-up Pic: TommyStockProject / Shutterstock

You might have heard people claim that women find it easier than men when it comes to learning a language.

A 2015 study of immigrants learning Dutch appeared to confirm this theory: it found female learners consistently outperformed male counterparts, no matter their country of origin or mother tongue.

Read more: Don’t let age be an obstacle to pursuing better French

Differences in reading, speaking, listening and writing

Before male readers cancel their French lessons, bear in mind that this might not mean women have an innate biological advantage.

Other factors at play include hours of study, access to lessons, level of education, learning methods, and whether they were immersed in the language or studied it in a classroom.

What’s more, although women came out as winners overall, breaking language acquisition down into the four skillsets (reading, speaking, listening and writing) tells a different story.

While women outperform men to a greater extent in speaking and writing, there is no real difference when it comes to listening, and in reading, men outperformed women.

Women often more motivated

Frans van der Slik, who was behind the Dutch study, said: “The reasons for the difference are complex. We can only hypothesise.

“In general, it seems that women are often more motivated than men in learning a language and this is what gives a slight advantage.”

The study also found that women tended to have more interest in the ‘target culture’.

Read more: Mental benefits of learning French depend on using it in real life

Hormones and memory

Hormones might provide another explanation. 

According to the Dutch study, women and men store verbal information in different parts of the memory, due to their hormonal make-up.

For women, it is more often in ‘declarative memory’ – the type of memory connected to people and events – whereas men favour the ‘procedural memory’, more often linked with skill acquisition, such as riding a bike.

Post-puberty, there is less procedural memory than declarative memory available for storage, meaning women have more space in which to put the information, and can draw on it more easily.

English speakers have no excuse

Despite this, Mr van der Slik insists gender difference is not as significant to language learning as many people believe, and other factors have a greater impact.

“Linguistic differences are more important than individual characteristics like motivation, etc,” he explains.

“Immersion in language, living in a country, can be very helpful. And it is important not to just stick to friends of our own culture.”

In addition, lexical overlap – similarities between a first and second language – is a key indicator of how easily someone is likely to learn a second language.

When it comes to French, English speakers have little excuse, says Mr van der Slik.

“English is practically a French dialect,” he insists.

“There is a lot of overlap.”

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