Skip to main content

Why do girls do better than boys at language learning?

At my school over the years the top set was usually predominantly male and the lower sets were predominantly male. Boys often did very well, some superbly well. Some went to Oxford and Cambridge. But girls did better overall and you would find that pattern repeated not only across the UK, but in other parts of the world as well.

Why is this? Current fashion would have it down to societal and motivational factors, but my hunch is that the girls tend naturally to just be a bit better at learning languages. My first thought is: baby girls pick up languages more quickly than boys and tend to be stronger at communication when older so this must be down to their brains. Venus and Mars. Too simple?

What does the research suggest? Unsurprisingly it is not conclusive about reasons for the difference in attainment, but I did come across this useful summary of general findings based on a large body of research from various countries.

The source is here. I'm quoting directly.

1. Although there is some disagreement as regards performance in individual skills (particularly listening), girls are regularly superior to boys in terms of overall achievement in languages in general (and foreign languages in particular).

2. The number of girls opting for foreign languages in schools and taking public examinations in languages is significantly higher than the number of boys.

3. Boys are superior to girls in tasks concerning spatial ability, but girls generally excel boys in tasks involving verbal skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing).

4. Girls consistently appear more interested in the study of a foreign language than boys, and manifest an evident liking for the culture, the country and the speakers of that language. Whereas boys’ reasons for studying the language are mainly instrumental, girls’ motivations tend to be integrative.

5. Girls are significantly more confident concerning their abilities to master the language. Boys, on the contrary, appear to be more self-deprecating of their linguistic competence.

6. The sex-stereotyping of jobs in society still endorses language learning as an accomplishment for girls. Consequently, girls tend to perceive languages as more vocationally relevant. In other words, they are generally more inclined to believe that languages will be useful to them in their future careers.

That's all well and good, and no great surprise, but it doesn't help us to get to the heart of the matter. Why do girls do better?

One hypothesis is that girls, having been quicker L1 learners, may be better in L2 where the focus is on natural acquisition (nativist, unconscious approaches), whereas boys might do as well or better when the focus is an cognitive (conscious, analytical) approaches. Would that suggest we should use a balance of these approaches to cater for both genders?

Another hypothesis is that boys and girls are equally as good, but societal factors and expectations encourage more girls to do languages than boys. That would imply we need to work more on motivation than methodology.

Some might argue that learning a language takes perseverance and hard work which, on average, girls are better at. That suggests we should make sure the lads do some graft.

Other studies have indicated that girls use a greater range of study strategies which improve performance. Do we do enough to get boys to learn in different ways?

But what if girls' brains are actually better at language acquisition? Is there any support for this hypothesis?

Here is some small-scale neurological evidence reported in 2008 which may help us:

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-women-really-better-with-language/

Because we now have the ability to monitor brain activity when learning takes place we may be able to get closer to the solution to the boy/girl difference.
For the above study the researchers saw measurable, physical differences in brain activity during the learning of words. They tentatively conclude:

"In a classroom setting...  boys need to be taught language both visually (with a textbook) and orally (through a lecture) to get a full grasp of the subject, whereas a girl may be able to pick up the concepts by either method."

Perhaps further neurological study will get us closer to knowing more about any differences between boys and girls' language learning, but in the meantime it may be safe to assume that a range of factors are at work. And yet... I do have the feeling that, just as females do better in caring professions and, arguably, in communication in general, girls just enjoy language learning a bit more on average and that probably has something to do with what's between their ears.

What do you think?




Comments

  1. I think the best way to learn a language is to go to the country and learn it there. I also think that learning language is a waste of time for boys wh want to forge a successful career....a language might help but on its own it's a pretty poor second best.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for leaving a comment. I am sure your first comment is correct. As for job prospects, the evidence us that career prospects are excellent for languages graduates of either sex. There is a shortage of qualified linguists.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

5 great zero preparation lesson ideas

When the pressure is on and there are only so many hours on the week, you need a repertoire of zero preparation go-to activities which promote input and/or practice. Here are five you might well find useful.

1. My weekend

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own tru…

What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit

"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

New GCSE resources on frenchteacher

As well as writing resources for the new A-levels, I have in recent months been posting a good range of materials to support the new GCSEs. First exams are not until 2018, but here is what you can find on the site in addition to the many other resources (grammar exercises, texts, video listening etc).

I shall not produce vocabulary lists since the exam board specifications now offer these, with translations.

Foundation Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Role-plays
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (2)
100 translation sentences into French (with answers)
Reading exam
Reading exam (2)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (Word)

Higher Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier)
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier) (2)
20 translations into French (with answers)
Reading exam (Higher tier)
How to write a good Higher Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a…

Three AQA A-level courses compared

I've put together my three reviews of worthy A-level courses which you might be considering for next September. They are all very useful courses, but with significant differences. The traditional Hodder and OUP book-based courses differ in that the former comes in one chunky two year book, whilst OUP's comes in two parts, the first for AS or the first year of an A-level course. The Attitudes16 course by Steve Glover and Nathalie Kaddouri is based on an online platform from which you would download worksheets and share a logon with studenst who would do the interactive parts (Textivate and video work). The two text books are supported by interactive material (Kerboodle) or an e-text book.

Attitudes16





An excellent resource which should be competing for your attention at the moment is the Attitudes16 course which writers Steve Glover and Nathalie Kaddouri have been working on for some time. You can find it here at dolanguages.com, along with his excellent resources for film and li…

Learning strategies (3)

This is the third in the mini-series of blogs about learning strategies. So far, we have looked at some (rather scant) research evidence for the effectiveness of strategies. Bear in mind that a lack of research evidence does not mean strategies do not work; if there is any consensus, it is that they are probably useful and probably best used when integrated into a normal teaching sequence. We then looked at a classification of different types of strategies.

In this blog Gianfanco and I look at how you might integrate strategies into your teaching. There is nothing revolutionary about this stuff! You may do a good deal of this type of thing already, but you may also be new to the concepts and applications of learning strategies.


Let's look at how you might use strategies, particularly with regard to the teaching of listening and reading. Remember: this is just about how you help students to use strategies to become better listeners and readers.

How to teach strategies 

The research …