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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:

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?


  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.

  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.


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