How Men and Women Learn Languages Differently

Language LearningWe uncover the differences in the way boys and girls learn languages—and how these lessons can this be transferred to adulthood.

Taking a look at two areas of research, we reveal how girls and boys memorize and process words differently with a focus on vocabulary (storage) and real-time composition.

Storage concerns words and phrases that are filed away by the brain and then recalled when required. Real-time composition refers to word and sentence creation as it happens in real time.

A third area of inquiry concerns the language processing differences between girls and boys, with results suggesting that girls respond more to abstract information whereas boys deal better with sensory information.

Storage, Real-time Composition, and Children

According to a new study covered by the Business Standard, and originally published in the journal PLOS ONE, language involves two types of learning sources, one is a ‘mental dictionary’ and the other is ‘mental grammar’.

The mental dictionary involves sounds, words and common phrases, and mental grammar deals with the composition of more complex words and sentences in real-time.

Dave Worley/Flickr

Dave Worley/Flickr

Lead researcher Dr Cristina Dye, a specialist in child language development at Newcastle University in the UK says that although most researchers agree with the principles behind storing and real-time composition, much of the details about how this actually happens are unclear, such as identifying exactly which parts of language are stored and which are composed.

She also says there has been a lack of research on children in this area, “Most research on this topic has concentrated on adults and we wanted to see if studying children could help us learn more about these processes.”

The Research

A study was conducted testing young children, who were presented with about 29 irregular verbs and 29 regular verbs, words that were familiar to their age group.

The participants were given two sentences, the first sentence incorporated the verb, and the second was left with a blank space for the children to fill in the verb in the correct past-tense form. For example, ‘Every day I walk to school. Just like every day, yesterday I _____ to school.”

The children had to fill in the blanks as quickly and as accurately as they could. The results where then recorded and analyzed to find out which were stored and which were created in real-time.

“What we found as we carried out the study was that girls were far more likely to remember forms like ‘walked’ while boys relied much more on their mental grammar to compose ‘walked’ from ‘walk’ and ‘ed’,” Dye said.

The results revealed that girls were more likely to use their mental dictionary, memorizing and storing words and phrases, while boys were more likely to use real-time composition, assembling these words from smaller parts.

“This fits in with previous research which has identified differences between the sexes when it comes to memorizing facts and events, where girls also seem to have an advantage compared to boys,” she said.

Nina Jean/Flickr

Nina Jean/Flickr

These findings point to a correlation between girls and academic success in letters, hinting that language education curriculums are structured in such way that engages the female brain, and gives a reason as to why boys commonly lag behind their female peers when it comes to language study.

“It could be that the curriculum is put together in a way which benefits the way girls learn,” she said. “It may be worth further investigation to see if this is the case, and if so, to find a way lessons could be changed so boys can get the most out of them too.”

Abstract and Sensory Differences

Research reported by Science Daily shows that gender difference in language appears to be biological, revealing that language processing is more abstract in girls and more sensory in boys.

According to the study, women are better at learning languages then men, following findings that show how both brain areas associated with language work harder in girls when dealing with language tasks, and that boys and girls use very different parts of the brain when completing language tasks.

The research measured the brain activity of 31 boys and 31 girls, aged 9 to 15, as they performed spelling and writing language tasks. The tasks were modeled on two types of sensory principles: visual and auditory.

In visual modes, the children were asked to read words without hearing them, and in auditory mode they heard words but did not see them.

The study found that the female participants activated language-related areas of the brain, specifically in those areas associated with abstract thinking and speech.

The boys, however, depended on other areas of the brain to process information. When reading words, the boys used their visual areas of the brain, and when hearing words they relied on the auditory areas of the brain.

“Our findings – which suggest that language processing is more sensory in boys and more abstract in girls – could have major implications for teaching children and even provide support for advocates of single sex classrooms,” said Douglas D. Burman, Research Associate in Northwestern’s Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

This means that boys may better respond to knowledge gained from oral and written tests, while girls, whose language processing appears more abstract, may not require such methods.

Application to Adult Learning

According to Medical Daily, the results of the PLOS ONE study were compared with data collected from 71 adults, aged 18 to 50, and the same results were found between and men and women. This indicates the relevance of this kind of research and how it can be used to improve language learning in adults.

The storage and abstract processes in women and the real-time, sensory process in men can be applied to distinct learning methods. Perhaps, both groups are in need of separate curriculums based on their specific brain capacities and learning paths.

The differences in how boys and girls learn and produce language is directly correlated to how we learn as adults, and these studies are important in order to enhance our language learning methods in the classroom and elsewhere.

At Listen & Learn, we’re interested in incorporating this research into our language courses. If you’re interested in gender-specific language courses, please inquire about group or individual language courses today.