Why we women in language should stop apologizing for our abilities, and learn to love the word “polyglot”.
Recently, the New Yorker published a fascinating article about hyperpolyglots. It was wonderfully researched, with great color. But one line caught my eye:
“An extreme language learner has a more-than-random chance of being a…male.”
The author Judith Thurman does not cite her source for this fact (only that it is “from a small sample of prodigies who have been tested by neurolinguists, responded to online surveys, or shared their experience in forums”).
I’m pretty skeptical.
Not least because there’s been such a wealth of psychological research suggesting that women may even have a significant advantage over men in the verbal realm (Hyde and Linn’s 1988 study, as well as many others).
It got me thinking—other than this implied biological advantage, could there be any other reason why this sampling of hyperpolyglots might have turned up a preponderance of men?
For example, the fact that more men might tend to self-identify as a polyglot or hyperpolyglot than women might?
One line in this great article about sex differences in the workplace jumped out at me: “Men have the Dunning-Kruger effect where they think they are better than they are, whereas more women have the imposter syndrome, where they think they aren’t as good,’ Carol Goman, a public speaker and author of the 2013 book The Truth About Lies in the Workplace, said. ‘If women fail, they tend to internalize the failure, and if men fail, they tend to externalize it.”
In the New Yorker article I mentioned at the top of this blog post, Thurman does note that she “asked [cognitive neuroscientist] Fedorenko if she had reason to believe that…males…had some cerebral advantage in learning languages.
Her response? “I’m not prepared to accept that reporting as anything more than anecdotal…Males, for one thing, get greater encouragement for intellectual achievement.”
In my own case, I’ve always shied away from applying the term “polyglot” to myself because it feels so self-aggrandizing—so…braggy.
Also, I’m acutely aware of my deficiencies in all of the foreign languages that I’ve studied, leaving me to be more careful in using the term.
After all, what exactly are the criteria for being a “polyglot”? Is a polyglot someone who is professionally fluent in all of his or her languages? Conversationally fluent? Or even just conversational? And must a polyglot be able to operate at the same level with all of his or her languages at any given time?
Beyond these misgivings, there is a separate fear about how I might be perceived, if (as a woman) I confidently announce to the world that I can speak multiple languages.
As law professor Rebecca Mitchell recently noted: “Studies suggest that women who engage in self-promoting behaviour are perceived as more dominant and arrogant than men displaying the same behaviour. They are judged as pushy, less likeable and less collegial than similar male peers.”
Whether consciously or unconsciously, women have definitely internalized this bias. We are particularly good at lying to protect the feelings of our interlocutors, sometimes even at our own expense.
I am no exception. When people ask me how many languages I speak, I find myself hesitating.
What I would love to do is give them a detailed breakdown of my strengths and weaknesses, so as to not oversell my abilities: “Well, my native language is English, and I’m professionally fluent in Spanish. I’m professionally fluent in French but I am terrible at casual conversation; I’m conversationally fluent in Mandarin but my reading could use a lot of work and my writing is terrible; I was fluent in Russian for about two years but it has all gone away now…” and so on and so on.
But who really wants all that information? More often than not, I am asked this dreaded question as the natural follow up to the question, “So, what do you do?” They aren’t asking for my entire CV. But I feel like I’m being inexact, if I simply answer “English, Spanish, French, Mandarin, Korean, ASL, and Indonesian.”
More times than I would like to admit, I have caught myself mentioning only a few languages, just choosing, say, two from the list. Just so that I don’t have to worry about whether my interlocutor is thinking, “Wow, this woman is pretty arrogant—listen to her just listing off her languages as if anyone cares!”
Do male polyglots out there tend to struggle with this issue? Or do they confidently rattle off their list of languages, graciously accept praise, and then move on?
Why should I feel uncomfortable telling people all of the languages I’ve learned and am learning, or calling myself a polyglot?
I should be proud. I grew up a monolingual English speaker in a nation that is notorious for being unable and unwilling to learn other languages (sorry America, I do still love you). Yet since adulthood, I have worked my tail off to learn my foreign languages, navigating around double majors and full-time jobs and relationships, often at the expense of nights out and quiet mornings at home.
As research has shown, men have been found to overestimate their abilities where women underestimate them.
There are risks on both sides.
But as women, when we underestimate our abilities, we allow others to underestimate them as well. And as that New Yorker article highlights so nicely, that underestimation can spread to an entire gender—half the world’s people.
We women don’t put ourselves out there enough. We should be showing other women what it looks like to excel in our given field.
The risks of not doing so are greater than they might appear. If you think about what is at stake for young girls growing up in this globalized, multilingual world—to not show up, to not put our hands up, could even be considered irresponsible.
For several years, my colleagues and business partners have been asking me to start a blog and YouTube channel in order to help promote our translation business, but I was scared of the attention that it would draw to me, and that readers would be more likely to find a woman blogger selling her skills as unlikeable or overly braggy (as the aforementioned research supports).
It was only when I realized what I was doing—that I was constantly selling myself short—that I knew it was finally time to start. Even though for me, being able to hit “publish” still comes only after a serious battle with anxiety and doubt.
So here we are. I hope that this blog will encourage other women to learn languages, to not sell themselves short, and to even call themselves polyglots. If you have struggled with these issues (regardless of your gender!) I’d love to hear from you!