November 4, 2018

 A Note About Being a “Woman in Language”

English general language learning

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!


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  1. Love this article! I’ve been studying Korean for a couple of years now, not formally though, just casually when I have the time but I never ever mention to anyone that I know it and can probably hold casual conversations because I don’t think I’m at that level yet (whatever level that is). Just like you instead of telling people I know 3-4 languages, I only say I know two but I guess that has to change now!

  2. Hi! I speak Russian, French, and Spanish and I could not relate to this article more. I constantly feel as though I have to add qualifiers to my skills, but the reality is that I have a very good command of all of these languages and I shouldn’t check myself when I own up to that! Thank you for this article, I so appreciate it.

    • I also feel uncomfortable about bragging directly about my language skills… bragging indirectly by using them is much easier and probably more convincing… people sometimes overestimate my skills as a result 😉

  3. I’m a university student (female) and I speak several languages to different degrees… But I often find myself not sharing it because I don’t want it to come off as bragging and I feel like when someone asks about my language experience and such, they want an overview but with no real depth or detail, It’s not that I underestimate myself or feel insecure about it… Though I think this all has less to do with gender and more with character, I think it’s just for that reason that some people don’t share so much about what languages they speak… Where did you find that men overestimate themselves and women underestimate themselves? I don’t think you can make a broad statement assigning certain character traits to people based on their genders. I also disagree with you in thinking that it’s irresponsible to remain private about your studies, whether or not the experience is shared doesn’t carry a consequence. Other people who are just starting out and have similar interests could benefit from hearing your experiences. But, we women, don’t need to depend on good examples to be successful either. I think we’re more independent than that, and should have enough confidence in ourselves to be able to like what we like and do what we want regardless of whether or not we have role models. Men and women in this community share the same experiences and struggles, male polyglots aren’t perceived as better or more accomplished than female polyglots either. There isn’t some issue here trying to oppress, us women. Just because of one article of someone expressing their opinions, based on their own personal observations, I wouldn’t make such a big deal of this. If you’re feeling insecure, don’t. If you’re bothered by one person expression an opinion you disagree with, don’t be… Just do your thing and learn what you like and share however much you want. But, please don’t generalize women and men either, because gender really doesn’t have anything with being insecure, private, or not wanting to come off as boasting.

  4. Well said, Sara Maria! I feel the same, I tend to pick and choose who I tell about all the languages I’m learning and if I choose to say, “I’m a polyglot”. I’ll often just mention my 2 advanced languages, and either not mention the others, or just say, “…and I’m learning a few other languages as well.” That’s something that I’ll have to work on. We women deserve to be recognized for our hard work and talent too!

  5. This article gave me a whole new view… on myself. I mean when presenting myself I always I am not bilingual, but I do speak a bit of french and spanish.. I speak it well enough to help people translate at times like at a store. I guess because I can’t exactly write in these languages I don’t consider myself good enough. But this an amazing talent that not many people have. Thank you!

  6. Nice one Sara. I feel like the major points made here apply to most women in most situations and not just as a polygot. I tend to underestimate my abilities also when i’m talking to someone, mostly out of fear of them thinking i’m being arrogant, or them asking me something that I end up not knowing.
    I believe that as soon as we start being more confident in our abilities as women, the less we would be underestimated by others.

    Keep it up Sara. You are an inspitation!