It struck me today that many polyglots and hyperpolyglots are male. I wonder if this has something to do with the instinct to collect things and the tendency to get a bit carried away with particular subjects, traits that seem more common in males than females. Perhaps it might also be a result of the male inclination to show off. The ability to learn many languages is quite a good indicator of intelligence, after all.

Any thoughts on this?

I suspected this might be a controversial observation. Maybe I should expand my point a bit: I’m certainly not implying that there are no female polyglots, or that men are better at languages than women. What I mean by polyglots here is people who learn a large number of languages, i.e. ten or more. If you look at the list of polyglots on Wikipedia, you notice that most of those who know 10+ languages are men.

This entry was posted in Language, Language learning.

17 Responses to Polyglots

  1. Polly says:

    I think you’re about to generate a little commotion with that first statement. 🙂

    I think you’re right that men show off more. But, I’d make a different case; we guys like to brag, but there may be just as many women who can do what we can (and better) but don’t say much about it.
    I’ve known many females who were interested in languages and probably were on their way to polyglot status. In fact, I think I’ve known just as many female linguaphiles as male. My first conscious encounter with polyglossia was when my 2nd grade teacher announced that she could speak 7 languages. Since then, I think I’ve adopted that as my unstated goal.

  2. ISPKN says:

    I’m not so sure about most polyglots being male. Both Spanish and French classes at my old high school were packed with teenage girls who seemed much more interested than the minority of teenage boys.

    Polly, it sounds like your 2nd grade teacher is “bragging” maybe you shouldn’t have said it’s more of a male trait. I know plenty of women who love to tell all of their accomplishments and plenty of men you are as humble as it gets.

  3. Polly says:

    ISPKN – She certainly was. I don’t even remember what induced her to mention it. I wouldn’t say something like that for fear of being shown up by a native speaker(s).

  4. jrf says:

    Oh well.. let’s just treat that one as a case of “bold statements open up discussion”…

    Obviously it’s nonsense, though I can image that one’s view may be tainted by whichever part of the world you live in and the language education standards prevalent in that part of the world.

    Using a pure definition of polyglot (multilingual), I think I can make an educated guess that some 60% of the people in my country (The Netherlands) are polyglots, if not more and probably more women than men speak more than two languages.

    My personal experience is far more like ISPKN says: in secondary school the language classes were dominated by women (while the maths and physics classes were dominated by men).
    On the intelligence part, the general view on that here is a bit different – languages are (or they were at least when I attended school) often regarded as topics for people good at ‘memorizing’ (not necessarily understanding) while maths/physics were regarded as the topics for real intelligence as you would really need to understand what you were doing and why.
    I’m not saying this view is correct, just that it exists.

    Even so, I do think you are on the right track with the showing off bit – men will shout out the fact that they are polyglot a lot more so than women do in most cultures (women still often being raised to be ‘modest’).

    A note from personal experience on a more global scale – for one of the projects I’m involved with (link above) we are trying to get translations for the project in a lot of languages (currently we have 88 and more are in the making). On of my jobs is keeping in touch with the translators – which obviously all have to be polyglots -.
    Translators come to us from all over the world and even though from some of them I do not know whether they are male or female, I have so far not found any pattern as to more male or more female translators.

    Just my two pennies…

    and yes.. I’m female (the j in jrf is from Juliette)

  5. Sabrina says:

    I have noticed that many people who speak more than one language are male, but I’m not so sure it has anything to do with the fact that they ARE male. After all…’they’ say that girls are better at Language Arts, boys at Math.

    I myself have what past professors have called a ‘neurotic obsession’ with languages! I speak French, Russian and German all very well–and I taught myself. *I’m very proud of this*

  6. I found my university-level Spanish courses to be strongly female-dominated. While I would not consider myself a polyglot yet, the feedback I got on my Spanish is that I do a very good job, and I heard the same during the period when I was able to take Spanish and German at the same time. I just about cried when I had to move to another state where German wasn’t available…I’d wanted it SO bad.

    And despite the impression my name gives, yes–I am female. I apologize for the harshness of this, but I think you’d do well to back your statement up with some scientific data or else not mention it again.

  7. Geoff says:

    Note that the question about collecting languages immediately follows a post that lets slip that the omniglot seems to collect books, too. Mickey Kaus offers that the first rule of journalism is to always wildly overgeneralize from personal experience, and that may be the case here. But that has no bearing on whether or not the observations are true, just how well they’ve been verified.

    Wildly overgeneralizing from my own personal experiences, female polyglots seem to be slightly better at learning languages, while male polyglots are considerably better at advertising that they’re learning them. I offer no speculation on whether this is actually so or what it may mean. But I will confess to working in a language school with three females who are conversational in more languages than I am – and yet I’m the one with a language website.

  8. Janis says:

    This reminds me of comments by male bloggers who say, “Why are all bloggers male?” when I read a ton of blogs every day and can think of a whopping TWO male bloggers, one of which is you.

  9. Josh says:

    Geoff> I’ve noticed the exact same thing- females are generally better at learning languages from what I’ve seen. Mabey it’s because language learning is attatched that that side of the brain that women are more in touch with. I dunno. In a family of immigrants, it seems to be the women that are always more conversational in the new language. I’m friends with about 7 albanians and the girls speak way more naturally than the guys do and they all came over here at the same time.

  10. ISPKN says:

    I’d like to add something I noticed on the “list of polyglots.” Many of those people were from centuries where women had less rights and didn’t often have a high education or a career. Now that women have more rights, and often at least as much education, I’m sure polyglots among women is becoming much more prevalent. Just a thought.

  11. Janis says:

    If you look at EVERY list of “great writers,” “great scientists,” and “great artists,” you’ll also find a list of nothing but men with a few token women in it. You’ll also usually find nothing but white people, while every black African I’ve ever met has been much, much more likely to speak multiple languages as a matter of course than any white European I’ve ever met. EVERY black African I’ve met speaks at LEAST five languages. Most white people? AsI live in the US, the answer to that question is easy: one.

    You’re asking the wrong question. Instead of “Why are all the polyglots men?” it’s more likely, “Why are only the male polyglots noticed and listed in Wikipedia, and why did only men get the opportunities to learn so many languages and be feted for it?”

    It’s a controversial question, but it’s also frankly … rather naive. “Why are so many Nobel prizewiners white?” is likely to open a similar can of worms in topics like political equality and economic opportunity as well, and for the same reasons. The question betrays the fact that the opportunity to achieve and learn is not equally distributed among the world’s populations, and neither is the recognition for having done so. (It also betrays the fact that this hasn’t even occurred to the person asking the question in anything approaching the depth with which is must be considered, which is why I feel safe in saying that it’s a naive question.)

  12. I agree with Janis and ISPKN, and I would like to add that a Wikipedia list in no way meets the same rigor as a scientifically-conducted poll or study. Even the list itself comes with two disclaimers: “The following list must be seen as anecdotal.” Also, “Some information in this article or section has not been verified and may not be reliable.”

    A properly-conducted scientific study with an appropriate sample and method would constitute valid proof, but a list that comes from people’s attempts to name people off the top of their heads–who will tend to be famous white males located in America and Europe, given those are the nations doing the most editing to the Wiki. It doesn’t even take into account people who live in countries like China and India where speaking more languages than we consider “normal” is almost a necessity of life.

    Again–this does not constitute valid proof and without that, the claim that more men are polyglots cannot stand.

  13. ISPKN says:

    Holy Cow, You started up a pretty heated discussion Mr. Ager!

  14. Robert Dupuy says:

    You made some innocent comments, and I would neither back down nor apologize for them. We live in a world of hyper-sensitive people.

    The most common use of the word polyglot is to refer to people who speak many languages many languages, and the majority of those people are male, not female.

    If someone is offended by that, they are offended by life.

  15. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperpolyglot might be a little anecdotal, but it makes an interesting point about mental aptitudes for linguistics. Asperger Syndrome (which I have been diagnosed with) almost exclusively strikes men, and often gives people who have it intense focus on one area (in my case, games). Though neurotypical people probably can learn 10+ languages, it probably is different from the way hyperpolyglots with mental affinities can do this. I’m just saying that men might be more likely to have the brain difference that helps with hyperpolyglot-ism.

  16. Jared says:

    Could there be an attraction that certain languages hold for men and not women? Just a thought.

  17. Interesting, Thomas…while that is anecdotal, it might make a good thesis/study topic for someone in neurology or linguistics. Additionally, it might be worth adding to that a question about the motivations that underlie the study of so many languages in both those with and without AS; that might help to settle that aspect as well.

    As I said before to Robert, I do not think it at all wise to make a generalization based on anecdotes. Anecdotes, however, can lead to formal investigations–and your suggestion, Thomas, might be a potential avenue for that.

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