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Archive for May, 2011

Some time ago I made a video lamenting the shortage of female polyglots on YouTube.   Susanna Zaraysky takes up the question…

Why female foreign language students or speakers may not practice or show their languages

Multilingual women, where are you?

In late January, I had a Skype call with Benny Lewis for about two hours to discuss our language learning trajectories and I asked him why there were more male linguists showing their foreign language prowess online than females. I couldn’t find any women on You Tube or elsewhere on the Internet. As he elaborated last week in his blog post, Girls vs guys and the dancing-monkey reason to learn a language, Benny thinks it’s because men like to show off. He referred me to Jennifer Wagner of IE Languages to whom I posed the same question. Jennifer also wrote a blog post inquiring, Female Polyglots and Language Learners – Where Are You?

When I asked Claude Cartaginese of the Polyglot Project, he pointed me to a You Tube video he had posted asking, Where Are the Girls? The comments to his video indicated that some women may not want to post videos because they would be harassed by men or have to endure comments about their looks.
More women studying languages, fewer using them openly

Conventional wisdom (whether it’s true or false, I don’t know) claims that women learn languages better than men because of women’s natural proclivity to communication. I don’t know any statistics on language learning by gender so I am basing this on my own observations.

I’ve given many presentations about my book, Language is Music, and there are always more women in the audience than men. In October 2010, the US Consulate in St Petersburg, Russia organized three presentations for me at two educational institutions and one library cultural center and men made up less than 10% of the attendees. In October 2009, the US Embassy in Doha, Qatar organized a presentation for me at the Al Bayan Girls School and I was beyond impressed with the girls. Not only did they speak excellent English in addition to their native Arabic, but they were learning other languages on their own! They told me about how they were learning Japanese from anime movies. Their knowledge of languages and cultures would put most US high school students –both male and female– to shame.

So why do I see so few women out there waxing in other tongues?

Digital divide based on gender?

At first I thought it was a digital divide issue because it has been shown that there are fewer women than men using the Internet. Even Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, has admitted that a small percentage of Wikipedia editors and contributors are male and that he wants to get more women to use the site.

In part, I am sure that part of the reason we see more men than women actively showing their language ability is due to the digital divide. However, I think there are reasons that pre-date Cyberspace. I personally know more male than female polyglots although I see more women studying languages.

Other reasons why more men may pursue languages than women.

I am basing the following thoughts on my own experiences and those of other women. I welcome your thoughts on the topic because my goal is to encourage women to speak languages. If we can identify the road blocks that prevent women from going ahead with language learning, then we can figure out ways to get rid of those blocks.

1. Don’t outshine men

If one of the reasons that polyglot men like to show their talents on the Internet is because they like a boost to their egos, then perhaps it’s the exact opposite problem for women.

Both men and women have told me to hide my linguistic abilities (I speak seven languages) and vast travel and cultural experience to not outshine men. We’re in the 21st century, but that doesn’t mean that old gender roles don’t exist.

A female relative of mine consciously did not talk about literature or history around her late husband because he wasn’t as cultured as she was and she didn’t want to hut his fragile male ego. She suggested I do the same or else men would be overwhelmed by me. This woman’s late husband would read her emails and listen to all her calls because he was jealous and possessive. Once I realized that she accepted how her husband acted like a prison guard, I stopped soliciting or listening to any of her advice.

I am certain I’m not the only women was has been told to shut up and look pretty and hide her intelligence.

I didn’t hide my languages because of those sexist ideas. I simply didn’t know what to do with my language skills until just a few years ago when I published Language is Music. But I did have an instance in Ukraine when my coworker and I decided it would be best I not show that I could speak Russian so that the people we would talk to would speak to our interpreter and address both of us rather than only speak to me. My colleague was Swiss and didn’t speak Russian. That was super hard to do because I had to stop reacting to what people say and hide my emotions. Some Ukrainians guessed that I spoke Russian because my eyes reacted to their words.

Perhaps other women have learned languages and have stopped pursuing them or maintaining them because the men around them don’t value languages or are jealous.

2. Languages undervalued in the workplace

Statistics show that women make less money than men. Women’s contribution in the workforce is undervalued not just financially but also in recognition and job promotion.  Foreign language ability is also undervalued in the workforce, especially when the boss is monolingual and doesn’t see the value in having a polyglot who can work with international clients and colleagues.

My first job out of college was for the US Department of Commerce in Silicon Valley. I was hired precisely because I spoke Russian and there was an upcoming trade summit between then Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin. I got to meet Russian VIPs including Governors and diplomats and be their guide. I was only 21 years old! Then I worked on organizing a trade mission of Silicon Valley companies to Argentina, Chile and Brazil. Guess whose Spanish knowledge was key in that work? (I was just starting to study Portuguese.)

Less than a year on the job, I worked with a Colombian-born colleague to arrange an agricultural trade mission to an agricultural trade show in Sinaloa, Mexico. I definitely used my Spanish to get that together. I even had to translate some materials myself. But some moron at the Commerce Department decided to send a Japanese speaking colleague of mine to Mexico instead of me! American taxpayer money had to pay for this man to have an English-Spanish interpreter at this Mexican agricultural fair where his Japanese was worthless. My supervisor said he was sorry but that the Japanese speaker had more seniority than I did and he was going to go. Had my supervisor had any international experience himself, he might have realized how ridiculous it was to send someone to a rural area of Mexico, where few people could speak English.

I was furious! As a taxpayer, I’d be angry too as this was more proof of government waste.

Are there other women out there who use their languages at work and get passed up for international assignments by other people with more seniority but without the appropriate language skills?

3. Difficulty in traveling or living abroad

In countries where women aren’t in public life and where men and women can’t be friends (because the genders don’t mix), women have more hurdles than men do in practicing their language. 

In cultures when men and women don’t mix, an innocent foreign woman trying to practice her language skills may be interpreted the wrong way. There’s a stereotype of the “easy” Western woman and some foreign men in traditional gender separated cultures may consider a Western woman smiling and talking to him as a sign of her sexual interest in him.

I took an Arabic class one summer in California and tried practicing my limited vocabulary wherever I could. Most Arab-operated businesses in the San Francisco area are run by men. While buying something at a Palestinian corner market in San Francisco, I tried using my Arabic numbers when counting my change or doing something else involving numbers. The cashier was very keen on helping me learn Arabic numbers, especially his phone number. I politely declined, but he followed me out of the store and yelled to me on the street reminding me to come back and get his number for more free Arabic lessons.

4. Standing out

Being the odd person out may discourage women from pursuing their languages in the countries where they are spoken.

A dark haired and brown-eyed Spanish woman told me that when she was living in Syria studying Arabic, her blond-haired and blond-eyed Spanish female friend was constantly harassed on the streets because she stood out so much. (The brown haired girl could easily pass as Arab.) I know there are Arab women with light features, but a Western woman can really stand out, especially in areas where there are more men on the street than women. In her case, I’d dye my hair a dark color. But even if one dresses modestly, standing out can still be hard to avoid. When I was in Doha, Qatar, I still got looks and stares from men even though I was completely covered. There were a lot more men in the country than women and I didn’t see any Western women walking around by themselves like I was.

Recently I spoke to a white woman blond-haired, blue-eyed woman who grew up in Japan until she was 11 and spoke native Japanese. When she returned to Japan as an adult, she had trouble making Japanese friends even though her Japanese was native. Japanese men wouldn’t hit on/flirt with Western women unless they were looking for a one-night stand in some touristy area. While Western men, no matter their level of Japanese or attractiveness, were a hot commodity for Japanese women who wanted to leave the country and/or be with a white guy. The bottom line is that there was little incentive for a Western woman to learn Japanese and live in Japan, while reasons abounded for foreign men.

My examples here are all of white Western women, but the same could be true for anyone who is physically and culturally different. My sister lived in Ecuador and told me that Asian Americans had a hard time working in indigenous areas in Ecuador because the indigenous people treated Asians poorly. An African woman in Russia might be harassed or beaten as hate crimes there are prevalent.

Do you know of other reasons that may prevent women from learning and using their languages? Do you have any solutions or suggestions to help women overcome the roadblocks? Please comment below.

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