Polyglot Susanna Zaraysky conducts a great interview with two female polyglots (yes, they are out there!).
Have a listen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vm5jE7Sz7UM
Susanna’s blog can be found here: http://createyourworldbook.com/
Read more —
You may have noticed my absence from this blog, the Polyglot Project interviews, and YouTube. This has not been due to a lack of interest, but to illness and injury. The injury was mine and although painful, not serious (see my YouTube video description here). The illness, on the other hand, affected a very close relative and is very serious indeed–pancreatic cancer.
Now, as you can imagine, the news of this illness completely blindsided me, and I was quite incapable of focusing my mind for quite some time afterward. My young cousin–the relative who received such a terrible diagnosis–and I are extremely close, and I refused to believe that he had been dealt such a cruel hand. But after watching him endure weeks of chemotherapy and radiation, reality has finally set in.
My cousin is a fighter, and embraces every day without self-pity and with great courage. What excuse did I have then, to be immobilized in a mental fetal position I had created for myself?
So, I’m back. I hope to have more regular posts to this blog, more videos on YouTube and resurrect the Polyglot Project Podcast.
Life goes on–my cousin taught me that.
Some time ago I made a video lamenting the shortage of female polyglots on YouTube. Susanna Zaraysky takes up the question…
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.
In this episode of The Polyglot Project Podcast, David and I chat with Professor Peter Browne. Peter talks to us about many aspects of language learning and gives us his thoughts on constructed languages. There were some technical issues at the beginning, but we worked them out.
Hope you enjoy!
Please be sure to visit Peter’s YouTube channel: Alkantre
If you missed out on contributing to The Polyglot Project the first time around, you now have an opportunity to join in on the conversation. Why don’t you send in your story? This can be your forum to tell the world about your language learning experiences and methodologies.
English not your native language? No worries. Write in whatever language you want to. The readers can use Google Translate to get the gist of what you’re saying, and learners of that language can use your submission for language practice and inspiration. It’s a “win-win” situation for everybody.
You will notice a tab entitled “Language Corner” above. That will be the place to go for reading the new contributions. Check back often, as the pieces will be posted as they come in. They will not be edited or touched in any way, so what you submit is what your readers will see.
I look forward to posting your submissions!
I was interviewed recently by Antonio Graceffo. Antonio is a polyglot and martial artist who writes frequently on foreign languages. He has spent the last ten years in Asia studying languages. He currently lives in Saigon. Please visit him on YouTube: (brooklynmonk1) and on his web site: http://speakingadventure.com/.
Antonio Graceffo: Interview with Claude Cartaginese
Claude Cartaginese is the creator and editor of The Polyglot Project, a book written entirely by YouTube polyglots, hyper-polyglots, linguists, language learners and language lovers in their own words. The Polyglot Project is available as a free download on Claude’s YouTube channel (syzygycc), his blog (syzygyonlanguages.wordpress.com), or you may purchase a hard copy at Amazon.com.
Antonio: Were you born into a multilingual family?
Claude: It may sound a bit paradoxical, but I was born into a monolingual family but grew up bilingual. My parents were immigrants from a small village in southern Italy. Like many Italian families who left their homeland at the end of World War II, my parents settled, along with many others from the same area of Italy, in Westchester County, New York. Because there were so many others in the immediate vicinity who spoke the same regional dialects, there was never any urgency for my parents to learn English. Up until I started kindergarten, I only spoke the same regional dialect, which was an offshoot of Neapolitan. After starting school, I learned English along with the rest of the children. My parents never did learn it.
Antonio: When did you start learning languages seriously?
Claude: I studied French in high school, but didn’t like it. It was entirely grammar-based, and I found that approach to be tedious. We spent most of our time conjugating verbs and memorizing vocabulary lists. It was a very inefficient way of learning a language. Interestingly, 30 years later my children, who attended the same schools, had similar experiences. Nothing at all has changed when it comes to teaching foreign languages in the school system. In college, it took a completely random event to get me really interested in learning foreign languages: I met a polyglot. Not only could this individual speak over 20 languages, but he was completely self-taught. I did not know such a thing was possible. And yet, it was still many more years before I began to study languages myself in earnest.
Antonio: Did you do any of your languages in a formal setting? If so, where and which languages.
Claude: Although I have taken a few language courses over the years, they have mostly been a waste of time. They either moved too slowly for me, with the instructor catering to the slowest learner in the class, or they went way too fast, such as the time I took an intensive Japanese course where the school promised to teach us to speak, read and write Japanese in six weeks—a hopelessly impossible task!
Antonio: How much of your knowledge is a result of self-study?
Claude: Realistically, I would have to say most of it. In the first place, even if I had wanted to study more languages while I was at school, there just weren’t that many language course offerings. And due to the poor state of my finances at the time, I did not have the ability to sign up for private language courses. I discovered early on that if you really want to learn something, a teacher can’t teach it to you anyway. You have to learn it yourself.
Antonio: How many hours do you study per week?
Claude: Not as many as I would like. Due to employment and family obligations, I make do with stolen moments here and there. I have a 45 minute commute to my office each way, and make it a point to listen to whatever foreign language I want to learn or brush up. If I have the energy, I will try to get in another half hour before bed. Weekends, I often have the opportunity to study a bit more.
Antonio: How many hours do you believe one needs to master a language?
Claude: I think it depends quite a bit on the language. If your target language has a lot of transparency, due to its similarity to your native language, then I think it would only take a few months to become extremely functional in that language. Italian and Spanish come to mind, or Hindi and Urdu. If your target language is radically different than your native language, such as the way Japanese is to English, it could take years. Anyone who tells you that they learned to speak a complicated language like Chinese, Japanese or Arabic in six months, and their native language is English (or Italian or French) is lying to you—although I have seen it done in other languages. Esperanto, for example, can be learned in just a few months.