Women of the internet, have you ever felt disregarded or talked down to when speaking a foreign language in its local environment? Have people condescendingly responded to you in English, or laughed at your accent? In this month’s translation industry updates post, we’ll be talking about some of the ways in which gender can influence the perceived acceptability of our efforts to speak in other languages, and sharing some examples of challenges that women may encounter. We tried to write this post in such a way as to avoid stereotyping, but we are interested in seeing how gender influences a person’s experience in communicating in other languages, and since we welcome respectful disagreement and alternative opinions, we encourage all of you to share your own experiences in the comments.


Before even discussing the specific scenario of foreign language usage, it’s worth venturing the idea that women are arguably taken less seriously across the board, regardless of the language of communication. Most women are likely to have experienced being talked over in meetings or other social situations, or to have fallen victim to so-called ‘bropropriating’, defined by the Collins dictionary as ‘a man taking credit for a woman’s idea’. According to no less a source than the Harvard Business Review, this phenomenon goes all the way to the top, with female Supreme Court justices reported to be interrupted three times as often as their male counterparts. Sheryl Sandberg has written that women in commerce are deemed to be either overly aggressive, or completely ignored. And these are just some of the more widely talked-about obstacles to communication.


Studies tend to show that women are more likely to doubt themselves than men, with research into learners of English as a second language in Malaysia arguing that female learners as a whole were more reluctant to volunteer answers, and more nervous about using English in class. The (male) Irish polyglot and internet sensation Benny Lewis has said, perhaps deliberately controversially, that men tend to be more extroverted in using their foreign languages because they’re constantly looking for ways to show off. But such showboating can arguably only be effective in front of an audience that is already receptive, which according to the above arguments is often less likely to be the case if the speaker is female.


Added to that are the complicating cultural factors that can inhibit women’s ability to navigate foreign languages when they find themselves in other parts of the world. In places where women are already less visible, a foreign woman might draw considerable attention before even starting to speak in the local language, whereas foreign men tend to blend in more easily. In parts of the world where social interactions take place among male-dominated spaces, there are fewer opportunities for women, particularly those on their own, to strike up the kind of casual conversations that are useful in becoming more familiar with a foreign language. Talking to strangers can have obvious safety implications for women who are new in any country, and knowing whether a person who wants to exchange contact details for ‘language practice’ has ulterior motives is a minefield. Meanwhile, there might only be very limited opportunities to interact with local women.


Even in a closed educational environment, we see the surprising paradox that women are, according to some accounts, actually more interested in learning languages than men are, but less likely to actually put them into practice, with studies of English learners in Turkey stating that female students were more likely to feel highly motivated to learn the language yet twice as likely to report anxiety when using it. Significantly, the same study also argues that female learners are more likely to study languages for ‘integrative’ purposes such as communication, whereas men tend to do so in order to meet a specific end goal such as work or study. But if women’s opportunities to communicate are limited, then their efforts to use a foreign language might be more likely to falter, and with that, their level of motivation for learning.


All of the above paints a gloomy picture, but for the female language learners among you, it’s worth bearing in mind that regardless of challenges, it can often still be possible for people of any gender and from any country to immerse themselves in a language and to admire the culture of the people who speak it. That said, being able to communicate with other people in everyday situations is arguably a large component of successfully using another language, and in some cases it’s essential for basic practical purposes. With that thought in mind, we’d argue that to some extent women’s ability to become fully confident in another language can sometimes be compromised by the different less and favourable expectations that they often face, regardless of the context they use that language in.


What can be done about this is a question for a whole other essay, but we’d like to hear some of your thoughts on this topic. If you agree with some or all of the points that we raised here, then would you say that it’s women’s responsibility to break through linguistic glass ceilings, or do you think society should be more accommodating of women, and quicker to take them more seriously? If you’ve successfully overcome a barrier to communication due to gender-related or other reasons, then how did you accomplish this? Please feel free to share any and all thoughts in the comments!



Mahfuzah Binti Rafek, Nur Hani Laily Bt Ramli, Halimatussaadiah Bt Iksan, Nurhazlin Mohd Harith, Athirah Izzah Bt Che Abas

Gender and Language: Communication Apprehension in Second Language Learning

Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences


Tonja Jacobi and Dylan Schweers

Female Supreme Court Justices Are Interrupted More by Male Justices and Advocates

Harvard Business Review


Benny Lewis

Girls vs guys and the dancing-monkey reason to learn a language

Fluent in 3 months


Gökhan Öztürk, Nurdan Gürbüz

The Impact of Gender on Foreign Language Speaking Anxiety and Motivation

Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences


Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

Speaking While Female

The New York Times


Susanna Zaraysky

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

Create Your World Books




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