The role of gender in language learning is a thorny subject because of the danger of generalizing. As soon as you say that women or men are good at, or useless at, something you are entering dangerous territory. First of all there are always lots of exceptions and also, we don´t know how much we are being influenced by gender stereotyping, not only in the way we judge other people but also in the way we behave ourselves.
However, as a language teacher I have definitely found that more women than men sign up to classes and especially in the case of a couple, it is more often the woman who is prepared to stick at learning for longer and who is willing to have a go at communicating in Spanish while her husband loses interest or lets her do the speaking on his behalf. The interesting question is, why should this be? As I am not a professional psychologist or neurologist I will avoid those aspects of the answer and concentrate on a couple of things I have observed for myself.
Firstly, I think it’s reasonable to say that women are generally more communicative than men. This is something we all observe and may have read about in some of those trendy books on gender differences. Whatever the reasons are for this difference in everyday life, exactly the same is going to apply when learning a language. Language is not a science but a tool of communication. If you need something for a shop you can no doubt point to it and negotiate features and price without much Spanish, but some knowledge of the language will enable to you make more personal contact. That extra bit of chit-chat about the weather, the family or the reason for the purchase is part of a more personal communication which is often of more interest to women.
Secondly, I have often found the learning process itself tougher on men than on women. I have sometimes felt a ruffling of feathers from men when they have to admit ignorance or are being corrected. One explanation for this is that many of the men I have taught are used to being in control in their jobs and have often pursued a single profession all their lives. On the other hand, many women have either held more subsidiary working roles or have had to change their jobs more often to have children or move house because of their husband’s work. Consequently, women are often more flexible, more open to other ways of thinking and more willing to admit mistakes. This ability makes them better language learners.
There are so many more aspects to this fascinating subject, but hopefully these two observations go some way to answering the question, why it is that there are so many more women than men in language classes – not to mention workshops, choirs, theatre groups and voluntary organizations!