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Gendered stereotypes of languages

A few days ago, I read about a study that a dating site conducted about languages. Since languages are at the heart of my career, I was pretty excited to learn that bilingualism is an attractive trait.

But I was surprised by a few things too — especially gender differences. Which languages were most attractive seems to depend on who’s speaking them — men or women.

The study has some limitations — we’ll have to roll with the two major ones. First of all, the study assumes that gender is binary. So does the site — as best I can tell from the signup page, they offer only “male” and “female” as gender options. And second, the study appears to be limited to heterosexuals. (See “a further note on research methods” if you’re interested in these concerns.)

Gender differences in languages

In order, the top four languages for men are German, Swedish, Dutch, and Norwegian. You can see one possible alternative explanation here: Americans like blondes, not bilinguals!

But the other six that round out the list challenge this stereotype: Italian, Portuguese, French, Japanese, Arabic, and Russian.

Meanwhile, although German tops the men’s list, it doesn’t appear on the list of sexy languages for women to speak at all. Nor does Japanese. But in their place, women get two other languages: Hebrew (#5) and Spanish (#6).

The differences have quite a bit to do with stereotypes in the way languages are portrayed. Think about the movies you’ve seen with German characters. What are those characters like? (Spoiler: real-life Germans aren’t terribly like what you see in American films.)

It’s probably unsurprising to you that movies reinforce stereotypes about different languages, but you may well never have thought about how tied those stereotypes are to gender (and often other demographics, like age and class). And that’s true for just about all languages — not only do we have stereotypes about their speakers, but we have stereotypes about particular subsets of speakers.

I realize this argument would be more compelling with examples, but talking about stereotypes tends to reinforce them. If you need one, though, let’s talk about Arabic, which is #2 for women but #9 for men. Go re-watch Aladdin: Arabic-speaking men are portrayed as barbarians and terrorists, while Arabic-speaking women are portrayed as, essentially, belly dancers. Is it any surprise that Arabic-speaking women are seen as incredibly attractive, and Arabic-speaking men less so?


A further note on research methods

I couldn’t find information about the study beyond this one article, but this article raises quite a number of methodological questions for me:

Why did they choose the sample they did?

  • The study was heteronormative, studying only messages between men and women. Why did they choose to limit their research in this way? N.B. I fully understand that you can’t do everything all at once — I’d just like to know the rationale behind the decisions that they made.
  • The study was US-only. There may have been further geographic constraints but I’m not aware of them.
  • The wording in the article makes it hard to tell if the people surveyed were a subset of those whose messages were studied, or if those two groups overlapped. I’d be curious to know which is the case and why.

Why are they defining gender the way they are?

  • The study — and indeed the entire PlentyofFish site — seems to assume gender is binary. I’ve never used the site, but the signup page seems to offer only “male” and “female” as gender options. That leaves out quite a lot of folks! (I also personally cringe any time I see a reference to the “opposite” sex or gender: even though I identify quite strongly as female, I don’t experience male as an “opposite” in any way.)

What does this actually tell us about learning a language?

  • Despite referring to “second languages” in the article, odds are at least some of the profiles referenced belonged to second-language speakers of English who spoke those other languages as a first language. As far as I know, dating sites don’t have a way to determine which of your languages is your first or second language — they just list which languages you speak and, perhaps, your level of fluency.
  • In other words, should we all go take Dutch and German classes? Quite likely not!
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7 thoughts on “Gendered stereotypes of languages

  1. Good morning Jena and thanks for the nice post. It would have been nice to have the external link to that study so we could read it too. Anyway not including LGBT people in this age seems so retrograde that I might not bother to read it anyway. A kiss and arrivederci!

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  2. I have one comment, Jenabi, All four of the languages, which you cite are referred by men, are Germanic ones. Perhaps the occasional guttural sounds of them turn the ladies of. And by the way, English is another Germanic language.

    Half of the on your list a female-preferred, are Romance (or Latin-based) Languages, and the other three denote exotic or, maybe, far-away. Maybe the ladies just want to get away from it; but, they might find that women are somewhat at a societal disadvantage in Japan, many Arabic-speaking ones, or in Russia,

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    • I’m a little confused by your point. After all, French, a Romance language, has more guttural and uvular sounds than Germanic languages. And all of these people live in the US…that was one of the inclusion criteria. So I’m not sure I follow you.

      It’s just my off-the-cuff thoughts on a research study whose methods I couldn’t find any information about, so I’m speculating. But I don’t see how your comments go against my argument…

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      • OK, forget the guttural. My point was really that the first group are all Germanic, and so is English. Half of the second are Romance, and perhaps that has an appeal to some women. The other three are not ones that many public school students have to choose; so, maybe that means that they are exotic…or thought to be.

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      • We can absolutely come up with lots and lots of stories about why some language or another is more appealing, and we aren’t going to be able to tell the answer from this data.

        But what’s interesting to me is still this question: why wouldn’t the same ones appeal to straight men as straight women? There’s something gendered happening here.

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