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How we all benefit when women are multilingual

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Today's guest post is from Susanna, author of Language is Music, who speaks seven languages and promotes learning languages with music and the media. Susanna and I made a multilingual video together in San Francisco and she also wrote a previous guest post here about listening techniques and how to use songs to learn languages.

Below is the video of a call Susanna organized with fellow female polyglots Jana Fadness (also a travelling language learning blogger) and Fasulye to discuss how to encourage more women to show their languages on the Internet, and it's followed by her guest post about the multiplier effect of women learning and speaking foreign languages, to celebrate International Women's Day. Take it away Susanna!

Today is International Women’s Day and I am writing about why women need to be multilingual and why women should show their language skills. If you are male and are about to click away from this page because you think this is a “chick” article just for a female audience, please reconsider.

Men and women both benefit when women are multilingual.

Multiplier effect of educating women in foreign languages

When women speak more than one language, not only do they have more employment opportunities, therefore raising family incomes, but their children (both male and female) are more likely to speak another language. In general, mothers spend more time educating their children than fathers do. Educate a woman and you educate a family or group of people.

For those of you who are learning a language as an adult and grew up in a monolingual family, do you wish your mom could have sung lullabies to you in a foreign language and taught you the sounds early-on so that you wouldn’t have to struggle with it as an adult?

Even women who don’t have children are more likely to be involved in raising siblings’ children than men are. A multilingual aunt, cousin or other relative could serve as a role model and motivator for children to learn languages. My nephew and niece have no choice about whether they want to learn a language or not, they’re stuck with me as their Auntie!

It’s not that educating males in foreign languages is not important, it is. The point is that there’s a serious multiplier effect when women are educated that doesn’t occur in the same degree when men receive the same education.

The impact of the bedtime story or poems in a foreign language

My maternal grandmother, whom I never met, was a German language teacher in Leningrad, Russia. After the Nazi siege of Leningrad was over, my grandmother returned from evacuation in the Ural Mountains to her city with her two young children, my mom and aunt. Many of Leningrad’s inhabitants, including my grandmother’s close relatives, had died of starvation while the Nazis blockaded the city.

The German language was obviously not a popular language to study after World War II in the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, my grandmother read the poems of Goethe and other German poets in German to my mom and her sister before the girls went to bed.

She wanted my mom and aunt to appreciate the beauty of the language despite politics and the horrors of the war. Though my mom and aunt went on to study English and French, respectively, they still fondly remember the verses of Goethe and how beautiful they sounded in German. My mom often reminds me of her mother reading to her as a child in German and how my mom learned to differentiate the German language from the Nazi regime and World War II.

A parent reading to a child in a foreign language can have a lasting impact, reaching to future generations.

We need more female polyglot role models

There’s a gap between the amount of female language learners and public female polyglots.

Most of the foreign language teachers I’ve met worldwide are women. Many language students are women. I think there are many more multilingual females out there who are not public about their language skills.

Why do we need female multilingual role models?

We need women to show their language skills publicly for girls and women who are studying languages to see that how gaining fluency in their languages can benefit them professionally and personally.

Polyglot women are powerful, but underrated

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, www.art.com

When you hear the name Cleopatra, do you think of a lascivious Elizabeth Taylor seducing Richard Burton?

Or do you think of her as a polyglot ruler who spoke nine languages (Egyptian, Greek, Latin, Syrian, Arabic, Persian, Aramaic, Hebrew and Troglodyte, an Ethiopian tongue) which she used to her benefit as she ruled over Egypt?

Don’t be embarrassed if Elizabeth Taylor’s seductress role comes to mind. Unfortunately, powerful and women are often characterized by their looks and personal romantic relationships rather than for their intellectual and professional merits, especially by Hollywood.

“it is true she [Cleopatra] was the only Ptolemy ever to learn to speak Egyptian, and she was one of the few members of her family able to converse with neighboring dignitaries in their own tongue. Her language skills made her useful in political discussions. It also earned her the respect and affection of the Egyptian people living outside of the Greek influence of Alexandria.”

Cleopatra: Egypt's Last and Greatest Queen by Susan Blackaby

Luckily, things have improved since the Cleopatra movie, but female polyglots are still underrepresented in the public sphere.

Madeleine Albright: www.smithsonianmag.com

When Madeleine Albright became the first female Secretary of State (Minister of Foreign Affairs) in the US, the American media often mentioned that she speaks at least five languages. What the media failed to point out is that several of her male predecessors didn’t speak any foreign tongues. My hunch is that she would not have been taken as seriously as the first female Secretary of State if she were not so well versed in foreign languages.

There are many more famous women who speak foreign languages and I won’t go into detail about all of them.

Foreign language skills, especially in English speaking countries, are not well valued. But if women don’t showcase their languages at work, they may get passed up for raises because their bosses may not see how important having a multilingual person on staff is for the organization.

Foreign language skills can get you a job

Let’s switch from politics to economics. I see foreign language skills as one of the ways for women to bridge the salary gap between men and women.

In my experience, women are more apt to be humble about their language levels while men might be more prone to say they can speak a language even if they are not conversation or fluent.

If this is your case,  you need to step up and be counted. If you know that you really can speak X language, but you need to brush up on vocabulary and grammar rules, then dust off those textbooks, get a language learning podcast, practice it with people or do whatever it takes to feel confident in saying you can speak another language because your chances of getting a job increase.

On January 30, 2012, I did an interview on the BBC
about why the United Kingdom is losing $11-26 billion a year in revenue because of the lack of foreign language speakers in the country. In 2004, the government of the UK took away foreign language requirements for graduation and enrollment in foreign languages classes went down. There may be a higher value placed on an employee who is multilingual because he/she is such a rarity.

Language jobs aren’t all low-wage

There’s this idea that multilingual women get typecast into low-wage jobs in education and translation. You can use your language skills in all sorts of professions. Doctors in California have an easier time getting a job if they speak an in-demand language. Engineers may work on international projects requiring their language and cultural knowledge.

You’re not bragging, you’re inspiring and gaining respect!

Michael Erard, in his recent book on hyperpolyglots, Babel no More, shows that the vast majority of the active You Tube polyglots are mal,e as are the language bloggers and participants of a popular language learning forum, which has a competitive quality to them, perhaps detracting female participants who are not keen on bragging and competing about their languages.

You might think that telling people that you speak another language is bravado but think of yourself as a role model. If you were unemployed for five months and then got a job because you can speak Japanese, you are not bragging if you admit this. You may motivate other people to improve their language skills or to pick up a new language, especially if they are hungry to get a job.

If posting videos of yourself speaking in different languages doesn’t appeal to you, then write a blog about how you use your languages, encourage your friends to learn languages, organize events like dinner parties or foreign movie nights with friends where you speak in another language. I once had a poetry night when everyone had to read poetry in various languages and the English translation. We all had a lot of fun! Both men and women declaimed poetry around the dinner table. Everyone agreed that hearing the original poems were much better than the English translations even if we couldn’t understand the original language.


Beyond political power and money, there’s the basic element of safety. The more languages a woman can speak, the safer she is when abroad and in her own country.

In November and December 2011, I wrote two blog posts on female sex trafficking in Eastern Europe, and bride kidnapping in Central Asia and how speaking another language, particularly English, could liberate women who would otherwise be shackled to brothels or unwanted marriages.

In the movie The Whistleblower, some of the abducted and abused sex slaves from the former Soviet Union spoke in English to the US police officer in Bosnia played by Rachel Weisz. This is fiction. In reality, trafficked women most likely don’t speak such good English. If they did, they would have had more of a chance to escape because they would feel confident that if they got away from the brothels, they’d be able to communicate. I know for a fact that the safe houses in Bosnia for trafficked women from the former Soviet Union needed a Russian interpreter because I was either asked to volunteer or I offered my services to interpret from Russian to English for these women and girls.

When I was in Kyrgyzstan giving presentations about learning languages via music for the US Embassy, I learned of bride kidnapping where men can literally kidnap a woman who he wants to make her bride and it is almost impossible for her to refuse. The upside to a woman being educated, is that she is less attractive to a potential kidnapper/suitor as he may be overwhelmed by her language knowledge and think that she’ll find a way to escape or get a job abroad.

Please pass on this post on to women you know who are multilingual or who keep on wanting to learn a foreign language but always have an excuse not to pursue their goal.

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Guest Writer at Fi3M

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Speaks: Various languages

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