Men Learn German, Women Learn Dutch?

A piece by Rick Noack in the Washington Post leads off with an intriguing question:

Do men and women prefer to learn different languages?

A new survey by the language learning site Babbel has come to surprising conclusions. “Our data shows that men have a bias towards learning German, Portuguese and Russian, whereas women seem to choose Dutch, French, Italian and Spanish,” Thomas Holl, the company’s co-founder and president, explained in an email. The survey is based on data provided by Babbel’s 1 million customers from around the world — the majority being based in Europe and North America.

While some of the differences might seem insignificant, some stood out. “We were surprised to see the differences between German and Dutch,” Holl said. “Despite the similar structure and shared roots of the two languages, women tend to prefer learning Dutch and men are more likely to choose learning German,” he explained.

There’s also discussion of “a recent study by Education First, an international education company, which showed that girls largely outperformed boys in learning English as a non-native language,” as well as various graphs; it’s probably overblown, but I pass it on for what it’s worth. Thanks, Eric!


  1. J. W. Brewer says

    This seems totally meaningless unless at a minimum you can see how the male/female split does or doesn’t correlate with other factors (like country of residence and L1, for starters). And even then you’d be stuck with the problem that there is absolutely no reason to assume that “Babbel’s 1 million customers from around the world” are a good statistical proxy for the total universe of actual or potential L2 learners. But it’s certainly a good way to get free publicity for a “language learning site” I’d never previously heard of. And I assume that was the entire point of the exercise.

    My older daughter’s Latin class this year fwiw seems to have only two or three boys in it (out of somewhere between 15 and 20 total students) But I’m assuming that’s a weird fluke that doesn’t scale up even to the total U.S. population of 9th graders, rather than a sign of the impending collapse of civilization.

  2. I don’t know of anyone who wanted to learn Dutch – no disrespect to the Dutch intended.

  3. J.W. Brewer, your daughter’s class does not consist of 1 mil. people. There’s strength in numbers. Having said that, the article doesn’t strike me as well researched enough to give it any significance.

  4. And while I am at it, let me gently criticize our host himself. You sorta did what the headline writers are often accused of, taking a piece of writing and inventing a catchy title not supported by what is written below. From the link it is clear that much more women are interested in studying German (using that website) than Dutch.

  5. J. W. Brewer says

    I’m going to cut and paste something I put in an old Language Log comment thread since that’s easier than googling up the underlying source.

    “The record producer Steve Albini circa 1991, describing an interaction with a writer for a Dutch music magazine:

    He asked me why Americans have such a low opinion of the Dutch. I told him that Americans seldom even thought of the Dutch, except for their elm disease, which we thought highly of.”

    Now, things may be a bit different elsewhere, but one of many weirdnesses of the data in the linked story is that while German is more popular than Dutch (for both sexes) it’s apparently not even an order of magnitude more popular. The latest MLA stats as of a few years ago have about 87,000 U.S. students studying German at the university level compared to less than 400 studying Dutch. And I don’t think we’re an unusually Netherlandophobic nation. Outside of maybe Wallonia where in the non-Dutch-speaking world would one plausibly expect there to be even 5%-10% as many would-be Dutch learners as German learners?

    Well, one place where German is not a particularly popular choice as a foreign language to study would be . . . (drum roll) Germany. And Babbel appears to be headquartered in Berlin. While they may have online customers “based in Europe and North America,” if their customer base is overweighted with L1 German-speakers that’s going to create rather a lot of distortions in any comparisons involving German-as-an-L2.

  6. @zyxt: In a different world, so to speak, I think I’d be interested in learning Dutch – but I always hear that it’s impossible to put it to use, since almost any batavophone that you encounter is going to want to practice their English with you. Every now and then I am tempted, but then I remind myself that I’d be much better served improving my German instead.

  7. Jim (another one) says

    “I don’t know of anyone who wanted to learn Dutch – no disrespect to the Dutch intended.”

    They don’t mind; they feel the same way. It has gotten close to impossible to get a university level education using only texts in Dutch.

  8. I have always considered Dutch worth learning for Huyzinga and for Huyzinga alone, but I’m very biased in this respect.

  9. why Americans have such a low opinion of the Dutch

    I should think that that refers to Dutch anchor ‘useless object’, double Dutch ‘gibberish’, in dutch ‘in trouble’, do a Dutch ‘desert, escape, commit suicide’, Dutch nightingale ‘frog’, Dutch wife ‘bolster’ or ‘sex doll’, Dutch bargain ‘a deal made while drunk’, Dutch comfort ‘it’s a comfort it was no worse’, Dutch concert ‘several tunes played at once’, Dutch courage ‘courage inspired by alcohol’, Dutch uncle ‘one who speaks harshly’, Dutch widow ‘prostitute’, Dutch treat ‘each pays for himself’. Some were coined in 17C England, others in 18-19C America.


    An Indo-Europeanist, according to WP.en, before he wrote his most famous works.

  10. Wow! Seems that everyone knew historical linguistics pretty well back in those days. I remember once picking up some Marc Bloch, and being pleasantly surprised by his very competent treatment of the vocalism in the word culvert.

  11. @JC: To what extent were those coinages referring to the Dutch or to the Germans?

  12. I went to the Netherlands last month, as an outside member of a Ph.D. student’s thesis committee. I have never been to a non-Anglophone country where I had an easier time communicating with people. While I speak okay German, I have had occasional difficulties in Germany, but there were none during my time in the Netherlands. Of course, while I don’t speak Dutch, I found I could often read it pretty easily (since it seemed to be halfway between German and English). More important, though, was that absolutely everybody spoke English, and if people got any sense that you were a foreigner, they would just talk to you in English; in the shops, people would often ask me if I needed help in English first, without even bothering to try Dutch. About the only conversation I was part of that had a lot of Dutch was the student’s thesis defense.

  13. D.O. And while I am at it, let me gently criticize our host himself. You sorta did what the headline writers are often accused of, taking a piece of writing and inventing a catchy title not supported by what is written below.

    In defence of our host, it should be noted that there is a very, very expressive question mark at the end of the title, its scepticism borne out by the statistic from the article that the percentages of users learning Dutch is 2.6% for women and 2.3% for men, a less than significant difference. (How many of those women were buying Babbel courses for/with their male partners/sons/fathers etc?)

    I’m impressed by the survey’s conclusion that “among the survey’s most gender-neutral languages were Danish, English, Indonesian, Norwegian and Polish.” It’s high time the world acknowledged the close cultural affiliations between those languages.

  14. Squiffy-Marie von Bladet says

    I have put much more time and effort into Duolingo’s German lessons than I ever did with their Dutch ones. This entirely fails to reflect my linguistic competences, unless you read it as meaning that my German needs a lot more work before it is any use at all.

  15. January First-of-May says

    My university department’s French class had about 80% girls in it. This was especially striking when compared to the full class (or whatever the correct English word is), which was, in that particular year, about 80% boys (other years were more even).

    There was a simple, prosaic reason, though: the French class occurred at the same time as the military training (or however one calls the военная кафедра). So the only ones who went for French were those exempt from military training – that is to say, the girls, and the few boys exempt for non-gender reasons (in my case, extreme short-sightedness).

    I apparently sucked at French, and finished that class with the equivalent of a D mark, but that’s another story.

  16. Anecdotally, at my university, at least, Italian and French classes tended to be female dominated. Russian and German tended to have more men. The reasons seemed pretty obvious – Italian and French were associated with stereotypically “female” interests – design, style, food, while Russian and German were associated with more “male” interests – engineering, science, military history, etc. Other than Dutch, those results match my presumably outdated 1980s era gender stereotypes suspiciously well.

  17. David Marjanović says

    My older daughter’s Latin class this year fwiw seems to have only two or three boys in it (out of somewhere between 15 and 20 total students) But I’m assuming that’s a weird fluke that doesn’t scale up even to the total U.S. population of 9th graders, rather than a sign of the impending collapse of civilization.

    It does, however, fit the fact that American misogynists are increasingly deciding that education is for girls. (After all, they can no longer pretend that men are naturally smarter – there are simply too many counterexamples now.) Men are only allowed, in this worldview, to do manual labor anymore, to go to war, and to vote for Trump.

  18. I’ve got a friend whose first language is Russian but married into a Dutch speaking family in Belgium and has now got very good Dutch, along with great English and better German than I am able to judge. Anyway, she was saying a couple of days ago that she prefers Dutch to either English or German because she finds it more expressive. One thing she mentioned was fun with diminutive suffixes in (Flemish?) Dutch, but it sounded like there was more than that to it. Thought I’d share here and see if resonates with anyone.

  19. In defence of our host, it should be noted that there is a very, very expressive question mark at the end of the title

    Thank you! I was well aware that the post is basically lazy clickbait, but sometimes I don’t have the time or energy to do a well-thought-out post involving actual research. I was hoping it would at least provoke an interesting discussion, which it has!

  20. Obligatory quote:

    “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.”

    Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

    He didn’t mention Dutch, even though he probably was a native Dutch speaker

  21. “… and Dutch to my mama and papa”? That would be pretty anticlimactic.

  22. In my own experience as a teacher of French in anglophone Canada and the U.S.A. I have noticed not only that female students heavily outnumber male students (typical gender ratio: 75-80% female/ 20-25% male), but also that male students, on average, are academically much, MUCH weaker than their female fellow students, for written and oral assignments alike. Anecdotally, the same two realities seemed to be found in the classrooms of colleagues who taught other languages.

    Interestingly, whenever/wherever I taught linguistics, there was less of a female majority (about 60% female/40% male, on average) but there too the female students definitely outperformed their male peers academically.

    My (earlier) experience as a student of languages and linguistics in Quebec was slightly different: while there were more female than male fellow students in all the language and linguistics courses I took, both sexes seemed academically comparable, on average.

  23. “a very, very expressive question mark” — see Betteridge

  24. J. W. Brewer says

    In our particular school system the student body as a whole is not notably overweight one sex or the other and all students are required to take some foreign language, so if some language is overweight girls another would have to be overweight boys. But they don’t offer German or Russian or any other language where you could tell a masculine-stereotypes story, really. The program was all-Romance (French/Spanish/Italian/Latin) until this year when (cliche alert) they added Mandarin. So I would think Latin would be as stereotypically boy-oriented a language as you could find out of that menu. But there’s more than one section of Latin per grade and I suspect my daughter’s may have ended up unusually imbalanced for some contingent reason that doesn’t even scale up to the school as a whole, much less the country as a whole. Her younger sister is starting French this year, but if she’s said anything about the sex ratio in the class I’ve forgotten what it was.

    The high school in the next town over is built in a Flemish-Renaissance-Revival sort of style, at a time a century or so ago when there was nostalgia for the Dutch colonial roots of the NYC area. But I would be surprised if a non-zero number of high schools in the area actually included Dutch in their foreign-language curricular offerings.

  25. @SFReader: He spoke Spanish to God? But I thought God is an Englishman, and the English are notoriously monolingual. I bet most of his prayers were unanswered.

  26. longer version of the anecdote goes like this:

    Alius vero, qui Germanus erat, retulit, eundem Carolum Quintum dicere aliquando solitum esse; Si loqui cum Deo oporteret, se Hispanice locuturum, quod lingua Hispanorum gravitatem maiestatemque prae se ferat; si cum amicis, Italice, quod Italorum dialectus familiaris sit; si cui blandiendum esset, Gallice, quod illorum lingua nihil blandius; si cui minandum aut asperius loquendum, Germanice, quod tota eorum lingua minax, aspera sit ac vehemens
    (Indeed another, who was German, related that the same Charles V sometimes used to say: if it was necessary to talk with God, that he would talk in Spanish, which language suggests itself for the graveness and majesty of the Spaniards; if with friends, in Italian, for the dialect of the Italians was one of familiarity; if to caress someone, in French, for no language is tenderer than theirs; if to threaten someone or to speak harshly to them, in German, for their entire language is threatening, rough and vehement”).

    Yes, Spanish does have ‘gravitatem maiestatemque’, but it is description of German which I like best – “lingua minax, aspera sit ac vehemens”

  27. Christian Wilster (1797-1840) in his eulogy to Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754), describing the status quo ante:

    Hver Mand, som med Kløgt gik i Lærdom til Bund,
    Latin paa Papiret kun malte,
    med Fruerne Fransk, og Tydsk med sin Hund
    og Dansk med sin Tjener han talte.

    Hunting dogs were expensive imports trained in German, while manservants were native bred.

  28. David Marjanović says

    He didn’t mention Dutch, even though he probably was a native Dutch speaker

    Quite probably he counted it as German.

  29. @SFReader: He didn’t mention Dutch, even though he probably was a native Dutch speaker

    Perhaps it has something to do with this (from Wikipedia):

    The Dutch language has been known under a variety of names. In Middle Dutch, which was a collection of dialects, dietsc was used in Flanders and Brabant, while diets or duutsc was in use in the Northern Netherlands. It derived from the Old Germanic word theudisk, one of the first names ever used for the non-Romance languages of Western Europe, meaning (pertaining to the language) of the people, that is, the native Germanic language.

    Until roughly the 16th century, speakers of all the varieties of the West Germanic languages from the mouth of the Rhine to the Alps had been accustomed to refer to their native speech as Dietsch, (Neder)duyts or some other cognate of theudisk. This let inevitably to confusion since similar terms referred to different languages. Therefore, in the 16th century, a differentiation took place. Owing to Dutch commercial and colonial rivalry in the 16th and 17th centuries, the English term came to refer exclusively to the Dutch.

    In Dutch itself, Diets went out of common use – although Platdiets is still used for the transitional Limburgish-Ripuarian dialects in the north-east of Belgium. Nederlands, the official Dutch word for “Dutch”, did not become firmly established until the 19th century. This designation had been in use as far back as the end of the 15th century, but received competition from the more popular terminology Nederduits, “Low Dutch”, for several reasons. One of them was it reflected a distinction with Hoogduits, “High Dutch”, meaning the language spoken in Germany. The Hoog was later dropped, and thus, Duits narrowed down in meaning to refer to the German language.

    Charles V’s dates are 1500-1558.

  30. One more data point: when I taught Latin at Alabama-Tuscaloosa years ago, one of the Romance language professors was surprised that my classes were roughly 50-50 male-female. Apparently, French was heavily female and Spanish correspondingly male – both by more than 2-1. I don’t recall now which way he was assuming Latin would tilt: female, I think. It did seem that a lot of the difference was in the cultural background: “Camembert, Beaujolais, Grand Marnier, haute couture, parfumerie” vs “macho, nacho, tequila, enchilada, guacamole, Cancún, Dos Equis”. I think the main driver was that frat boys thought French was effeminate.

  31. AJP Crown says

    Molly: “a very, very expressive question mark” — see Betteridge

    Thanks, Molly. Nothing to do with the Dutch, but from there I reached this wikipage.

  32. Quite a cornucopia! And from there I reached this:

    Jaan Einasto (born 23 February 1929, in Tartu) is an Estonian astrophysicist and one of the discoverers of the large-scale structure of the Universe. He is a patriotic Estonian; the name “Einasto” is an anagram of “Estonia” (it was chosen by his patriotic father in the 1930s to replace the family’s German name).

  33. AJP Crown says

    I thought you’d find something!

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