Are There Any Female Polyglots?

Are language learning gifts unequally distributed among men and women?

Posted Dec 19, 2017

Post written by Aneta Pavlenko.

A journalist recently asked me: “Are there any female polyglots?” It turned out that she hadn’t found any on the internet or YouTube and wanted to interview scholars about the relationship between gender and language learning success. In an earlier post, we defined polyglots as speakers of multiple languages who can be differentiated from multilinguals by the fact that they spend their time studying languages they do not need for everyday practical purposes (see here). Given this, it is true that the majority of well-known polyglots are men, including the celebrated philologists – Jean-François Champollion, Noah Webster, and Sir William Jones – and a dedicated traveler, Cardinal Mezzofanti.

Yet the reason for this is not the peculiarities of the female brain but the fact that for most of human history, women have been (and in some places still are) excluded from formal education and public life. In the past, only the highest born women were tutored similarly to their male peers and it is no surprise that the best-known female multilinguals are royalty, among them Cleopatra VII, Queen Emma (wife of Cnut the Great), Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Christina of Sweden and Empress Catherine the Great.

Less obvious is the fact that the accomplishments of less famous women have been traditionally less known. In the 17th century there existed a small pan-European community of learned women in France, England, Germany, Denmark, and Netherlands, all of whom had mastery of numerous languages, and corresponded in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, and French. At the heart of this women’s Republic of Letters was an extraordinary woman all of the others looked up to – the illustrious femme savante of Utrecht, Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678).

Brought up in Dutch and German, Anna Maria was a precocious child who learned to read the Bible by the age of three. At seven she began learning French and at eleven she listened in on her older brothers’ Latin lessons and volunteered correct answers before they did. Girls, at the time, were largely excluded from Latin learning but Anna Maria’s open-minded father decided to instruct his daughter in Latin and Greek in addition to French. By the age of 14, she penned poised verses and eloquent letters in Latin and corresponded with prominent poets and scholars. Her repertoire, however, was no different than that of her educated contemporaries. The chain of events that made her unique began with Latin verses she composed at the age of 29.

On March 16, 1636, the city fathers of Utrecht granted its gymnasium the status of a university. Anna Maria was among the poets invited to celebrate the occasion and she produced a poem in Dutch, an improvisation in French, and verses in Latin that bemoaned the exclusion of women from the world of education. These verses touched Gijsbert Voetius, a professor of theology, who allowed the exceptional young woman to enter the sacred halls (she was to listen to lectures in a curtain-covered booth in order not to distract male students).

Anna Maria's greatest interest was in theology but to understand the original texts she needed Semitic tongues and so she began to study Hebrew with Voetius, followed by Arabic, Aramaic and Syriac. She then surpassed her teacher by adding Ethiopian, Samaritan, and Persian, which she studied as an autodidact from books. And since no grammar of Ethiopian was available at the time, she produced one – in Latin.

The strategies Anna Maria used to master unfamiliar languages included the use of familiar texts, starting with the Bible; quotation and imitation (her Hebrew letters are liberally sprinkled with Bible passages); translation (to master Greek, she translated Homer, Pindar, and Greek tragedies); analysis of language structures and cross-linguistic similarities (hence, a Greek dictionary and her Ethiopian grammar, lost since), and versification.

With verses being a common response to daily events (the same role Facebooking and Tweeting serve today), it is no surprise that Anna Maria often communicated through poetry – the only difference between her and her contemporaries is that in addition to Dutch, she also composed poems in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, and French. She also had a unique learning strategy. A talented artist, she was greatly dedicated to calligraphy and once copied the whole Qur’an by hand. Among the most popular gifts she sent her numerous correspondents were sheets with beautiful calligraphic lines in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Samaritan, and Syrian.

Impressed by her accomplishments (that also included art and music), the Jesuits accompanying Queen Christina of Sweden on her visit to ‘the star of Utrecht’ suggested that perhaps Anna Maria had a spirit assisting her. The hostess replied quick-wittedly that it was the same spirit that made her live and breathe. The secret of her success in fourteen tongues (Dutch, German, French, Latin, Greek, English, Italian, Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Syrian, Samaritan, Persian, and Ethiopian) was neither magic nor gender but the combination of time, resources, tireless practice, dedication and unique receptiveness among the male professoriate of Utrecht University.

The idea that gender affects second language learning directly is one of the oldest chestnuts in the field, followed closely by the notion that the best language learners are musicians (see here). Decades of research attempting to link language learning success with gender or musical skills have always hit a brick wall. Whenever men – or women – are more successful as a group, the reasons are social, not psychological. And as to polyglots, the historic ones are still predominantly male – until we rediscover more women like Anna Maria van Schurman.

References

Larsen, A. (2016) Anna Maria van Schurman, ‘the star of Utrecht’: The educational vision and reception of a savante. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Van Beek, P. (2010) The first female university student: Anna Maria van Schurman (1636). Translated from Dutch by Bonthuys A.-M. & D. Ehlers, Utrecht: Igitur.