October 27, 2021

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Lesson of the Day: ‘How Language Classes Are Moving Past the Gender Binary’

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Featured Article: “How Language Classes Are Moving Past the Gender Binary” by Molly Lipson

Many languages, including Hebrew, French, Spanish, Italian and Arabic, use binary pronouns, such as he/she and male/female, which means that other gender identities are not formally acknowledged in those languages.

In this lesson, you will learn about teachers who are finding ways to make expressing gender identity across languages more inclusive. Then, you will see what gender-neutral pronouns and vocabulary are available in a language you are learning.

Do you speak, or have you ever studied, a romance language like Spanish, French or Italian? How about Hindi, Arabic or Hebrew?

If so, you know that all of them use gender as the basis of their nouns — and the masculine form is the standard.

So, for example, the masculine “todos,” which means “everybody,” is used in Spanish to address people in a group regardless of their genders at events like conferences or in official speeches. And the presence of even one man in an otherwise female group tends to consign the gender of that group to the masculine.

Have you ever noticed this? Does it bother you? It is just one issue you will read about in this article.

In the language, or languages, you speak, what pronouns exist? In your opinion, how inclusive is that language to people who identify both within and beyond the gender binary? Why?

Before you read the article, if you would like to better understand some of the terms you’ll find there, have a look at this list of “The ABCs of L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+” about the language used to discuss gender identity and sexuality.

Then read the article, and answer the following questions:

1. How does Tal Janner-Klausner address the fact that Hebrew is a language with binary pronouns? How do they bring this conversation into their classroom?

2. “As societies that speak gendered languages have become more open to nonconforming identities, native speakers have crafted mechanisms for removing or avoiding the gendered element of words,” the author of this piece writes. But the curriculum of language classes often lag behind. Why might that be? Have you ever encountered issues like this in the language classes you have taken?

3. What is the history of the pronouns they and them referring to in the third-person singular in English? Do you, or do others you know, use they/them pronouns? Do the communities you are a part of generally accept these pronouns?

4. How does masculinity dominate many languages? What is your reaction to masculine being the default in many languages when addressing groups of people, even when there is only one male in the group?

5. How did Louis Moffa’s understanding of his gender identity evolve while learning Italian? How does Mx. Moffa approach this in a language-learning environment?

6. What are some of the linguistic developments Kris Knisely has introduced to his French students, and what effects have those teachings had on them?

7. What is your reaction to Agnes M.’s experience in Spanish class? What do you think their Spanish teacher could do to ensure they’re fully able to express themself in the classroom?

8. Finally, now that you have read this piece, what do you think? How important is it for teachers to introduce their students to gender-neutral or gender-inclusive vocabulary in language-learning classes? What examples from the article do you think offer the best ways to do this?

Have you always felt you’ve easily been able to express your gender identity in all of the languages you speak or are learning? How well have your language teachers navigated gender-neutral or inclusive vocabulary?

If this article is right and the curriculum of language classes is lagging behind the way native speakers are navigating gendered words and phrases, maybe, with a little research, you can help.

First, choose a language, whether one you are studying in school or one you are speaking at home. Then, research its use of gendered language, as well as learning about any new developments that native speakers have made in using gender-neutral pronouns or other kinds of inclusive language. (To start, you might check out these guides and videos in French, Hebrew and Spanish. To find more languages, you can search online for “gender neutral pronouns” in a specific language, or do a keyword search on TikTok or Instagram. If possible, you might also consider interviewing native speakers of that language.)

Then, make a list of several suggested ways of updating the curriculum to include more gender-inclusive language. If you are doing this as part of a language class, you might then share your findings with your fellow students and your teacher, and decide together which to adopt for your classroom.


Learn more about Lesson of the Day here and find all of our daily lessons in this column.

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