Teachers and students navigate gender neutrality in language classes – The Williams Record

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Many foreign languages ​​are grammatically gendered, a structure that poses challenges to gender inclusion efforts. (Ava Burr/The Williams Disc)

While the English language has begun to recognize the expansion of gender through the use of pronouns like the singular “they” and “them”, the College has made similar strides towards gender inclusion. In 2018, students’ pronouns became visible on their GLOW profiles, and in recent years, club and college sports have seen a shift towards gender expansion. However, in the classroom, teachers of languages ​​such as Spanish, French, Russian and Arabic have faced challenges integrating gender-neutral language due to the grammatical and gendered nature of these languages. the Disk spoke with teachers about how they tailor their lessons.

How are the languages (and don’t change)

Romance language teacher Leyla Rouhi explained how Spanish is evolving to include a gender-neutral language. Some Spanish speakers have started using the neuter pronouns “she” (singular) and “they” (plural), which replace the traditionally masculine and feminine suffixes “-o” and “-a” with the neuter alternative “-e” in nouns and adjectives. Spanish speakers around the world also face the failure to refer to a mixed masculine plural group, a common practice in Spanish.

Rouhi said she was happy to see how Spanish speakers in the College and beyond are confronting traditional rules of Spanish grammar to include gender-neutral language. “What’s great about Williams – and so many other places in Spain and Latin America and many other colleges and universities – is that we come up with very creative and very logical ways to solve this problem,” he said. she declared. “For example, a lot of us in the classroom don’t say ‘los amigos’ anymore. We would say “friends”.

Gabriel Fernández, Spanish Teaching Associate (TA), said they were proud of the growing inclusion of a gender-neutral language that has taken place in their home country of Argentina. According to Fernández, politicians began to use the gender-neutral word “todes” (“everyone”) in speeches, rather than the gendered terms “todos” or “todas”. Also, many books used in Argentine universities have started using gender-neutral language, they said. Fernández, who uses all the pronouns, said, “I’m really happy with all these things that are happening right now…I’m not invisible anymore.”

Similar progress has been made in French with the use of neuter pronouns, such as the subject pronouns “iel” (singular) and “iels” (plural). Robertone of the main French dictionaries recognized these non-gendered pronouns last November.

Katarzyna Pieprzak, professor of Francophone Literature, French Language and Comparative Literature and holder of the Chair of Arabic Studies, explained that a range of inclusive language options in French are being actively developed. “There are also new words forming,” she said. “For example, if you want to say ‘cousin’, you can say ‘cousin’, which is masculine, or ‘cousin'” [which is feminine] – and then there is a new one [gender-neutral] word that would be “cousin”.

However, these are ongoing developments, many of which have been questioned. “There are people who say adding anything to the language is kind of destroying it,” Pieprzak said.

For example, linguistic institutions such as the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE) and the French Academy, responsible for standardizing their respective languages, have not recognized gender-neutral terminology. The RAE’s Spanish style guide, which was published in 2018, rejects “todos y todas”, “todes”, “todxs” and “[email protected]as alternatives to the masculine “todos”.

And some languages ​​have seen virtually no change. According to assistant professor of Russian Olga Kim, many Russian-speaking countries have yet to introduce gender-neutral language. “[Nonbinary pronouns are] still not officially adopted in Russian, and most people won’t understand if you refer to non-binary pronouns,” Kim said.

Associate Professor of Arabic Studies Lama Nassif described how Arabic has remained a strongly gendered language, explaining that any modification of Modern Standard Arabic – which, along with Classical (or Quranic) Arabic, is called “the formal Arabic” by Arabic speakers – would have implications beyond the linguistic realm. “Modern Standard Arabic has important indexical meanings,” she wrote in an email to Disk. “It is a descendant of Classical Arabic, the language of the Quran, and is considered a symbol of Pan-Arabism as the official language of all Arab countries and a link to a rich heritage. The changes could involve ideological challenges , political and religious.

In the Chinese Department, College teachers do not have to take gender into account like other language departments do, since gender does not play a significant grammatical role in the languages ​​they teach. “That being said, it doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges in our daily classroom teaching,” Asian Languages, Literatures and Cultures chair and Chinese teacher Li Yu wrote in an email to Disk. “Traditional Chinese culture is still very attached to [the] binary gender and the heterosexual norm.

How are the teachers including sex neutral language

Former assistant French professor Cécile Tresfels hosted a discussion last year about including gender-neutral language in all departments at the Center for Foreign Languages, Literatures and Cultures, according to Pieprzak. This reflects an increased awareness of gender inclusion in language classes, Pieprzak explained.

“We don’t have formal, strict guidelines in place at the moment,” Rouhi said. “However, my sense from all of my colleagues is that most, if not all, of us are doing everything we can to create an inclusive and gender-nonbinary sensitive environment.”

Pieprzak said she also looked at developments in French-speaking countries to inform her approach to gender inclusion. “There are queer and feminist communities that have done a lot of work in French-speaking countries to advance the use and recognition of neutral pronouns,” she said. “They did all this work and, as a French teacher, I try to learn from them.”

Pieprzak and her colleagues introduced the gender-neutral pronoun “iel” from introductory French classes, she said. “Whether or not we have students who use neutral pronouns, it’s just important that all of our students know the right words, address people with respect, and recognize their identity,” she said. “Our textbook doesn’t do that, and so what we did is we introduce the pronouns with the textbook.”

Visiting Assistant Professor of Spanish Carolina Melgarejo-Torres, who is currently researching the ways in which non-binary language options are becoming available in Spanish, also identified challenges posed by limited educational resources that address gender neutrality in Spanish. “We work with grammar books that are very prescriptive in that regard, probably because they’re old books or they’re not as recent as the phenomenon,” she said.

Nikolai Wolfe ’24, a Spanish 104 student who uses the pronouns they/them, also recognized the tricky position language teachers find themselves in. at the top of how we reinvent a language to accommodate people with neutral pronouns,” they said. “They’ve done a good job of doing both…and they’ve also been pretty good at giving us terms that aren’t traditional, like ‘chosen family’, ‘non-binary’ – those kinds of terms. I think the teaching assistants have been the main source of that, because they structure their classes specifically around those kinds of topics. »

According to Fernández, Melgarejo-Torres encouraged teaching assistants to plan lessons that would explain changes in the language and promote the use of gender-inclusive terms. As an activity during one of his sessions, Fernández said he gave a political speech that was all in generic masculine and asked the students to change it to gender-neutral language.

Melgarejo-Torres also teaches her students about historical opposition to changes to the Spanish language, she said. “We talked about how in Spanish, for example, there were certain factors – social factors, institutional factors – that created a very rigid perspective on the language because it was tied to the monarchy, and there was this idea of ​​purism around language that was hailed by academia and still prevails,” she said. “It is very important that students understand both that language changes, that language has always changed…and, on the other hand, that there will always be opposition to these changes.”

Discussing the issue of gender inclusion in language, Melgarejo-Torres stressed that it is important to recognize that the College is privileged to consider these issues when many other places do not. “There are other sectors of society that just don’t have the resources or the context to discuss this and consider whether language should be inclusive, mainly because they face other huge issues in their [daily] life and they just don’t have the intellectual resources around them to have that discussion,” she said. “So it’s very important to give an overview of the phenomenon.”

For languages ​​like Arabic and Russian that have not seen significant shifts towards gender inclusion, teachers have adapted in their own way. If Nassif has a non-binary student in her class, she informs them of the possibility of using the plural pronoun, she said.

Kim also chooses to use plural pronouns to replace gender-neutral ones in her classes, as they maintain gender neutrality without breaking existing grammatical rules or creating new suffixes that don’t exist in the Russian language, said she declared. However, creating new norms in the classroom that do not exist elsewhere can raise its own issues. “When you teach here in the West, we adopt something as an alternative, but then when [students] actually go to the target country, they will not be understood,” Kim said. “That’s also a problem.”

take steps towards more inclusiveness and the comprehension

Despite difficulties and opposition, the College’s professors, students and foreign language teaching assistants agree that gender in languages ​​needs to be questioned and discussed. “You have to consider that language is rooting all of these inequalities and hierarchies,” Kim said. “Language is not fixed and eternal.”

April Owens ’24, a student currently taking RLSP 104, said she believes language should reflect society’s values ​​and changing views on gender. “I think it’s really important that the language keeps up with the times,” she said. “The way we use language has a very powerful effect on how we think and how we see the world.”


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