Languages that contain only “he” and “she” pronouns pose problems for communicating about gender identity. Here’s how some language teachers are helping.
Tal Janner-Klausner teaches Hebrew. The language presents a frustration that Janner-Klausner, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns in English, feels compelled to discuss with their students.
Hebrew—as well as French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and other languages—uses binary pronouns, which means that gender identities outside of he/she and male/female don’t exist in any formal capacity.
In Hebrew, even the word “they” is gendered. In French, “ils” refers to a group of men or a mixed-gender group, and “elles” refers to a group of all females. All nouns in gendered languages—including people—are categorized as either masculine or feminine, and any adjectives associated with these words must reflect that gender.
That presents a problem for students who are gender-nonconforming, and for the speakers of the language in general. Is it possible for learners of a gendered language to refer to themselves and others when their identities are not represented?
To get around it, Janner-Klausner, who teaches in Jerusalem, asks their students to refer to them using male and female pronouns interchangeably. “As well as wanting to feel comfortable myself, I do this so that they can be informed about genders outside of the binary,” they said.
English is not unique in the singular use of “they/them,” but many Romance languages, along with Hindi, Arabic, and Hebrew, use gender as the basis of their nouns. One norm that can frustrate language learners and speakers is the dominance of the masculine form, which is used as the default or standard.
Louis Moffa, who is nonbinary and uses “he” and “they” pronouns, is a teaching fellow in the Department of Italian at Columbia University. Italian is a gendered language with no equivalent to the English singular usage of they/them.
Moffa believes that the first step to overcoming gender binaries in Italian is to openly discuss how they appear in the language. “Being able to teach the gendered nature of Italian grammar has given me the opportunity to be more fully seen and understood by my students, because gender can never remain implicit or unquestioned in our classroom,” he said.
Kris Knisely, an assistant professor of French at the University of Arizona, starts off each semester by introducing students to a number of linguistic developments used by native French nonbinary speakers. For example, the forms of the plural “they” (“ils” and “elles“) are combined to create a new word: “iels.” Similarly, to refer to “them,” the masculine “eux” and the feminine “elles” become “elleux.”
“I’ve had students tell me that this is the first time they’ve felt like there’s a way for them to become an actual French speaker,” he said. “They can see that there’s space for them in this language,” Knisely said.
According to some teachers, language learning provides fertile ground for discussing the concept of gender both within and outside the language. As Janner-Klausner summarizes, it’s not just the gender binary that can be reconfigured through study.
“Language learning is the breaking down of a binary. You started off with a binary of familiar and foreign, and then you break it down,” they said. “What was foreign becomes familiar as you learn the language.”
Author: Lisbon, Molly
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