Spell Inclusivity: World Language
BY N. RAZBAN '23
When looking at gender neutral language—language that does not fall into the binary masculine or feminine—it has a long history in the English language; the use of the pronoun “they” to refer to one person has been around for over 600 years. However, gendered languages, such as French and Spanish, do not have a pre-existing neutral pronoun, and as a result, do not have gender-neutrality built into the language. Considering this, how have the French and Spanish teachers at AB ensured that their students’ identities and the language’s history co-exist in a mutually respectful way? How do world language students who use gender-neutral language for themselves experience these classes? AB Students and world language teachers brought light to this through their personal experiences and department-wide initiatives.
French is gendered both in its lack of neutral pronouns and descriptive words being spelled differently depending on the gender of what it is describing. There has been initiative to add a neutral pronoun, and the most widespread and accepted version is “iel” which is a mix of the feminine “elle” and the masculine “il.” In 2021, a French online dictionary added the term to its website, though the term has not yet been accepted into the French Academy which deals with all matters pertaining to the French language.
Spanish does not have an official "keeper of the language" as French does; instead, it has an academy which observes and notes the changes in language rather than dictating them. Like French, Spanish also uses gendered pronouns and nouns, making it nearly impossible to avoid gendering something or someone in the binary sense; however, the neutral pronoun "elle," a middle ground between the feminine “ella” and the masculine “el,” has gained popularity. With it comes a new subject-adjective agreement: instead of putting an “a” or an “o” for feminine of masculine endings respectively, one uses an “e.” Elle is widely known within the Spanish speaking world, but acceptance of it varies wildly between generations and the openness of a given location, such as cities versus rural areas.
Echoed through all of the AB students who spoke on this subject is the importance of making world language students aware of these evolution in the language, as well as the discussion and backlash it receives. It doesn’t need to be perfect, they explained, but so many people will never know about these alternatives to binary language if they are not taught in class. As explained by an interviewed student, they felt they couldn't use neutral language because the rest of their class had not been taught it, and therefore they wouldn’t know how to use it. One student, for instance, described how being constantly misgendered, or being referred to with the wrong pronouns and descriptors, made them quit taking a world language class altogether. Despite speaking with their teacher on the subject, the lack of education on the matter resulted in no change. They suggested that although it can be difficult, there should be a basic groundwork of respect in place for teachers to follow when they have a student in class who uses language outside the gender-binary.
The best way to avoid such discomfort is normalizing the use of this language in classrooms. After speaking with the world language department at AB, many teachers provided examples of how they incorporated neutral language into everyday activities—starting with the first day of school. One teacher described their welcome slide, which offered students different ways to introduce themselves and their pronouns. These introductions included the equivalent of “they” on top of “he” or “she.” Another teacher talked about a more daily task of turning and talking to a partner while being guided by a worksheet, and the worksheet included grammatical agreements for all pronouns. These efforts mirror many of the students' wish for more frequent and normalized uses of neutral pronouns rather than one or two sporadic larger lessons.
These larger lessons are important as well, and many classes partook in activities to better understand the importance of respecting pronouns in general as well as the correct use of neutral ones. In addition to the language, many classes scrutinize the culture surrounding gender itself through activities known as “Products, Practices, and Perspectives.” For instance, the teacher invited the students to observe and question the arbitrary nature of binary in clothing and why society associates certain clothes with certain genders. Another way the department has incorporated more authentic lessons in inclusivity has been through looking at cultural practice. Certain Spanish classes, for instance, discussed gender roles present in quinceñeras and its part in gender roles as a whole. These lessons are meant to provide a more rounded understanding to students, explained the language department, so that they can understand neutral language within its broader context.
Students have felt that when looking at the details of grammar, it can be easy to forget how language is formed in the first place: through the people using it. Both teachers and students agreed on the importance of creating a language-learning environment in which all students, not just those who fall squarely into a certain label, feel comfortable speaking and learning as themselves. As one student put it, we don’t learn languages to be able to read a textbook; rather, we learn languages to interact with other people, and people are so much more complex than two rigid sets of pronouns.