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The Gender Binary in Language Classes

Tal Janner-Klausner teaches Hebrew. There is nothing unusual about that, but the language presents a frustration that Mx. 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, of course, 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?

In order to get around it, Mx. 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.

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.

But these adaptations are seldom part of the official syllabuses for those who are learning a second language. Even where the understanding of gender identity is quickly evolving in native-speaking populations, language learning lags. This presents a unique challenge for teachers and students who embrace traditional grammar but want to reflect these changing values.

Despite some claims to the contrary, it is grammatically correct to use “they” and “them” in English to refer to the third-person singular. We do this when the person’s gender is unknown. On the road, for example, we might say of a driver: “That person just ran a stop sign. I don’t know what they think they’re doing.”

“They” has been used in this way for hundreds of years. It first appeared in the 1370s in “William and the Werewolf instead of using “he” to refer to “each man.” Shakespeare employed it frequently in much the same way: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me/ As if I were their well-acquainted friend,” he wrote in “The Comedy of Errors.” Jane Austen used it, too: “It had been a miserable party, each of the three believing themselves most miserable,” she wrote in “Mansfield Park.”

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. For example, the masculine “todos,” meaning “everybody,” is used in Spanish to address a group of people 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 to the masculine.

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.

“I didn’t think much about my own gender identity until I began thinking and expressing myself in Italian,” Mx. Moffa said. “When I thought about how much more complex reality is than just an array of binaries, I realized that my own identity and self-expression could never really reside within those confines. It was actually by learning Italian that my understanding of gender was freed from the nature of binary thought altogether.”

Mx. 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.

In addition to breaking open Italian’s limits on human beings, Mx. Moffa highlights the “absurd” nature of assigning gender to inanimate objects. “Instead of calling it masculine and feminine, you can just pick other polarities: light and dark, full and empty, round and square. It doesn’t even really matter what it is,” he said.

Kris Knisely, an assistant professor of French at the University of Arizona, gets even more specific. At the start of the semester, he introduces 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.”

He has found that teaching these new forms has a profound impact on his nonbinary and L.G.T.B.Q. students: Some who had been on the verge of dropping French subsequently declared it their major.

“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,” Dr. Knisely said.

He is keen to make sure this learning extends to cisgender students — those whose gender identity matches their sex as assigned at birth. “If cis students are allowed to continue to believe that cis people are always the default, or that only cis people matter, that does a great disservice to all students, because they’re not prepared for the world as it actually is,” he said.

This approach is not widespread in language teaching. Agnes M., who chose to use an initial because they are a minor, is a gender-fluid high school student who attends an all-girls school in London. Though they use a mix of pronouns for themselves in English, in their Spanish class they must adhere to the female gender.

“I sometimes connect with feminine pronouns, but not all of the time, since my gender is quite fluid and it kind of changes over time. So when I am feeling more like I’m leaning toward masculine pronouns, it’s quite upsetting to have to use the feminine version and it feels sort of wrong,” Agnes said.

According to some teachers, language learning provides fertile ground for discussing the concept of gender both within and outside the language. As Mx. 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.”

Molly Lipson is a writer and social justice advocate based in Britain. She is working on her first book, about dismantling harmful socioeconomic systems and envisioning a different world. You can find her on Twitter at @molly_lipson.

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