Foreign language faculty and students discuss issues with lack of gender-affirming language


Illustration by Olivia Abeyta

Northwestern’s language professors work to make classrooms inclusive for non-binary students by incorporating gender neutral pronouns and curricula.

Sama Ben Amer, Reporter

As notions of gender continue to shift beyond the binary, many Northwestern language professors are reconciling cultural differences between English and their respective language to accomodate non-binary and gender non-conforming students. 

In Romance languages, not only are pronouns gendered, but articles modifying nouns are also gendered. French Prof. Margaret Dempster, Director of the French language program, said the controversy is not in gendering inanimate objects, but rather in the lack of formal non-binary pronouns. 

“Now linguists, professors, instructors and pedagogues, we’re looking at non-binary pronouns,” Dempster said. “One very popular, popular in the sense of very used now, is iel.”

The gender neutral pronoun comes from merging the French pronoun for he, il, and the pronoun for she, elle.

As the use of iel continues to grow in popularity, Dempster said she hopes to see more permanent changes to French grammar to be inclusive of non-binary language.

“What we want is to create pronouns that are non-binary and inclusive, using linguistic forms that are not gender specific, but do not necessarily refer specifically to non-binary individuals,” Dempster said. 

When Weinberg freshman Adrienne Scheide’s French professor introduced them to non-binary pronouns, they were pleasantly surprised.

“I didn’t even know it was a possibility that you could have a non-binary pronoun (in French) until I got to NU,” Scheide said. “But then my first French professor introduced us to they/them pronouns in French and that was like, ‘Oh, wow. I feel like I can be addressed properly.’”

Other languages like Japanese, however, rarely interact with pronouns at all.

While Japanese has the vocabulary for pronouns, Japanese Prof. Noriko Yasohama said they are hardly used in daily conversation.

“When we are referring to the third person, personal people, we use the person’s name and often, besides if it’s a very intimate relationship or family member, or close friend, we typically use (their) family name,” Yasohama said.

Because of the infrequent use of pronouns, topics relating to non-binary language do not come up in Japanese often.

For Weinberg senior Celeste Beals, the lack of pronouns in their Japanese class is a breath of fresh air. 

“(Gender) really isn’t something that I’ve had to think about and it’s kind of nice because I think we get really preoccupied, especially in the modern day, with pronouns,” Beals said. “Personally, I don’t really like to get bogged down in the minutiae.” 

Despite the lack of emphasis on gender in the Japanese language, Yasohama said Japanese culture has a long way to go to match the language’s gender neutrality. 

“Although the (language) system is gender neutral, it doesn’t mean the society is more accommodating,” Yasohama said. 

Arabic Prof. Rana Raddawi said the same applies to the Arabic language. Compared to most other gendered languages, she said Arabic has made no formal progress in creating the framework for non-binary langauge.

Raddawi said translators in the United Nations are encouraged to speak in passive voice to avoid referring to non-binary people by their pronouns.

“There are obstacles because not all scholars share the same views about this subject,” Raddawi said. “There’s some reservations and this is normal due to the culture. Then you have accuracy of the language as well … and (the) third thing is acceptance.”

In spite of the reluctance for change, Raddawi said the informal, daily Arabic language –– Ammiya –– has evolved to become more gender neutral than the official Arabic language, Modern Standard Arabic. 

“Luckily, and this is my point of view as an educator, language and culture aren’t static, they are dynamic,” she said. “Language evolves, just like a human evolves, and so does culture.” 

Within her classroom, Raddawi said her students inspired her to learn more about non-binary identities and the corresponding language. Over time, as evidenced in the past, she believes Arabic will encounter a transformation corresponding with changes in cultural beliefs related to transgender and non-binary acceptance.

The role that language instruction plays in leading to positive change is principal, Raddawi said.

“If we work on the curricula, and we work on teaching material and textbooks, we can do a lot because … if you want to make a change in a society, you start with education,” Raddawi said.

Correction: A previous version of this article misquoted Japanese Prof. Noriko Yasohama about when names are used. The Daily regrets the error.

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