How would you describe a key? Is it hard, heavy, and useful? Or is it intricate and lovely? You might be surprised at how something as mundane as grammar affects the way people answer this question. Years ago, I read an article about the influence of language on our thinking, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. The article cited an example from the 2003 Boroditsky study: In languages where the word “bridge” is feminine (like in German), speakers of the language are more likely to describe it in traditionally feminine ways, such as “elegant.” In languages where the word is masculine (such as Spanish), people tend to describe the bridge in masculine terms like “sturdy.” I found it fascinating that the very grammar of one’s language can be a subtle conduit for gendered messages.
When I first started taking Spanish in junior high, its more complex grammar both fascinated and confused me. The concept of nouns having genders was puzzling to a monolingual 13 year-old (particularly one who was not a native speaker of one of the quarter of the world’s languages that uses grammatical gender). I understood la mujer for “woman” and el hombre for “man”, but why was “table” feminine (la mesa) and “book” masculine (el libro)? My young inner feminist was also horrified when my teacher explained that a group of women or girls required the pronoun “ellas” and a group of men or boys “ellos,” but the presence of one male in a group of females required the masculine “ellos.” Perhaps you think that’s an overreaction, but a 2011 study by Prewitt-Freilino, Caswell, and Laakso found that countries that speak gendered languages rank lowest in gender equality and are associated with higher levels of sexism.
Lucky us! We speak English, a “natural gender” language. Not so fast. It turns out that people automatically characterize anything gender neutral as male. That means that if I use the pronoun “they,” it is much more likely to conjure images of male characters for you than if I used “he or she.” English does have gendered pronouns. That’s good because it makes women more visible. However, the singular “they” is now widely used and accepted. It was even named the 2015 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society. This is great for people who don’t fit into the artificial gender binary we have created, but not so great when you know that when people hear “they,” they default to thinking “male.” It’s a conundrum indeed.
So what can teachers do? We can’t change the structure of English language in a day, but we can make some alterations to the way we speak. I’ve already written about the importance of eliminating “boys and girls” from your vocabulary as you address your students. “You guys” is also inappropriate. As a new resident of Texas, I have happily adopted “y’all” as a terrific and inclusive alternative. We should stop using gendered nouns altogether. Use “police officer” instead of “policeman,” “firefighter” instead of “fireman,” “mail carrier” instead of “mailman,” and “flight attendant” instead of “stewardess.” Even the word “actress” is becoming antiquated. Am I the only one who loved Chris Rock at the Oscars calling out the Academy for continuing to have separate acting categories for males and females? (I should note that he also made a joke stereotyping Asians. So close, Chris Rock…and yet so far.)
Language is complex. This isn’t an easy fix. But maybe it doesn’t need to be “fixed” at all. Maybe it’s enough to simply have a greater awareness of the impact of language on thinking and to keep inclusiveness in mind in our communications as we encourage language to evolve along with us.