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Creating Inclusive Language Classrooms

February 7, 2020

Yoko Hama, Camille Braun, and Alejandra pose for a photo.

Yoko Hama, Camille Braun, and Alejandra pose for a photo.
Photo by Gavin Schuster, Backpack student

In September 2019, the Merriam-Webster dictionary made “they” the word of the year. The publication acknowledged “they” can refer to a singular, non-binary individal, and the inclusion of the nonbinary pronoun in an official dictionary is prompting educators to wonder how to be more inclusive in educational spaces. 

In fall 2019, graduate students from the Departments of Spanish & Portuguese studies and French & Italian organized a collaborative workshop that addresses how to teach gendered languages. 

Students Addressing a Need in Language Classrooms

Yoko Hama and Camille Braun developed the ideas behind the workshop. Over the summer, both Hama and Braun taught entry-level Spanish courses. Hama noticed on MyU, the University’s website for personalized services, that one of her students identified as nonbinary and used they/them pronouns. She was concerned about how to make them feel included in her class, so Hama expressed this concern to Braun, and they both proposed the idea of creating a workshop. Another graduate student, Jun Takahira, joined the project when she returned to campus at the beginning of fall semester.

“As graduate students, we teach every semester. From our first year on we interact with a lot of students. So we saw [this training] as something we needed in the department,” says Braun. Ana Forcinito, the department chair, and Sophie Beal, the director of graduate studies, were supportive in setting up the workshop. 

Beal recommended Dr. Maya Angela Smith as a potential speaker, an associate professor in French at the University of Washington. With a PhD in Romance Languages and Linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley, Smith’s work focuses on the intersection of racial and linguistic identity formation. After discovering that Smith spoke Spanish and French, Hama, Braun, and Takahira realized that inviting her would be a significant way to collaborate with their counterparts from French & Italian.

The Collaboration

Smith visited campus on September 27. Students, faculty, and even a few public school teachers filed into a Folwell Hall classroom to hear and participate in the discussion. With every chair in the room full, Smith began the workshop by asking how people respond emotionally to studying a foreign language. Common responses included feeling frustrated, incompetent, and overwhelmed. She explained that she had once asked her students the same question, and they added that they had never before been invited to share their emotions in a classroom context.

Smith also discussed how gatekeeping of languages is often present. “Gatekeeping” often means that older, native speakers of a language can be resistant to change; to them, language is meant to be unadulterated. Because French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese include gender binaries in nouns and pronouns, using “they” as a pronoun can be confusing for instructors and learners as well. In the four languages, there is not a specific way to say or spell it. 

Language Changes as Culture Evolves

Besides interacting with students who use they/them pronouns, Takahira says this topic is of interest in general since language is related to the cultural identity of the people using it. Takahira is originally from Argentina, and she says that her friends from her home country tell her about the movement to change the ending of gender pronouns by substituting in a neutral letter. The pronoun ending with “o” stands for the masculine, while an “a” refers to the feminine. For example, instead of ellas or ellos (which both refer to they as a group of female individuals, or a group of male individuals), it would be elles.

In the Spanish language, speakers use nouns ending in an “o” (the masculine ending) when talking about a group, even if there are multiple females and one male.“Saying alumnos (students) to talk about a group of people….[when] we would have one guy… that’s not fair,” Hama says. In the classroom, Takahira tries to say estudiantes (students) since the "e" means she's including everyone." This is an example of how educators could potentionally approach the omission of nonbinary people in language-learning spaces.

Braun asserts that updating the way individuals refer to one another can affect the community as a whole; more inclusive language can create more inclusive spaces. Yet, from her point of view, sometimes language instructors want to maintain binary pronouns just because it’s easier; it’s what they’re used to. 

One high school teacher who participated in the workshop shared that she has students who use they/them pronouns. The instructor attended because other students were curious about how to use those pronouns in the classroom. Clearly, the subject is on the minds of not only university academics, but the outside community, too.

This story was written by an undergraduate student in Backpack. Meet the team.