How and Why: Gender-Neutral Language

Babbel’s in-house presentation series, Strangers, explores the creative and community benefits of learning and using gender-neutral language.

Nicki Hinz works in the Didactics Team here at Babbel, designing our courses and optimizing lessons to bring users the most intuitive and effective learning experience. As part of our in-house presentation series, Strangers, she recently delivered a breakdown of what gender-neutral language offers us, as language-learners and as a community. A deeper dive seemed in order, and she graciously sat down for a chat about it.

I suppose it should be obvious, given we work with language-learning, but what made you want to tackle this topic as part of the Strangers series?

In the Strangers series we want to really consider the different aspects of diversity from all angles, even from angles that might not be as high-profile or obvious at first glance. But as we’re working with lots of different languages every day, it becomes evident that there are problems inherent to some languages when it comes to how we talk about people. German is an excellent example, as we have the suffix -in to denote that a certain profession is female, e.g. der Lehrer (male), die Lehrerin (female). So what about people that do not identify with the traditional binary gender framework? If you’re genderfluid, for example, you might feel left out. You can see phenomena like this in other languages as well: Is a “gunman” necessarily always male? Other languages like French or Portuguese also denote gender in adjective endings, but it’s still a matter of one of two possible genders. The reality we live in looks quite different: we are transgender, genderqueer, intersex, non-binary, genderfluid, female, male…

You mentioned a particular linguistic axiom in your talk – that language is effectively the cognitive operating system; what we can say, we can know. That seems pivotal, especially when posed in reverse. That is, we know things because we can say them. I know I’m a man, first and foremost, because I can say it. In that sense, the vocabulary speaks through me as much as I speak through it. Conventionally, I think people come at something like gender-neutral language as an accommodation or acknowledgement of someone’s particular experience. But we’re actually talking about expanding our own freedom at a fundamental level, no?

Yes, absolutely. And I hope that people will start to understand that it’s not about accommodating someone’s “whims,” but that gender identity is essential to every person’s personality. It constitutes our social identity. And as society changes, language changes, as well, to reflect that development. Of course, it’s new, and a bit difficult at first, as change is usually not an easy thing. But the good news is: the more we start to change our language, the more we get used to using it and the more “normal” it becomes. I remember when I lived in the UK hearing people saying things like: “My partner works in education. They are a teacher”. And at first, I was confused. It took me a while to understand that it was the norm not to use personal pronouns like “he” or “she” or words that denote gender like “my wife” or “my boyfriend”. To my ears it sounded strange but after a few months I got used to it and now I use this language without thinking about it. It’s become second nature.      

Are there innovations within specific languages that you’re particularly excited about?

As I mentioned, I really like how English speakers use “they” instead of “he” or “she”. It’s very straightforward and simple, yet elegant. I also like how Sweden just introduced a new pronoun into their language. Hen is an alternative to the gender-specific hon (“she”) and han (“he”), so you can use it when you want to avoid referring to a gender altogether. One of my Swedish colleagues is doing a Stranger Talk about the history of hen very soon and I’m excited to learn more about the backstory!

Beyond the discussion at the talk itself, have people engaged you about this topic? We have so many languages spoken in the building, I would imagine people have stories about how their own languages have adapted to these sorts of cultural turns…

What I really like about the Stranger Talks is that it gets the discussion going, and per usual, after this talk people kept discussing the topic, discussing the problems that they have encountered in their language or when learning a new language. I remember a colleague from Iran telling me how she could not believe how complicated German is in those terms, since Persian is pretty much a genderless language – beginning with the fact that German not only has grammatical gender, a concept she perceived as very bizarre, but also the whole differentiation between male and female when referring to people in general or to professions. It’s eye-opening, really, to encounter those different experiences! Other colleagues have told me similar stories. For example, in Portuguese the endings -o and -a for masculine and feminine are increasingly swapped out for the gender neutral ending -e. In Spanish, sometimes the @-sign is used to encompass both those options as well as others. And in Hebrew you can often find a dot between the masculine and the feminine version את.ה (“you” – at vs. ata) to show that everyone is included – similar to when German uses the asterisk as in Student*innen.

You work in our Didactics team, which means you are designing Babbel’s course content. Are there ways you see these shifts becoming part of how languages are learned or taught?

Yes, in our Swedish courses we are already using the pronoun hen, for example. At the moment, we are working closely with our Wording and Translations department to create a style guide for how to integrate and bring this language to the forefront of Babbel. I mean, every language has their challenges and German with its grammatical gender, generic masculine, gender inflections and gendered pronouns – personal as well as possessive – is no exception to that. But I believe that if we lead by example in how we deal with these things – in the courses we create as well as in the communication with our customers like emails or magazine articles – we can make a difference. It’s not easy but if you persist and get creative, you will always find a solution. For German that means for example rephrasing certain expressions, finding good synonyms or using participles.