One of Babbel’s core values is that diversity makes us stronger. We believe that learning a language necessarily entails experiencing a new culture in all its varied textures. But what does an inclusive mindset look like in a language learning app? Elin, project manager for Babbel’s Scandinavian languages digs deeper into this topic, gathering insights from some of Babbel’s other language learning experts. They interrogate masculinity as the norm, teaching gender neutral pronouns and creating courses that reckon with representation in a variety of languages.
Scrutinizing The Male Norm: Grammatical Gender In Language Learning
An essential aspect of Babbel’s teaching method is to localize our courses to fit each language pair. Learning Spanish from Italian will look different than learning Spanish from English: We optimize explanations for the respective language pair, the grammar features different illustrative examples, and we might add or remove exercises and grammar topics to fit the exact combination. When speakers of a language with grammatical gender, say French — where all nouns are either masculine or feminine — is learning one without grammatical gender, say English, some extra attention is required.
If you’re learning words like “teacher,” “boss” or even abstract concepts like “blue,” the translations often show the masculine form by default: enseignant, patron, and bleu. The French team at Babbel has tried to challenge this mindset. A noun like “a teacher” would for French learners of English now be translated with un·e — using the punctuation mark called an “interpunct.” While French people generally know what interpuncts are, these tools still represent an informal approach to representing gender in language. They’re common in certain circles like feminist magazines and social media communities. They are not, however, legitimized by the Académie française either, which has authority over the French language. The usage of interpuncts in a language learning product is therefore a rather strong statement towards diversity and inclusion.
Caroline, editor for French, says introducing an inclusive form was important to her, because Babbel stands behind showcasing diverse experiences and we believe that standardizing the masculine form is not “neutral.”
“Also, from a pedagogical perspective, it’s important to teach French users that there are gender-neutral words in other languages,” says Caroline. “Inclusive writing is a very easy visual way to make that understandable.”
The convention of using an interpunct when writing French vocabulary items is used on nouns (such as professions), articles, pronouns, and adjectives and could for example look like this:
“We use the interpunct mostly when introducing new vocabulary. It helps stress the fact that a word in the learning language can be used for both genders. When the word is not new, however, we simply translate it choosing either the male or the female option, while paying attention to providing a fair overall balance. We also use inclusive writing when addressing the user, for example, “Vous êtes prêt·e ?” Caroline continues. “Of course, inclusive writing is a lot easier than inclusive speaking in a sense — such a phrase would sound different when spoken.”
Teaching Gender Neutral Pronouns In Babbel’s Swedish Courses
One question that Babbel’s Swedish team has answered is whether inclusive language is useful for communication at beginner level. We have seen that it truly is, by successfully incorporating a lesson about the new Swedish pronoun hen into the course package. The reason was simple: the word hen was spreading in popularity and could be seen and heard everywhere – articles, radio, and even official web pages informing about illnesses, pensions or taxes. Any Swedish learner would soon enough have to know this pronoun along with hon (she) and han (he). We have to always keep the learner in mind by posing the question: “What is useful for communication for learners at this level?”
Even if you, as a learner, doubt whether you’ll use hen a lot, it’s important to at least have this word in your passive vocabulary. And sooner or later, you’ll come across people whose pronoun is hen, in which case you’ll need to also use the word more actively. For us in the Swedish team, it was really a no-brainer to write a lesson on the topic, and it seems that the users agree.
Showcasing A Variety Of Experiences In Your New Language’s Culture
An inclusive mindset is important even with languages like English, or the Scandinavian ones, where nouns are not gendered in feminine and masculine.
“Language isn’t everything — we’re all biased in our thoughts, and since we’re only humans who write Babbel courses, we all constantly have to check ourselves — and each other,” says Vitor, project manager for Portuguese and Dutch. “That’s why it is so important to work in a diverse team: Everyone has a different perspective, which ensures that our final product is both appealing and respectful to our learners, who are just as diverse.”
We aim to show the language and the culture as it really is, in all its rich difference. One efficient way to do this is through images of varied ethnicities, abilities, and appearances. Another is through audio — we can showcase dialects, accents, and different sociolinguistic patterns, such as slang, as soon as the learner has advanced a little bit. In our dialogues, we can feature names in, for example, a German lesson that aren’t just Günther and Elfriede (to allude to a couple of German-language Nobel prize laureates) but also Emre and Oksana. It’s also such an easy thing to show a same-sex couple or a female CEO, or non-binary CEO for that matter. We constantly review each others’ lessons, and how representation and inclusion lines up with progression, learning goals, and the overall quality of a lesson, is something that we give each other constant feedback on. That way, we create a learning experience that, hopefully, many people can relate to.