Babbel believes the diversity of our team and our community of language learners makes us stronger. It’s essential that our learners’ experiences with the app reflect this core value. The language experts who create Babbel’s courses have developed detailed and specific guidelines to ensure we showcase the diversity of every language’s native speakers. In celebration of Pride Month, I spoke with Lars and Vitor, Editors on Babbel’s Didactics team and co-creators of the award-winning Stranger Talks series, about how and why Babbel addresses LGBTIA+ (encompassing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning, asexual and other identities) themes in our courses.
Creating inclusive language learning content
Let’s start with some basics. What does “inclusive content” mean in terms of sexual and gender identity, especially in the context of educational media like a language app?
Vitor: To me, it means objectivity. There’s no such a thing as a “standard” or “normal” person. Our learners are diverse, as are native speakers of the languages Babbel teaches. An accurate representation must therefore showcase this diversity. From an educational point of view, it’s important that learning content of any kind is relatable to the learner’s own experience. I’m more likely to be successful in learning a language if I can picture myself in the situations portrayed in the materials I’m using, regardless of my race, gender or sexual orientation.
Lars: That’s right. We represent a huge diverse group of our learners all over the world; as they learn with Babbel lessons they should be able to identify themselves with the faces they see on our app. In doing so, we represent ourselves, as Babbelonians, and our values. Finally, we represent in our courses different countries, cultures and traditions by teaching authentic language as it’s used in authentic contexts.
Vitor: Again, this is a matter of objectivity. You’re more likely to see a lesbian couple going to the cinema than walking down a street carrying a rainbow flag. Couples with a greater or smaller age difference probably have similar arguments about whether to order pizza or sushi. Deviating to a lesser or greater extent from whatever is considered standard is the rule, not the exception. Why should we make a fuss around that?
Is accurate and diverse representation of the wide spectrum of sexuality and gender important to you on a personal level?
Vitor: Yes, it’s very important for me, because I believe that everybody benefits from a more inclusive world. I make a conscious effort at work that the courses we create are consistent with this philosophy. I’m convinced that this is also important for learners, firstly because it’s morally correct, and secondly because an inclusive learning experience is more effective, as I said previously.
Lars: Your question brings to mind a quote from the well-known Russian movie The Irony of Fate. In one scene a romantic couple is talking about their professions. He is a doctor, she is a teacher:
He: Doctors’ mistakes cost people very dearly.
She: Yes … Teachers’ mistakes are less immediately apparent, but in the end they are no less costly.
This points to how we, as educators, affect learners’ entire lives, not just their language skills. Our learners trust our expertise, not only in a pedagogical sense. That is why it is important for us to reflect on the entire diversity of our world even if it is sometimes challenging.
Speaking of the challenges you and your colleagues face in that endeavor, what has been difficult for you?
Lars: I believe that language shapes reality. That is why it is our duty as language experts to show the entire diversity of the society through the language: the stakes are high!
When creating Babbel’s Russian courses I am often confronted with a dilemma: Should I depict the conservative Russia which tourists used to see travelling especially across the Russian provinces? Or should I instead portray an aspirational, democratic image of Russia, an open, diverse and inclusive society? This certainly exists on some level, but it is a minority. I try to capture a mix of these two distinct images.
Another challenge I experience happens when I am looking for pictures for Russian courses. Due to legal issues we can’t use private photographs in our content. And in Russia, there are more than 180 ethnic groups and nationalities! How can I depict this immense ethnic diversity with the help of stock images alone?
Re-inventing “Marriage” in Russian
Lars, You invented a new way to speak about same sex marriage in Russian, a language whose very grammar previously precluded this possibility. Why and how did you do this?
Lars: Russian is—unfortunately, in my perspective—a very gendered language. Russian speakers are constantly deciding between female and male forms of not only nouns and adjectives, but even usage of certain verbs. In our courses we teach grammatically correct Russian which is, from my social-political point of view, very conservative and not gender-neutral. So we can’t “reform” the language within our courses. However, we saw another chance to show how Russian is still flexible enough to express same sex marriage, despite these limitations inherent to the structure of the language. During the World Cup 2018 which was held in Russia Babbel launched the #BabbelForAll campaign.
In Russian colloquial language there are two different expressions for “I am married.” One is what a married woman says: Я замужем. Literally meaning: I am behind the husband. On the other hand, the phrase Я женат (literally meaning I am “wifed”) can be used only by men. Which means that for gay and lesbian couples there is no possibility to express you’re married to someone of the same gender.
I came up with the idea to affix the ending -a, which in Russian grammar indicates the female form, e.g., of nouns, names, surnames. So this grammatical form Я жената doesn’t exist in Russian language, but we have imagined a form where it does.
Among all the responses the campaign got, I was especially excited about a heated discussion which started on Babbel’s Facebook page between Russian native speakers: Some of them wrote a bit outraged that Babbel made a grammatical mistake in their billboards, but others understood our political message. I loved it! Just by changing one letter in a specific context can lead to change in consciousness.
Speaking of the response of our learners, the journalist Niko Lang recently tweeted about his experience coming across an image of a gay couple in our Russian courses. How did you feel when you read his tweet?
Lars: I was very touched because Nico caught our message. Now I can see that even seemingly minor choices we make as course editors can make big waves.
We added this image and used this sentence intentionally: it was a strong political message embedded into a short exercise. Firstly, in Russia being openly gay is legally forbidden (there is a so called Gay Propaganda law) and secondly, the same sex marriage is also banned.
We are conscious of the potential for superficial “pinkwashing.” To avoid this, we integrate short but strong messages. For example, in the course Russian for everyday life in the lesson Tell me about your family we introduce the vocabulary and a picture with two moms. One can say it is not bold enough, but in the context of the Russia’s current political situation, it is pretty provocative.
Ensuring diverse representation of race, gender and sexuality in Babbel’s courses
Vitor, you developed and shaped Babbel’s guidelines for creating inclusive content. Could you speak about that process?
Vitor: We all tend to present what we know best and forget about other parts of society. The aim of these guidelines is to make us aware of our own biases and to help us overcome them. As with everything else we do, the diversity guidelines are a constant work in progress. I joined Babbel five years ago, and from the very beginning we had discussions about representativeness in our content. Since then, I’ve seen how impassioned but informal discussions turned into formal presentations for the team, which then evolved into our current quality standards.
These guidelines address many aspects of how to ensure diverse and inclusive representation, from how we script dialogues to how we select images to illustrate new vocabulary and phrases. For example, we want to avoid showing women doing only stereotypical activities like housework, gossiping, shopping too much, etc. Women should also be represented in higher professional positions or playing football. Another example is our depiction of same sex couples: some couples might be interracial, or have children, or a considerable age difference. Categories are useful as a means to express the idea that, in the end, people are endlessly diverse and unique.
Were these guidelines easy to implement at Babbel? What advice would you give someone who wanted to create similar guidelines for ensuring inclusive representation at their own company?
Vitor: For me, the most important thing is to create a constructive culture of discussion and debate, where everyone feels safe to ask questions and to express disagreement. The other key element is patience: discussions take time, consensus is not easy to achieve. This is part of the process, and it’s important to know how to manage your expectations of what can be achieved when.
Our policies are definitely still a work in progress and people have different points of view; I believe this is something to be celebrated.