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Gendered Tongues: Issues of Gender in the Foreign Language Classroom

Posted by:
May 26, 2022
By Tamara Williams, Melanie Hawthorne, Lynne Huffer, and Catherine Hutchison

Originally Published 1996

Like other disciplines such as English and Sociology, Foreign Languages also have a history in the United States which is linked to the changing values of society as a whole. The discipline of foreign language teaching has evolved over the last one hundred years, and the policies and practices of professional organizations, such as the Modern Language Association, reveal the ways in which the image of the profession has been manipulated to fit other ideological agendas. Such issues have also affected the relative prestige of individual languages (the popularity of Russian in the space-age “Sputnik” era, for example, or the current popularity of Spanish linked to shifts in the U.S. demographic trends) as well as the rising and falling popularity of various methodologies. The contemporary agenda in foreign language teaching has been shaped significantly by historical phenomena such as World War II, shifting business practices and other economic factors, and the political need for intelligence and military data collection. In its broadest form, sexism is inseparable from these historical developments; in practice the issue also manifests itself in explicit and systematic ways.

Tamara Williams, Professor of Hispanic and Latino Studies and Director of the Wang Center for Global Education

Professional Issues
Professional issues regarding the status and function of foreign language teaching, both within educational institutions and society as a whole, play a major role in perpetuating sexism in the foreign language classroom. Perhaps the most striking problem is the division of labor in language teaching. On the high school and, quite often, undergraduate college levels, that division is often determined by gender, where women are more likely to teach foreign languages—particularly the “soft” ones such as Spanish and French—while men gravitate to the “hard” languages (German, Russian) and other academic subjects such as science and math. In the larger university setting, most foreign language departments have traditionally been split between (mostly male) tenured and tenure-track faculty members engaged in original research in literature or literary theory, and (mostly female) non-tenured lecturers and teaching assistants responsible for the acquisition of basic proficiency in the foreign language. As a result, innovation in foreign language pedagogy is not rewarded with promotion and tenure; in fact, teaching itself is deemed less important than non-pedagogically oriented research. A final consequence of the hierarchical division of labor in foreign language teaching is the preponderance of large multi-section courses, where syllabi and examinations are often course-wide, and where individual instructors (usually female graduate students) have little opportunity to pursue sex-equitable pedagogical approaches.

Beyond the problem of the division in labor in foreign language instruction, there exists the related but broader issue of female authority and professional prestige. First, because foreign language instruction is dominated by women at the high school, college and university levels (see above), foreign language pedagogy is disproportionately affected by cultural norms that ascribe negative characteristics to women in positions of authority. Even more problematic is the issue of the prestige of the foreign language teaching profession as a whole. As historical analysis shows, the feminization of an occupational field invariably corresponds to a decreasing level of prestige associated with that profession; this historical trend indeed appears to hold true in the case of foreign language instruction.

Specific methodological approaches to foreign language teaching contribute directly to the perpetuation of exclusionary pedagogical practices in foreign language classrooms. In general, the “success” of a certain method is largely determined by that method’s hegemonic status within the profession. As a result, institutional adoption of a specific method —regardless of its biases and limitations— tends to perpetuate its “success” and discourage resistance or the adoption of alternative methods. The past two decades have been dominated by two major methodological approaches: 1) the direct or “immersion” method and 2) the proficiency movement. The success of both these approaches to foreign language acquisition has served to mask their limitations and discourage critique. 

More specifically, the direct method can be faulted for its reliance on mimicry and repetition as the fundamental means of learning. As a result, users of the direct method are discouraged from attaining a critical perspective on the material itself; in fact, analysis (even at the level of basic grammatical paradigms) is regarded as counterproductive to the learning process. The proficiency model, on the other hand, while parading as a “neutral” contextualization of language, can perpetuate a male-biased, heterosexist, often racist and classist view of culture. Concomitantly, the goal of achieving competency often reinforces exclusionary cultural norms. This emphasis on contextualized, conversational usage fails to ask whose conversational agenda is being taught; for example, conversations about sports are more frequently offered as models than conversations about fashion. Finally, the forms of evaluation associated with these methods reflect gender biases; just as studies have revealed possible inequities in standardized tests, such as the SAT’s, so there are gender issues regarding both content and grammar to consider in foreign language testing.

Linguistic Issues
In teaching languages, the object of study itself raises many issues of gender. Feminist linguists have been active in researching and detailing these problems, and foreign language teaching entails an application of their discoveries. 

The broadest issue is the image of language itself. Although in fact most linguists recognize that language is inherently changing and unstable, the image presented in the classroom is that of a fixed entity. This artificial construct is necessary for pedagogical reasons: sometimes, for purposes of evaluation, an overly simplistic binary distinction between correct and incorrect utterances is maintained where real usage is much more flexible. Increased reliance on computer-assisted instruction is likely to intensify this distinction. Also, language must be codified and reduced to a set of rules if teachers are to have any hope of explaining them to students. This model corresponds somewhat to the Saussurean distinction between langue and parole. Langue represents the idealized, abstract system that constitutes a given language, whereas parole is any one particular speaker’s appropriation and implementation of that system. Although this theoretical distinction is questionable, it remains a useful model of what happens in foreign language teaching; the language teacher is in the position of trying to teach langue, when in fact only parole is ever possible. 

The image of language presented in the classroom is also that of a neutral, value-free tool of communication. Some linguists would argue, however, that language is always ideologically charged. In its most general expression, this idea builds on the Whorf-Sapir theory, and implies that language learning also entails acquiring a certain view of the world, certain distinctions that may not be part of the student’s native language. Examples might be notions of openness or closure conveyed by Russian verb aspects; different divisions of the color spectrum and concepts about categories of things, as in Chinese radicals. Many of these distinctions involve ideas about gender. For example, the radical for “woman” is present in many Chinese characters denoting moral transgressions, such as rape and seduction. At a more speculative level, Jacques Lacan has theorized that when a child learns to speak, as part of that language acquisition he or she learns a set of kinship terms in which gender is an essential structuring element. These kinship terms also implicitly convey information about the incest taboo and about the child’s own position in that network, elements which form the basis of personal identity.

Students in the course Spanish for Heritage Speakers in 2018

Even if the Whorf-Sapir view of language is rejected, there are many specific gender issues that must still be addressed. Feminist linguists have pointed to the widespread existence of gender asymmetry in many languages. These issues may take a number of forms, for example in words used for describing work roles, occupations or professions. Prestigious professions may exist only in the masculine form and may lack entirely a feminine equivalent. In Spanish, for example, the feminine la presidenta means “the [male] President’s wife”: There is no word in French for “a woman doctor.” Indeed, a feminization of medicin, “a doctor,” to designate women doctors is not even a possibility, since medicine is already used to mean “medicine.” Even the morphologically predictable and theoretically available form of docteur, doctoresse, is not used. On the other hand, low status occupations such as balayeuse, “sweeper,” do exist and in some instances exist almost exclusively in forms marked as feminine (ouvreuse, infirmiere). Similarly, in German a nurse is a krankenschwester, and the analogous krankenbruder, although morphologically possible, is not used.

Other asymmetries may exist at the semantic level. In French, un maître implies skill, whereas the “equivalent” une maitresse carries sexual connotations. Un homme fort is a strong man, while une femme forte is a heavy woman.

Feminist responses to many of these issues do exist, such as the word ecrivaine to correspond to the masculine term for “writer” in French, ecrivain. Such proposals are not without problems, however, because in some instances it is possible for the feminine-marked forms to become devalues and perceived as diminutives (as in the English examples “poetess” and “aviatrix”). Beyond this theoretical consideration, the problem in practice is that it is often very difficult for foreign language teachers to obtain up-to-date information about these proposed alternatives and their level of usage and acceptance precisely because discussion of them is marginalized. There is no newsletter concerning such matters, for example, and many official linguistic agencies, such as the Academie Francaise, actively oppose innovation and therefore inhibit the dissemination of such information. While the importance of up-to-date vocabulary lists for prestigious fields such as computer technology or business is recognized, feminist concerns do not receive such attention.

Even when information is available, linguistic innovation in the classroom poses problems. Conservative linguistic usage is often considered “safer,” and since the implicit or explicit goal of most language instruction is to enable the student to “pass” as a native speaker, in practice this often means that students are taught standard language and are discouraged from using forms or words that would make them stand out. Conformity is rewarded and encouraged more in foreign language teaching than in other disciplines, where students are taught to think critically. 

One of the results of the feminist study of different language usage by men and women has been the proposal that within a given language there are “genderlects”: patterns of usage based on gender identity (by analogy with “dialects” and “idiolects”). It has been claimed, for example, that in English women command a wider color vocabulary and use different intonation and interrogative patterns than men. The gender patterns in these as well as other areas have not been sufficiently studied in all languages, but since nearly all foreign language teaching involves intonation patterns and interrogative structures, as well as acquisition of vocabulary for color terms, the existence of gender-inflected patterns could prove to be a widespread and important concern.It is possible, though this has yet to be thoroughly investigated, that in the guise of teaching neutral language usage, we are in fact teaching a male dialect to both men and women, thereby indirectly reinforcing the male-as-norm biases which have been demonstrated to exist in many languages.

Sexism in Teaching Materials
The problem of sexism in foreign language teaching materials begins with traditional assumptions about gender. Women are not only under-represented in textbooks, existing images of women are often stereotypical, trivializing women’s diversity of interests and roles in society. In the textual presentation of grammar and vocabulary, gender bias is consistently found in the use of masculine forms as the “norms” and the feminine as the “derived” forms (e.g. the masculine-first paradigm in the ordering of personal pronouns; the masculine “generic” pronouns; the masculine adjective form as “root” form). This norm is observed even when it runs counter to sound pedagogical practice. In French, adverbs are formed from the feminine form first better prepares students to learn adverb formation. 

Texts provide tools with which students learn to produce meanings in the foreign language: the vocabulary, gestures, and situations they learn to manipulate, however, are not objective, value-free tools. The “hidden curriculum” of a foreign language transmits gender, race and class biases—not to mention cultural biases—without acknowledging them. For example, students learn cheveux longs (long hair), cheveux courts (short hair), and seldom cheveux crepus (kinky hair) from French language textbooks. Particularly with increasing use of video materials, it has become imperative to examine the structures of identifications and desire associated with the “male gaze.” For example, students using one popular program learn to draguer une fille (pick up a girl), and to identify with the voyeuristic protagonist in the film.

Teaching Culture
The recent interest in communicative competence and proficiency-based language programs has added an important area of concern to the process of achieving sex equity in the foreign language classroom. These methods’ demand for authentic materials and input from the target culture in drills, practice exercises and dialogues complicate the goals of the non-sexist teacher by adding the cross-cultural component. Within this context, the teacher must achieve a sex-equitable environment for students while at the same time engaging them in “authentic” linguistic practice and behaviors informed by the broader sexist practices of the target culture. To add to this tension, the teacher must approach the culture being taught sensitively in order to discourage ethnocentric value judgements and promote understanding of diverse cultural practices being taught originate in the developing world and/or are perceived as ethnically or racially distinct. In this case, a critical assessment of sexist practices in the target culture, combined with an unexamined student perception of racial or ethnic stereotypes that lead to a view of the foreign culture as “barbaric” and “exotic,” can unwillingly sustain an insidious form of cultural imperialism.

Classroom Dynamics
In addition to the customary issues of classroom dynamics in coeducational classes —men tend to dominate, teachers tend to favor men— foreign language classes suffer from gender inequities peculiar to the discipline. It is essential that all students be given an equal opportunity to practice speaking. Because men respond more readily and rarely refuse to give any answer at all, they are considered more reliable respondents and are called on more often. They volunteer more frequently, seeing each question as a healthy and stimulating form of competition with their classmates, whereas some women see the same situation as destructive, unhealthy rivalry. Even women who are confident they know the correct answer are often unwilling to volunteer because they consider an aggressive display of knowledge inappropriate. In an attempt to equalize the situation, the teacher conscientiously calls on students who remain silent, but many of them perceive being called on as punishment. Current pedagogy encourages dividing the class into small groups in which the quieter students feel more comfortable and may participate more freely, but the dynamics are once again significantly altered by the presence or absence of men. Men dominate small groups even more effectively than the class as a whole; small group projects usually reflect male interests, and the women almost always defer to male leadership. 

A significant problem in foreign language classes is the issue of authority for women teachers. Nurturing behavior is almost universally expected of female teachers, while male teachers are almost never criticized for not exhibiting such behavior. Students in foreign language classes, forced to regress linguistically to a pre-kindergarten era, may confuse a female teacher with the mother who taught them their “mother tongue,” and their attitudes and responses may be confused by whatever positive or negative feelings they retain from the maternal relationship. Lacking the ability to express even the most basic needs, they become vulnerable and dependent upon the teacher for praise and encouragement. They are likely to interpret correction as rejection. They may be particularly sensitive to evaluation, which becomes a very personal matter. Since our culture accords little authority to women in general and mothers in particular, the identification of teacher with mother makes such authority precarious. The woman teacher is called upon to balance her undisputed superiority in the target language against multiple and unpredictable student expectations based on childhood experience she can scarcely even imagine.

Applied Feminist Pedagogy
Applying feminist pedagogy to the foreign language classroom means asking how our theory and practice connect. The aims of feminist pedagogy are, first, to empower students to direct their own learning; second, to reduce hierarchical differences in student-teacher interactions; and third, to expose the biases and objectives of educational agendas. In the foreign language classroom, despite the personalization of language study brought about by the emphasis on communication in recent years, a traditional instructional relationship still dominates. In the foreign language classroom, the teacher’s language competence, reinforced by the students’ relative linguistic incompetence, can lead to the teacher’s over-controlling the production of meaning. Teachers must actively resist this tendency. Feminist pedagogy can inform the practice of foreign language teaching by drawing on cooperation rather than competition as a model for learning and by focusing on purposes as well as on goals.

Students in PLU’s StarTalk language program that trains native Korean and Chinese speakers to teach their language to K-12 students.

The solutions lie in the kind of training we give our future teachers, the climate we create for those already in the profession, the materials we develop, the direction our research takes, and the dynamics of the classroom itself.

    1. We must provide training in gender sensitivity for our teaching assistants and students seeking certification.
    2. In a university context, teaching language must be recognized and rewarded as a professional option on the same level as teaching literature.
    3. Textbooks must eliminate sexist bias, and new textbooks incorporating the results of non-sexist linguistic and methodological research must be made available. 
    4. Our research needs to move in the direction of non-infantilizing teaching methods. Research on linguistics in the target language should adopt a feminist dimension.
    5. Teachers need access to feminist perspectives on the language problems as they are perceived within the culture being taught. These perspectives should be integrated into the curriculum.
    6. We need to develop a model to evaluate and monitor textbooks and other materials analogous to the non-sexist guidelines adopted by publishers.
    7. We must include cross-cultural women’s perspectives to counteract ethnocentrism and cultural imperialism. This means introducing materials that reflect the diversity of ethnicity, race, class, and sexual orientation in the culture being taught. 
    8. In the classroom, we can use our current materials as examples to teach our students about sexism. This will encourage students to maintain a critical perspective on classroom materials in other classes as well.
    9. We can devise interim strategies until more permanent solutions are found. When non-sexist materials are unavailable, we must adopt existing materials by using critical supplements, role reversal, and our own exercises.
    10. A theoretical possibility to explore is the separation of evaluation and teaching, divorcing the students’ relationship with the teacher from attempts to measure learning.
    11. Another suggestion for alleviating the strain of coeducational classroom dynamics is to return to a system of single-sex education.

Other suggestions for solutions will arise as we continue to experiment, disseminate information on successful models both here and abroad, and build on the results of feminist research yet to be undertaken.