The Genderqueer Language Learner is neither nor

This is a language blog. This is not a blog about being genderqueer. And yet I am genderqueer, and that impacts how I exist in the world and my experience of language study. So I’m writing about it.

I realize lots of readers may not be clear on what being genderqueer, or non-binary, means (some people use the two terms interchangeably; others don’t). Google is your friend! But here for starters, because I’m feeling nice, are a few links that resonate with me in some way:

Right now I study French and German. I’m a native English speaker; for me, it is not automatic to gender objects, and as I’ve grown to understand myself as a genderqueer person, I’ve become more and more uncomfortable being gendered myself.

Using gender-neutral phrasing in English is easy and has become standard in many situations. There are still lots of times where I can’t — being made to choose needlessly between Mr./Ms./Mrs. to register on a website, for example, and of course all the instances during daily life where I gender myself to all the people I’m not out to.

But comparatively, English makes this simple. With French and German, not only do I have to remember the gender of a table or a bus, I must assume a gender — one of two — as soon as I introduce myself. I end up saying, “Ich bin Amerikaner…in,” real fast and reluctant at the end: I’m saying this because I know you expect it, even though it hurts. Or “Je suis américaine,” and I bite down on the ending, my resentment at having to say it — or not say it (claiming to be “américain,” which firstly no one would believe, and secondly would just put me at the opposite pole of a system I don’t fit into) — inadvertently emphasizing it.

Every time I have to choose one path or another, one form over another — multiple times per conversation, per lesson — I wince. Sometimes I wonder if people notice my hesitation and assume I’m just not conversant enough to gender myself “correctly” and smoothly when I speak.

Finnish, which still feels very comfortable and cozy to me even though I’m no longer actively studying it, is a relief because there aren’t any gendered pronouns. Someone in my Finnish class once complained that this was frustrating; she hated not being able to instantly tell if someone was a man or a woman. That’s beautiful! That’s safe and freeing for me!

For those of you who are cisgender, you may not understand the simple, but profound, grief this causes me and others in my situation. My gender friend mentioned having a similar experience when learning French: that it just itched every time the teacher used the feminine ending towards them and required the same from them in return.

I’m used to saying, over and over, that I’m something — a woman — that I’m not. Like I said above, I’m not out as genderqueer to most people in my life (certainly not at work!). But at least fluency in English means sometimes I can spit out those terms quickly, trying not to think about them. Because getting gender right is such a focus of learning French and German — and highlighted as a specific challenge for native English speakers, which means it gets a lot of attention — I can’t do that. It’s not automatic. I have to hold my breath and brace myself pretty much every time. It’s a special, quiet, persistent kind of pain.

Like depression and mental illness generally, I think that genderqueerness is not something with much visibility in the language blogosphere. This too makes me feel like the odd one out. Where are the other genderqueer/nonbinary people out there learning a language that forces them to misgender themselves? Get in touch!

I remember seeing links a while ago discussing gender-neutral pronouns in German (I didn’t bookmark them, partly because my German wasn’t up to reading them at the time) but I don’t think I’ve seen anything about this in French. I’d love to see these discussions — in French, German, or English — if anyone can point me at them!

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9 comments

  1. This is less of an issue in Japanese for the most part, except that people expect you to use the language differently as a man vs a woman, and it’s considered too ‘robotic’ and non-fluent to try to avoid gendering yourself by using purely neutral language. So I’ve struggled with this a lot too, reluctantly resorting to the most neutral feminine casual forms I know because I get called out for using masculine ones.

    I do get frustrated with it in English, but I think it’s easier to let it go, because I’ve grown up using English and I’m just used to the way I get misgendered in it. Venturing into a new language sometimes feels like I should get a fresh start, and so when I find myself still trapped in gendered boxes it’s even more upsetting than usual.

    I’m glad you wrote this post, though, I kept intending to write something similar myself but never got around to it. It’s good to know I’m not the only one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for this comment! And I think I know what you mean in Japanese, I experienced some of that too when I was studying it. I remember speaking to a butch Japanese American woman who said that she preferred to use more masculine forms of speech, but when she did, Japanese people simply assumed her Japanese was really bad and she was just making mistakes. :/

      And yes, that’s a really good way to put it — feeling like you should get a fresh start in a new language, gender-wise!

      If you do write something about this, please leave a link — I’d love to read it!!

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  2. Thanks for this post. I believe it is crucial to have these discussions. Gender identity is a fundamental part of how we learn to see the world, yet it is limiting and damaging to insist on female and male as the only options. I dig into my assumptions to free myself of binary bias, yet it’s deep: I notice how my initial momentary reaction can be confusion when I meet a person whose gender isn’t obvious to me. And then, as you say, it is freeing to be in that place where gender doesn’t need to be assigned.

    Speaking French, I have often contorted sentences (and not always successfully) to avoid saying “ils” (or “elles”) to describe a group of people. But as you say, I have not seen discussion of French gender neutral pronouns and always end up feeling ‘silly’ or odd for my preoccupation. Thanks for giving me a little ground to stand on 🙂

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    1. Thanks for reading & listening, as ever, Ellen! The need to categorize people based on gender (& one of only two) is so deeply ingrained — I still find myself attempting to do that all the time, despite myself!

      & I’m glad I’m not the only one finding this difficult in French…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Recently, a client at my massage clinic pointed out that our health history forms put questions about pregnancy under “women”; this client said the categorisation is unnecessary and exclusionary, as it’s not only people who identify as women who can be pregnant; and I was abashed to realize I had not thought of this. So I changed the forms. But there you go. I took this so much for granted that I couldn’t even see my bias until it was pointed out. This is how we grow 🙂

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  3. Found your blog through the Guardian post; it was just so great to see someone talking about depression and language learning as opposed to all the painfully enthused polyglots out on the internet trying to convince me I can BE FLUENT SUPER-FAST if I’d just try harder, and to find you also bring up being genderqueer–it’s great!

    I’m a non-binary undergrad linguistics student, and I’m very interested in non-traditional/self-taught approaches to language learning, where people are much more likely to bring in their social realities than in classrooms where you just get bombarded with microaggressions. Even in learning Mandarin, which has no spoken gender, the textbook and professor of course manage to teach us how to reiterate dominant culture (while it would be a great opportunity to question it). And then you get people saying things like, “whatever, it’s the language! just learn it and keep yr gender stuff out of it!” as if there weren’t queer people who spoke spanish/french/hebrew/etc. who are changing the language. So a bit of a ramble just to say I’m so happy you did decide to start a blog. Sorry I can’t be of help with French (the spelling/pronunciation is just too much for me) or German (someday!), but if you ever need thoughts on Spanish or Mandarin or general linguistics I’m here!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Syd, thank you so much for this comment — I really appreciate it, and that you know what I mean on the gender thing! Also, ugh, yes, microaggressions — both in classes and in the language-learning blogosphere I feel like there can be some really skeevy colonialism or sexism or other stuff going on (sometimes in combination, natch).

      Thank you so much for reading!!!

      Like

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