Eff Your Misogyny and Learn a Language

A couple things I’m tired of seeing in language communities: people snarking about how they don’t like Instagram because they don’t want to see pictures of people’s breakfasts. Or they don’t watch vlogs because all they find are teenage girls giggling about who they have a crush on.

There’s a lot to unpack here (one of my first thoughts was to wonder how adept these people are at searching on the internet: I’ve found it very easy to find relevant vlog content, just by doing YouTube searches for keywords relating to my interests in German. I realize the availability of vlogs in different languages will vary, but the principle stands: it shouldn’t be hard to find vlogs that aren’t Follow Me Arounds or whatever).

Are these comments accurate? Are these things Serious People (including Serious Language Learners) can dismiss out of hand? How might photos of people’s food, or vlogs where they talk about what they’re eating, be useful to a wider swath of language learners? (I’m not even going to say “teenage girls’ food,” because I know a lot of people posting these things aren’t young women, but of course teen girls are the easy target.)

Well, everyone has to eat. If you’re going to a country where your target language is spoken, it might behoove you to be very conversant with food vocabulary and customs (especially if you have any dietary requirements). I can’t even count how many words relating to food preparation (cutting, chopping, peeling, slicing, etc.) and ingredients themselves (not only vegetables, but spices, packaging, etc.) I’ve picked up from Instagram and YouTube. For probably 99% of these words I haven’t had to make any flashcards or do anything particular to retain them: I hear and read them so often that I don’t need to.

And please note what good listening practice vlogs — yes, even those by teenage girls! — are. Everyone’s always banging on about how you need to listen to content intended for native speakers, right? I definitely have some of the strongest listening comprehension skills in my German class, and I am pretty sure that’s because I watch a ton of German stuff, including, yes, a ton of vlogs. And no, not every teen girl talks in whatever stereotyped idea some people have of how “kids these days” talk, either…

My second point: how easy it is for people to roll their eyes at popular expressions of teen girl culture. If teenage girls like it, then it must be trivial, stupid, or irrelevant, right? Not only misogynist but wrong!

And now I’m going to talk about how this intersects with my depression, because these things are inseparable.

In addition to people sneering about teen girls’ vapidity in posting photos of their breakfast, I’ve read numerous blog posts (in English, German, and French) arguing that photos on Instagram and Facebook make us unhappier, because we see others’ perfectly arranged meals, bedrooms, or outfits, and feel inferior.

For me, it doesn’t work that way. I don’t feel guilty looking at someone else’s elegantly presented breakfast. I see a photo and think, oh, gosh, blueberries, I haven’t had any in a while, which is silly because I love them; I should buy some for my breakfast tomorrow. Or I think, hm, I’ve never tried figs with oatmeal, but German vegan Instagram loves them; I’ll give them a shot.

It’s kind of like taking my own awareness of little good things in my life, but a hundredfold, because I can take pleasure in others’ small joys, too. Sometimes when you’re depressed, these moments are a lifeline: sometimes the only one you have.

Let’s also note that many girls use posting pics of their meals as a way to recover from eating disorders and learn to take pleasure in eating (I just read an article in French about this the other day, in fact); similarly, many people who’ve historically been excluded from society’s ideals of attractiveness use selfies to reclaim their bodies & resist toxic standards.

Does that mean you need to find these things interesting? No, of course not (and frankly, most of the people posting these things probably wouldn’t care if you didn’t: they’re not posting them for you, which some people might also find offensive). But to insist that they are meaningless or just another sign of how superficial the world has become? Ill-informed. Wrong.

Are there things on Instagram or YouTube that I find dull or problematic? You betcha! But that’s true with anything (including the language learning blogosphere: I’ve seen many posts just seeping with sexism/classism/xenophobia/fatphobia/racism/etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum).

I really also want to point out that young women, like anyone else, can be multifaceted. There are a few vloggers whose lighter, fluffier (to me fluffy isn’t an insult, by the way) videos on hair dye or snacks I enjoy, but that also post videos exploring issues of animal rights or vegan philosophy, or in support of refugees. Shocker! It’s possible to be stylish and have Deep Thoughts (and even, hello, be a feminist) too.

I find it super-interesting (by which I mean not interesting at all, because it’s drearily predictable) that, while I’ve seen some people make fun of Let’s Plays (which, like many gaming-related spaces, can be pretty male-dominated), I haven’t seen any widespread hate-on for them from language learners. Indeed, I’ve seen some big name polyglots recommend them. But I’ve easily seen three times as many words spent decrying the ways that teen girls use media like Instagram or YouTube.

Gosh, I wonder why.

So: if your first impulse is to dismiss all this as useless crap, check yourself. And consider that maybe, just maybe, these teenage girls you sneer at might have something to teach you as you work towards your target language.

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!