How do we smash the gender binary with English Language Learners?

I’ve been really struggling with how to be respectful of gender identity and avoid reinforcing the gender binary when speaking in a language that genders everything. Just asking “what is your name?” in Hebrew (and in most languages I’m familiar with besides English!) requires the speaker to assume the other person’s gender identity (male or female, no other options). How do you ask pronouns in a language that genders the sentence “what are your pronouns?”

Teaching primary school ESOL and EFL adds a whole second layer of complexity. Of course I am required by my job to teach so-called “correct” grammar. How do you (or do you at all) respond when a child repeatedly refers to boys as “she” and girls as “he” (a particularly common mistake among Hebrew-speakers since the Hebrew word for “she” happens to be pronounced “he!”!)? Often I do not say anything of it, but is this doing the children a disservice, because they will be seen as having lower English ability and may have communication obstacles later down the road? Do you stop and ask for each particular case, “Daniel, are you a boy, a girl, or a different gender?” And then tell the child what pronoun is generally used to refer to that gender? But even this option leaves me in the deeply uncomfortable position of assigning a pronoun to someone else. And how do you do this when the students’ English comprehension is nowhere near this yet, and my grasp of their language is likewise nowhere close? In other situations in which I’ve simply said “many girls choose to go by ‘she,’ many boys choose to go by ‘he,’ many people of any or no gender go by ‘they’ or something else – it’s up to you what you want to be called” have led to most kids getting it, some kids thinking I was talking about nicknames and creating more confusion, and some of my ESOL kids just really not comprehending. Help?

Another option I’ve thought of is to ask my students for a quick Hebrew lesson. I could say, “Daniel, when I greet you, do I say “ma hashem shelakh?” (essentially “what is your name” [feminine]), “ma hashem shelkhah?” (essentially “what is your name” [masculine]) or something else?” I can say at least that much in Hebrew. Then from what the student says in Hebrew, I could work out what are likely the correct pronouns to use in English. But I am not sure if it’s realistic to be able to do this with every student, and it seems like a bit of a roundabout way of doing things. But even asking “what is your gender” in their native language won’t tell me what the right pronouns are to use in English, because that’s still up to the person regardless of gender identity, right? Besides, a lot of children could take offence to the implication that their gender is up for question.

The most straightforward way I’ve worked out to explain “gender is a social construct” in pre-school or beginning English terms is this: “Some people are girls. Some people are boys. Some people are both at the same time, and some people aren’t boys or girls. Sometimes it changes. We can’t tell just by looking, only you know what you are, and you’re perfect exactly how you are.” I’m always grateful for more clear and/or more accurate ways to explain this. Thank you!

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One thought on “How do we smash the gender binary with English Language Learners?

  1. This is really intriguing. I don’t know any Hebrew, but I encounter a similar problem with French (everything is gendered! Even adjectives…). I think asking them about their pronouns in their native tongue, Hebrew, is best, so then you can teach them how to translate that into English. Maybe ask Hebrew speakers how they would go about it? I’m interested in hearing what other teaching methods you discover!

    Liked by 2 people

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