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In the Non-gendered French Classroom and Society

17 May 2023
In the last twenty years or so, there has been a transformation in our society... a transformation in gender. In the 60s and 70s we had the sexual revolution, but in the 2000s, we had the gender revolution. Now, as a tutor/instructor and translator/editor of French, I have some points to make in this regard. 1. French is a gendered language... how do we include transgender and non-binary students in our discussions in a respectful and inclusive way given that the French grammatical system is binary: il / elle, masculine / feminine? 2. Is it possible to use epicene French where we avoid the roles and ways of addressing children and teenagers (and also other teachers... and parents... and people in society in general) with gendered language? 3. Is there or could there be a third personal pronoun used in everyday language to avoid the limitations of binarity? (iel / ille)

I'll start with an anecdote. I tutor young students in French in my part of the province (of Ontario) and I had a young girl named River (10 years old) a few years ago who was in the midst of an identity transformation. She was born a girl, but she felt like a boy and so she dressed like a boy (sorry for the stereotype) and instead she did traditionally more boy-like activities (though not anymore in 2023) like playing hockey and football. Her father and stepmother respected her choice of identity and, fortunately, with a gender-neutral name like River (River Phoenix, a male actor), she didn't have to change her name. When addressing River, I simply avoided the il or elle. I just called her River, always. When doing the agreement for verbs and adjectives, I didn't add the 'e' for feminine. For me, from a grammatical point of view, the masculine form can just as easily refer to the non-binary form. But to add the 'e' or the 'euse' etc. is to refer to a person as feminine, which was no longer the case for young River. River (now 14) is in between the two traditional gender designations. River, at age 10, gave me a great lesson in respect for the individual and their identity and in human rights.

Now, what exactly is epicene language in French? It's an inclusive way of speaking or writing in French (or in any language... especially Latin languages). Instead of saying l'enseignant or l'enseignante, we say, le personnel enseignant. Instead of saying l'étudiant or l'étudiante, we say la classe or les membres de la classe. Fortunately, the word élève is already invariable, and so the binarity of 'un' and 'une' should simply be avoided in favour of the term l'élève.

And what about this new personal pronoun... invention of the 2000s - iel / ille? Personally, I think I would avoid it. We would still have to wrestle with the question of the gender of the personal pronoun iel / ille from a purely grammatical point of view... male, I suppose. Iel est allé au cinéma. Ille est intelligent, and so on. I think the solution for me in the classroom (virtual or face-to-face) is epicene language rather than the use of this new personal pronoun - iel / ille.

In conclusion, a non-gendered classroom or society basically requires the same thing... respect... and respect for the individual more specifically. If we take into account that each student and each reader of a textbook or other teaching material is a unique, individual and whole person, grammatical and linguistic solutions will be easier to find. In my head, in my interactions with students, in my translations and in my texts to be edited or reviewed, I will keep in mind young River who simply wants to be respected and recognized.

Thank you for reading.
For more information, please click on the following link: https://cohort21.com/jenniferbairos/2021/12/28/an-introduction-to-gender-inclusive-language-in-the-french-classroom/

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