French and German stripped of gender as language app vows to promote inclusion

Learning a language online
Learning a language online

Gender-neutral French and German are among the languages being taught by a leading app to promote “diversity and inclusion”.

Online education company Babbel has introduced new policies on the teaching of grammar and vocabulary to be more inclusive of racial, sexual, and gender identities.

Gender-neutral alternatives to traditional phrases in French and other languages with masculine and feminine divisions are being taught to overcome their “limitations” in the interests of inclusivity.

A 150-page diversity guide issued by the German company to staff who devise online lessons instructs them to “opt for gender-neutral language whenever possible” as part of a commitment to “making our content more inclusive”.

This includes offering generic terms for groups of people instead of the masculine forms - known as the “generic masculine” - used as a default to describe groups in many languages including French and Spanish.

Ungendered vocabulary is also being promoted, with the neutral Portuguese word “valeu” for “thank you” being taught as an alternative to the masculine “obrigado” or feminine “obrigada”, or the Swedish gender-neutral word “hen” given as an alternative to “han” (he) and “hon” (she).

The guide states that gender-neutral terms should be favoured, with English terms such as “ya’ll” and “folks” used over gendered terms such as “guys”, while phrases like “ladies and gentlemen” should give way to “guests”.

Babbel uses photographs and extracts of conversations to create immersive scenarios aimed at helping learners practice
Babbel uses photographs and extracts of conversations to create immersive scenarios aimed at helping learners practice

Eileen Barnard, diversity and inclusion lead at Babbel, said: “Although we can’t completely transform the language within our courses, we do have the opportunity to cleverly showcase how certain languages… can still be flexible enough to express diversity, despite the language’s inherent limitations.”

Terms which may be considered racially insensitive are also to be avoided, including words like “blacklist”, along with “sexist” phrases like “make a man of somebody” or “be man enough”.

Babbel uses photographs and extracts of conversations among its learning tools.

A scenario in which a French white man with a typical name like “Pierre” drinks champagne at a high-end cafe would go against new Babbel guidelines, which suggest that lessons should avoid typical names and include racial diversity and representations of immigrant communities, while avoiding scenarios that imply the “privilege” of a high socioeconomic status.

Staff devising online lessons with supporting visuals are told not to treat “drinking alcohol as the default”, and national stereotypes like “baguettes, cheese, berets, and marinières” (striped jumpers) are not to be used.

New lessons will instead depict people with a range of racial, sexual, and gender identities, with a greater focus on representing minorities who may speak the target language.

Ms Barnard said: “We understand that language plays a crucial role in shaping reality, creating mutual understanding, enabling shared perspectives, and fostering inclusion.

“As a language learning app, it is our duty to ensure learners’ experiences within the platform reflect this by offering them a product in which they see themselves represented, and that they feel safe using. Learners and native speakers of the languages that we offer are diverse, so the content on the Babbel platform needs to reflect this.