Part of the joy of traveling is learning about how things work differently in different places, learning to question our assumptions in order to think differently about the world. Sometimes that learning occurs during the most unexpected and mundane moments - like taking attendance on the first day of class.
On my very first day of teaching in Budapest as part of my Fulbright, I had one of those teaching moments when I stumbled into the gender rabbit hole. As part of a get-to-know you assignment, I had students interview each other and ask about basic demographic information, with the idea that they were then to introduce their partners to the class. It was:
a way for me to get to know each student
a way for students to get to talk to each other
and a way to ensure that each student had an opportunity to talk on the first day of class
It is an assignment I have used countless times in the U.S. with very little difficulty - but that was in the U.S. and not in Hungary.As part of this assignment, I asked students to indicate the pronouns I should use when referring to them. This is standard practice in my U.S. classes and it is a way for me to be sure I am respectful and honoring a student's identity and also a way to signal to other students that this is something that is important to be mindful of. In the past, I have not always been so attentive and have made careless mistakes. I once used to ask about "preferred pronouns" until I had one of students tell me that I should refrain from using the term "preference" because doing so indicated that this preference was somehow optional and not mandatory. That is, it's not who I prefer to be, it is who I am.
With that in mind, I made sure to write in my handout that students should inform me as to how I should refer to them and believed doing so would be pretty self-explanatory
It was not.
Moments into interviewing each other, I could hear students pausing and stumbling when this question arose. Aha! I thought - it is because they do not know the difference between sex and gender - and so this question of pronouns appears odd and different.
But that was not the case at all - at least not for this class. Much to my surprise, my students were well-acquainted and versed on the differences between sex and gender, so this was not the reason for the pause. Instead, what was causing the disruption was language. In particular, the language of my informal questionnaire.
As I soon came to learn, certain languages can constrict or enable greater gender expression than others and that this flexibility is all a matter of degree For example, while some languages have a pronoun for genders (e.g. think English and it's use of he and hers), and other languages have a pronoun for genders AND objects (e.g. think of my beloved Spanish and its use of el/ella for persons as well as its use of la and el objects - as in la mesa for the table, and el sillón for the rocking chair) - other languages, such as Hungarian (and Estonian and, indeed many more) do not have gender-specific pronouns, and indeed do not have a grammatical gender at all.
So, in essence, what this meant is that at least for my Hungarian students, when I asked about their gender pronouns, this question posed a difficulty because they had to think about how they would identify in English. That is, the language of the questionnaire was forcing them to think differently about a concept (which as a psychologist poses a whole host of questions on methodological equivalence). Now to be sure, I am NOT saying that these students had not thought of their gender (clearly many had) they just did not know how they would approach this question - for this class.
HOWEVER, before we all go and drop English and speak Hungarian (which is actually not such a bad idea), it's important to realize that "genderless" languages do not necessarily predict more progressive attitudes toward women and that, in fact, " so-called genderless languages can express societal sexist assumptions linguistically". How? because of a host of sometimes hidden (and not so hidden assumptions). Indeed, speaking a non-genderless language does not necessarily predict pro-feminist attitudes.
How do I know that? because in researching this topic I ran across another thoroughly thought-provoking article on gender, language and feminism.
and who wrote this article? My landlady
Vasvari, Louise. (2011). Grammatical Gender Trouble and Hungarian Gender[lessness]. Part I: Comparative Linguistic Gender. Hungarian Cultural Studies. 4. 10.5195/ahea.2011.40.