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Reinforcing gender norms

Though duolingo is amazing for its learning languages (thank you!!), I am disappointed to see it strongly reinforcing traditional gender norms and sexist roles. For example, when learning French, I have had sentences including the words for 'woman/women/girl/girls' often associated with cooking, cleaning, prettiness, and other stereotypically feminine things, whereas sentences including male pronouns have been associated with the words for 'beer', 'strong', and other stereotypically masculine subjects. There is absolutely no need for this.

There have also been a lot of sexist phrases about the things a wife or husband 'does' that reinforces really sexist notions (and duolingo also creates only heterosexual pairings when describing relationships).

I have to say, I'm disappointed.

March 6, 2013



I completely agree with the issues you identified. The misconception with this kind of topic is usually that it's only about the female image, but I believe that male images can be equally distorted. What if a man happens to love cooking? What if he doesn't drink alcohol or isn't into sports? What if a man likes studying languages better than studying physics? Duolingo doesn't seem to have much trouble with turtles or elephants eating all kinds of things so why should there be any bias about what women and men can and can't be/do? I think that things like "pretty" and "strong" are unhealthy standards to live up to, but if you do want to teach them, use them with both genders. (I would prefer handsome over pretty for both genders; you can reserve pretty for pictures)

There is something I would like to add to this. Duolingo seems to have a system where it expects a certain sentence. If you don't give that sentence, the program might say that you are correct, but it displays its sentence too. The problem with this system is that if you do give their sentence, they don't give any other suggestions. For example, if you are asked to translate "they" in French, their suggested sentence contains "Ils". If you use "Elles" the program will say that it's correct, but "Ils" is correct too. However, this doesn't seem to happen the other way around. If you give "Ils", you are usually told that you are correct and you move on. I would like a better balance where both male and female options get equal attention even if a language has a gender bias.

Although worded eloquently, ogergo's reply seems to be mostly nay saying. I don't see why these so-called "inner images" should be in the way. I think that it is actually easier to remember unusual things than stereotypes that you never think about or that you associate with your own language. And I'm not worried about confusing sentences. The twitterpage dedicated to funny sentences is not going to explode if you say "the strong woman" or "the man is cooking". I also don't see how "traditional roles can be a great source of humor"; could we get an explanation for that? The challenge might not be as hard as it seems because it's only a case of creating sentences based on what is grammatically possible and not on what is stereotypical. I think that it is always important to challenge myths about what is natural and I hope that people will take on that challenge.


Hey westwood :) I can understand your points. The first thing that popped up in my head however, was that I had not experienced these sentences in the languages I'm learning. (Mainly Portuguese). In fact, I distinctly remember duolingo giving me the sentence "Os homens ficam na cozinha" = "The men stay in the kitchen." repeatedly! I'm not taking away the value of your words by saying that I hadn't experienced it myself however! I agree with Lenkvist that the "stranger" sentences tend to stick with you a lot easier, and don't impede (my) learning by not being something more "familiar". Just look at how my previous Portuguese sentence is still fresh in my mind. :P Now a good question to ask is...I think, and strikes at the root of it all is, where do these duolingo lesson sentences come from, how are they formed? I myself don't know for sure, maybe its been addressed somewhere but I don't know it. Feel free to inform then. :) I've seen a sentence in Portuguese that translated to "The devil wears Prada". Could it be that sentences are taken off internet articles or the like? If thats the case then it might then depend on avaialble material in that language, and that duo isn't really trying to enforce some sort of gender norm.


I totally agree. A lot of it comes down to the sourcing and any biases that may be present in phrase generation, which I think we as user a community know very little about.


What I like about this discussion that it points out what has been defined as a cross cultural challenge. The thing Duo will have to deal wit anyway. I mostly agree arguments you westwood_13 and Lenkvist have written. I expect more of this stuff when the Chinese, the Japanese, the Arabic languages will be part of Duo. Just imagine an Arabic-English course.

I also agree that repeated sentences can affect our paradigm, but on an intermediate level, our foreign impressions are already coming from diversified sources like news, songs, TV series, and films. And these cultural inputs are much more concentrated and credible (also stuffed with native stereotypes).

As a civilian I consider availability (new languages for new masses, nations, people) the biggest value of Duo, and also its biggest quest. Also as a user I believe content quality (as a result higher level of bilingual knowledge) and functionality (faster learning, more enjoyment and motivation), managing the crowd (us) are way more important to be improved. The effect of every invested minute on the above listed brings so much more positive benefits that I feel the gender concerns quite weightless compared to them. I know this feeling is misleading and the concerns are real. But my so said nay is just my way of choosing different priorities.

I would prefer not going into the discussion from the civil and the personal view. For me Duo primarily is a language learning tool. I also believe the value transfer is mainly happening not in the sentence content level, but on a deeper structural level.

If I may eloquently :-) reinforce my previous sentences, I do not mean to express disrespect or negation to any points here. What I believe that the value created by getting bilingual or even speaking more languages is overwhelming according to the harm stereotyped sentences can cause.

These are my points which are, I know, more pragmatic. But living in a smaller non English speaking country, it’s almost painful for me that I cannot share my Dou experience with those who do not speak any of the current languages Duo offers. For me this is the equality issue.

And Lenkvist, my German course makes me smile several times when I meet the articles, and try to memorize the German noun with gender and pair it with my own pictures (my language does not work with genders) and yes, I found some sentences funny but since those would need personal explanation I will not share them.

Anyway you still have the freedom to report a sexist sentence and suggest alternatives.


I am disappointed by this as well. Thanks for writing about it.


Definately. Also,I'm leaarning russian and all of the sentences are like "she is a woman" "her name is vera" and also "I am Ivan" which I was okay with at first I guess but I like never get a sentence for women which is so sexist


Wow, westwood_13, I'm so glad that someone else has noticed this. It's been increasingly irksome, particularly the sentence 'boys will be boys'. How ridiculous. It totally interrupts my learning concentration when I come across sentences such as these.

I can see why people are saying that the occasional sexist translation is outweighed by the good that duolingo does. I would rather have a sexist leanguage learning platform than none at all if I had to. But there's the thing, we don't have to. I don't think it's asking much for unbiased translation sentences.

I particularly like the point that Lenkvist raised about supplying other correct answers, regardless of gender bias inherent in the language.

Je ne suis pas une baleine! Je suis une femme!

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I think this it's enough that this site is a an effective educational tool, it doesn't have to also be a perfectly politically correct one.

Already, I think it's an incredibly friendly, unoffensive site, unless maybe you're some kind of crusader looking to be offended by little stuff.


I agree, it is effective and it is friendly. But the insidious stuff adds up. Learning a language is the first and most crucial step in learning a culture. Here is a really great opportunity to stop perpetuating sexist, misogynist notions that permeate our culture. The phrases used give a window into 'this is how things are' in a particular culture. Is this how we want to view and be viewed? Based on the phrases I have been given, my current view of France is that women cook and wash their dresses and men are strong and drink beer. Yes, they are just words, but given that Duolingo encourages repetitions of up to hundreds of times for learning purposes, the message sinks in subconsciously along with the vocabulary.

It would be REALLY easy to change, to reflect different genders performing a variety of jobs or being associated with adjectives that don't perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Given the potential size of the user base, it should be fundamental that there is an effort to respect diversity. Furthermore, there is an incredible opportunity to advocate for values of equality, or at the very least, not perpetuate entrenched notions of inequality.

You'd be surprised by the big differences small changes can make.


While understanding your point please consider that traditional roles are used here to help learning. Most of the students have experience about traditional roles and it is easier to translate those "inner images". Translating unexperienced situations lead to confusion and there are several discussions about confusing sentences. The other point is that traditional roles can be a great source of humor that also can help the learning process. Language learning is really about transforming your existing knowledge to a new set of words and grammar. It starts as a basic process and it is hard not to make it a reinforcing process on the "mostly experienced everyday world".

Please do not misunderstand me, I respect your point. And you reflected on a very important characteristic of Duo. By reaching literally millions Duo has to think about all current issues like gender norms religious issues when designing a course. And it is a tough challenge.


I agree that there are tough challenges that come with cross-cultural platforms. However, that does not mean we should reinforce stereotypes and norms that can be harmful.

For example, if we were living in the climate of the US in the late 19th or early 20th century, it would have been completely legitimate to translate words phrases like, "the black man cooks my dinner". This would fully reflect the 'inner images' of many people. That may sound like an extreme example, but it is really not, given some of the stuff I have had show up concerning the roles of both women and men.


This argument is weak! Not having inclusive words for leadership positions in Duolingo only reinforces unhealthy cultural norms. Some examples I've encountered: 'businessman' and 'spokesman'. I know enough women who own companies and senior positions in large organizations to know that Duolingo's 'traditional translation' does not make sense to a new learner.


They're not used to help learning when we get sentences like 'she is her wife' appearing early on in languages from countries where that is not yet a legal possibility though - and where people are still trying to get a grasp of the pronouns, that is potentially confusing. It's odd to be so determinedly PC in that respect and so backward in the general sexism. And Westwood13 is right about the weird stereotyping (which I think is appearing to different degrees and in different ways in the different language streams - the French one is obsessed with women's appearance to the point where I've felt like throwing something at the screen after endless repetitions), whilst the German seems to be all about the transvestism at the moment!).


Keep your sexist ideas to yourself.

Women have been oppressed for years because these 'traditional roles' and you are encouraging Duolingo to spread them. Shocking

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