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.

March 6, 2013

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.

March 6, 2013

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.

March 6, 2013

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

January 28, 2014
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