"Singular They" is too confusing to teach on Duolingo. (Is it?)
(Updated Jan 14, 2018)
One of the oft repeated arguments I come across whenever the topic of English's Singular They pronoun comes up is that it is "too confusing" for learners.
Should Duolingo avoid confusing aspects of language?
Imagine a Duolingo German course without genders and articles.
Imagine a Duolingo Spanish course that decided not to include "el agua" (feminine word with a masculine article), "la mano" (feminine but with a masculine ending), or the days of the week (lunes was a plural declension of the singular lune. But in Spanish, "lunes" is both singular and plural), and any of Spanish's flood of irregular verbs.
Imagine an English course without the pronoun "you", which started plural and became both singular and plural source and yet is always paired with plural verbs. And without any words with inconsistent pronunciation (inconsistencies thanks in part to English literally getting rid of several letters in it's alphabet until we are left with only 26. The most recently dropped letters were ETH (Ð), THORN (Þ), WYNN (Ƿ), YOGH (Ȝ), ASH (Æ), and ETHEL (Œ) source.) English pronunciation is so wonky, that literally every letter is silent sometimes.
Confusing as these things may be, they are taught on Duolingo, and yet Singular They isn't being taught in most courses on Duolingo. (I'm not sure it's being taught at all. But, some courses do allow it as an answer.) Why? For some courses, it's a technical difficulty. How to teach an aspect of one language, to native speakers of a different language that dosn't have it? Is Singular They the only time this situation has appeared? If not, how have people approached and solved this issue?
For those who would argue that even if there wasn't such a complication, it doesn't belong in a course. It's incorrect grammar. (What wasn't considered "incorrect" at some point or other?) It's controversial. (What part of language hasn't been considered "controversial"?) Language changes. It changes regularly. Pronouns are not exempt from change (though this isn't a change for Singular They, which has been around at least since 1300. Rather, it is a resurgence.)
This brings to mind Thomas Elwood (1639–1714), an early Quaker's autobiography:
Again, the corrupt and unsound form of speaking in the plural number to a single person, you to one, instead of thou, contrary to the pure, plain, and single language of truth, thou to one, and you to more than one, which had always been used by God to men, and men to God, as well as one to another, from the oldest record of time till corrupt men, for corrupt ends, in later and corrupt times, to flatter, fawn, and work upon the corrupt nature in men, brought in that false and senseless way of speaking you to one, which has since corrupted the modern languages, and hath greatly debased the spirits and depraved the manners of men;—this evil custom I had been as forward in as others, and this I was now called out of, and required to cease from.
Thomas Elwood is out dated and so is the resistance to Singular They.
If we're going to double down on expecting languages to be consistent in gender or number, let's not start where gender minority groups are working to be recognized and to recognize one another as full human beings, worthy of linguistic representation. In truth, people in majority groups have largely adopted using Singular They. It is so normalized in their vocabulary that they don't even realize they are applying it! The resistance usually comes when someone asks, "Please, refer to me with Singular They pronouns." Singular They.
3 states in the US (Oregon, California, and Washington state) and the District of Columbia legally recognize male (m), female (f), and non-binary (x) as legal genders, with more states currently contemplating it. Several other countries and nations legally recognize more than two as well. Here is a map of places that recognize more than 2 genders. (It was created in 2015, so it is a bit outdated.)
The English language has caught up to this reality, but not all of its users have.
I call on the Duolingo course contributor teams to brain storm how we might begin teaching Singular They. Let's complete the English trees.
I've been using Singular They long before I knew about non-binary, so it's obviously not just a thing that was created for "pushing the LGBT agenda" (whatever that even means). It's important on a social level, but it's still important on a purely linguistic level. It's a natural change in language that many are simply refusing to accept, and for no good reason. Language changes, that's just a fact. The accepted standard should change to reflect that. In short, this is a case of linguistic prescriptivism.
The AP Style Guide is the closest, that I am aware, of a standard-setting body for the English language in the United states. And, it accepted Singular They last year Source.
However, that is not to say that I agree that people should only acknowledge language changes that the AP Style Guide endorses. I cite it simply because many people have previously referenced it as an their guide to "standard" English, to refute my stance on Singular They. (Now that it's changed, I wonder if their sacred-texting of it will follow, or if they were just boosting it because it agreed with them at the time. :thinking-face") AP Style Guide is one of the most conservative (cautious about change or innovation), authoritative guides for journalists. It was a late adopter compared to some of the style guides who endorsed it before them. In other words, while being "authoritative", AP Style Guide generally runs behind the curve, even while "setting the standard". (Really, it's just copying ideas that other people had that AP Style Guide rejected for a long time and then proclaiming itself king. :P)
I strongly believe that Duolingo should teach the language as it is spoken. Warts and all.
Now, if singular they is becoming sufficiently well established, then sure it should be taught. But I don't think it is the place of Duolingo to lead the way in such matters.
You could make the argument that language is in motion, and that like any moving target, you aim for where it will be, not where it is ... but this should be driven by seeing increasing usage (measured in some objective way - not anecdotal).
Anyway, that's only my opinion - Duolingo can do whatever they want obviously.
(I am assuming you are referring to courses teaching English here, since in courses for English speakers, I would expect L1 responses to be more varied, and therefore include examples with lower usage - just a guess though, as I have not seen inside the Incubator).
BTW it being confusing sounds like straw man argument - lots of things about languages are confusing ... this would be among the least of them.
Edit: Just in case there is any confusion ... I am not anti- singular they ... I actually quite like it as a solution. My point is about the purpose of Duolingo.
That is a valid point. Currently The Washington Post, the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style are some of the respected institutions that accept the use of the singular they. https://www.cjr.org/language_corner/stylebooks-single-they-ap-chicago-gender-neutral.php in their stylebooks.
Yes, that's a good sign. However, I was thinking more of: is it being taught in schools; does it feature in current popular media (soaps, newspapers, etc). To what extent is it in use? I wouldn't expect Duolingo to do that sort of research, but I would have thought perhaps some university somewhere might produce a paper on it, tracking its progress.
As to the first part of your comment, The Washington Post is considered a well respected mainstream newspaper, and The New York Times, one of the world’s most read and respected newspapers, has also used the singular they https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/05/insider/reporting-limits-of-language-transgender-genderneutral-pronouns.html so I would say it seems that it is increasingly used in popular mainstream media.
I am more interested in how popular something is, than how respected it is - that sounds like a claim to authority. However, these are popular publications, and as more newspapers (including local ones) follow suit then I think you can say it has become established.
Note: My concern is that Duolingo teaches a language feature, that the learner finds is rejected when encountering most natives, because the majority of native speakers have never been exposed to it. That is where the real confusion might occur.
I think the majority of native speakers have been exposed to singular they, albeit informally, rather than formally. In some/many cases, the native speakers have been taught that singular they is incorrect.
The potential problem is using a feature of language that some/many native speakers think is ungrammatical and/or too informal for the context.
In regards to what bO5aplmun.ca says, it occured to me that the somewhat ‘newer’use of singular they as a pronoun to describe someone who is already know, would only be used in context, if you have a non binary friend and they have asked to be referred to as they, for example. As this would be the case, I think they would be appreciative of the effort you are making of aknowledge their identity, and thus would probably be forgiving of any grammatical errors you as a language learner might make.
The language we learned in classrooms teaches things differently than they used to be taught. It is why there are "language families", because language evolves to meet the needs of the language users. I do not speak Shakespearean English. Do you? That wasn't a change that happened all at once or evenly with all classroom lessons agreeing. The change happened over time. Duolingo is a source of language education in its own right. As I said, Duolingo has not prohibited contributors from teaching Singular They.
Edit: If educational centers all agreed not to teach something because it had never been taught, we would be in a bad place. However, Duolingo also wouldn't be the only place to teach Singular They. My university taught it.
The closest thing the US has to "standard English" for publications, to my knowledge, is the AP Style guide. The AP Style Guide allows for Singular They. :)
I agree! Duolingo is such a diverse platform it should use every opportunity available to aknowledge and celebrate this diversity. I have also noticed that while many of the stories feature dating and couples so far I have not encountered a single same sex couple represented yet (I have read most but not all of the spanish ones) This seems like a major oversight. I like what you wrote and would love to see a more diverse, inclusive learning platform!
Hi SilviaSpells, I am very happy to share that those sentences do exist. I don't recall all of the courses that include them, but I know that at the very least Spanish and Swedish do. Here is a link for one of the Swedish sentences https://www.duolingo.com/comment/5685001. In Spanish, wherever the word "padres" appears, it will except "dads". And wherever "su esposa" appears it will accept "her wife". There is a bit of gender non-conformity as well with "the dress is his".
I can only speak for myself, but I know that some of the actual courses (not the stories) have same sex couples represented in some way. The one that springs to mind is that I've seen a Hebrew sentence which is אני אוהבת אותך "I love you" - the verb is explicitly feminine, and in an audio exercise, it told me I had a typo for not using nikkud, and the nikkud would explicitly make the "you" also feminine.
Sorry for the down votes you're getting. If it was actually about language and not homophobia and transphobia, they'd make their case openly. But, it's not about language and they know it. But hey, check out this cool article on the mechanics of how diversity makes us smarter Here. Since it's making us smarter, it might indicate something about your down voter...(not necessarily that they are stupid, but, that they could be smarter.)
PS I found one of those Spanish sentences (Edit, the image was big so I've decided to just link to the tweet Here.)
I can understand the downvotes being transphobic or just a simple disagreement of the user's comment (which is not "phobic" of any kind). However, I don't know how homophobia has anything to do with downvotes if this discussion is about a gender neutral pronoun.
Edit: Actually, I guess I could somewhat see the relation.
There is value to gendered pronouns when they apply. For instance, gender motivated violence is a cultural phenomenon and expressed most often in my own country by one gender of people than others. And so tracking rates of gender motivated violence by demographics, including gender, can be really useful to locating solutions. However, gender isn't always applicable and misapplication of gendered pronouns can skew the perceptions and research.
Agreed. I'm not a native English speaker, and I remember when I was in my second or third year of learning English (long ago), I had picked up the singular they somewhere outside school and understood it to mean "somebody you don't know the gender of". Accordingly, I used it for the sentence "Somebody forgot their umbrella", and my teacher insisted it was wrong.
(In my language (German) we use the masculine pronoun for that, but we're not totally unfamiliar with gender-neutral pronouns, because we've got "man" = "people, one, you" (as in "One does not simply...") - so my teacher was familiar with the general concept, she just had never heard of that use of "they" before.)
I don't know whether the singular they is taught at schools these days, but I'm quite sure a lot of non-native English speakers have never come across it.
Duolingo only offers English, Spanish and French from German. If I want to learn any other language, I have to learn it (most commonly) from English. I think the singular they could use a short explanation in the "tips notes" section, seeing as even native speakers don't agree on exactly when it's appropriate to use. (And hopefully people will read it before they ask confused questions.)
For some languages, that would be good. For people used to a language that breaks "you" up into several categories, English's one-size-fits-all approach may well be confusing.
I think notes are especially important with singular they, though, because we're undergoing a transition and many native speakers will be confused and/or convinced that Duolingo is making grammatical errors right and left.
I predict sentence discussions full of complaints and charges that Duolingo can't get basic grammar right, no matter what - but at least if there is a decent explanation in tips and notes, people who want to respond to the complaints have something concrete to refer to.
many native speakers will be confused and/or convinced that Duolingo is making grammatical errors right and left.
I hadn't considered that aspect! At the moment though, the English base-language courses that accept Singular They go unnoticed unless someone uses it and has it accepted. Those folks already know it is grammatically correct. I don't know if a native English speaker would go into the tips and notes of a non-English base language course to look at the notes for it. If they are doing the reverse course, they are more likely to assume that they don't need the notes for their own language.
I'm certainly not against the notes for both Singular You and Singular They. I wasn't being sarcastic before. For English native speakers, it might not occur to folks that "Singular You" might be just as confusing as "Singular They", but they share the same properties. Both can be singular or plural, and both are attached to plural verbs even if the subject is singular.
This is just a suggestion/idea: Usagiboy7, if you have the time would you consider making a follow up to this post. A sort of grammer explanation/sample tips and notes/mini tutorial lesson on the proper grammatical usage of singular they. I think it might help and be a good place for the information. It would help frame the discussion for anyone unfamiliar with it’s usage and provide easy reference.
using the singular they as a pronoun, is it congugated with IS or ARE?
Singular They, like Singular You, uses a plural verb.
should I say a.”This is my friend Tay, they IS studying English and Spanish” or should I say b.”This is my friend Tay, they ARE studying English and Spanish”
You'll want to go with b. "This is my friend Tay, they are studying English and Spanish.
When talking about the pronoun itself, you can use "is".
For example: "Singular They is a pronoun."
You'll want to observe, however:
"Their name is Michael." (One person's name is Michael and the speaker is applying the Singular They pronoun. ) Is refers to name in this case. If instead it was "Their names are Michael", then there are two people who are both named Michael. (Though, I would be more likely to say "Both of their names are Michael." Or, "They are both named Michael.")
Here is another look at how Singular They and Singular You both use the same plural verb convention:
I saw Michael walking down the street. Do you know where they are going? (Singular They)
Michael, I heard you were walking into town later. Where are you planning to shop? (Singular You)
I will consider creating a separate discussion in the future exploring how Singular They is applied. :)
No prob! If you have more questions in the future, you're welcome to ask.
As for what DesC7 said about style guides, I agree. Language exists to be useful. The only reason I cite the AP Style Guide is because I know some people rely on it to give them permission to acknowledge some people's existence in a humanizing way when speaking. (I had a rude tangle with a newspaper once that insisted on misgendering me because "the AP Style Guide does not allow Singular They.")
None of today's language was original language. It was all new, unconventional, and controversial usage at one point in time.
I think it will only sound complicated if you actually try to explain the grammar and that only because people who learn English as their first language usually have little or no understanding of formal grammar.
Good point. And, I agree. I was recently talking to a volunteer from Vietnam who learned English as a second language. I asked them what pronoun to use for them. After answering, she returned the question. I said "Singular They". She said "I was never taught that. What do you mean?" So, I replied, "Whenever you might have used 'he' or 'she', just use 'they'. If possessive, instead of "his" or "her(s)" use their(s). In place of 'him' or 'her', use 'them'." It was not complicated for her. She immediately began to apply it correctly.
Which reminds me of another point. With binary pronouns, we have "she", "her", "her", "hers", and "herself". Then, we have "he", "him", "his", and "himself". And, yet, context and familiarity means that most native speakers do not even realize this ambiguity. They simply use the language from a point of familiarity, like you've pointed out rather than understanding of formal grammar.
I hope these tips help!
It is alike to Singular/Plural you.
Singular They like Singular You, uses plural verbs for singular subjects.
Singular They has a reflexive usage rule that I may have been the first to articulate, when it comes to "themself" and "themselves." Among casual users, often people will pick, one way or the other and stick to it without regard to context. Others use a mix of the two ways, whichever "feels" right to them in the moment. I would argue that there is at least one situation in which choosing "themself" over "themselves" makes the most sense, and that is when there are two subjects sharing a sentence with a Singular They construction.
I believe I was the first to articulate that guideline for Singular They. Though, that could and likely is a very fanciful thought. However, having stated it, it might encourage someone to go find a more thorough source that I can benefit from learning about. ^_^
When working with Singular They, as with any pronoun, it is important to disambiguate the subject. (Make sure people know who you are talking about.) This is not unique to Singular They. If there are two subjects both of whom "she" applies to, if the passage read: "The two friends wanted to attend the same undergrad classes. It would allow them to save money on textbooks because they could share. In spring term, Becca wanted to enroll in and Earth Science class, but Amina wanted to enroll in Organic Chemistry. She was fine with both of them attending different classes just for that term." Which woman is fine with that? "she" will need to be clarified, or we will be left with an ambiguous subject. The same is true of "After Diwali talked to Jone, he said he was fine." Again, we will need to clarify at some point before or after who "he" is. So, when you have more than one subject who uses Singular They, or one person who uses it interacting with a group of people, that same process of clarification needs to be followed each time there is potential for ambiguity.
(12/26/2018) I've updated my explanation from the picture above. Here you go!
Forms of Singular They: They/Them/Their/Themself/Themselves.
Question: Do we use "themself" or "themselves" for reflexive Singular They?
Quick and Easy answer: This issue is still in flux. Some people pick one way or the other and use whatever they picked consistently. Others will use a mix of the two, depending on whichever one "feels" right to them in the moment.
A caveat: There is at least one situation in which choosing "themself" over "themselves" makes the most sense, and that is when a sentence contains at least two subjects alongside a Singular They construction.
"The person used their sock puppet accounts to nominate themself/themselves."
The person used their [the person's] sock puppet accounts to nominate themself [the person].
"The person used their sock puppet accounts to nominate themselves."
The person used their [the person's] sock puppet accounts to nominate themselves [the sock puppets.]
For more information on themself vs themselves see:
Oxford Dictionary has this to say about Themself/Themselves
The etymology of both "themself" and "themselves"
Thanks DesC7 and Usaigboy7. Those are very good examples and clear explanations of the use of singular they. I only suggested putting the explanations into a separate post for this information because reading the discussion it seems that there are many people who do not understand that singular they is already in common use. As for myself, I don’t know English grammer at all (not that ignorance is an excuse, but we were taught no grammer in school). I agree that many people who I have met who learned English as a second language have a much better grasp of English grammer than many of us native speakers. I understand though why you feel that a separate tips and notes isn’t neccesary though.
Just one more question: This is where I get a little confused for using the singular they as a pronoun, is it congugated with IS or ARE? For example when introducing someone who goes by They/Them/Their pronouns should I say a.”This is my friend Tay, they IS studying English and Spanish” or should I say b.”This is my friend Tay, they ARE studying English and Spanish” or are both is/are correct when refering to a singular subject? They are (similar to you are for singular you) sounds more correct to me and They Is seems a bit less flowy(correct) but They Is was used in some of the above comments as examples. Or is either version acceptable?
Thanks again UsagiBoy7 for answering my question, that clarifies things alot. It makes sense that singular they obeys similar rules to singular you. I do hope you make a post so all this info can be easily referenced at any time, but understand why you feel it is unnesasary. In any case, I feel like I understand how to use the singular they pronouns correctly now!
“But if you prefer to go all 19th century on me SilviaSpells the civil rights mouvement was about giving people more freedom not less”
Excuse, where in this conversation have I gone all ninetenth century by asking a grammer question and the proper and most respectful use of singular they pronouns? How have I been less than supportive of civil rights?
Furthermore, This is a discussion on how to teach singukar they. If there is no such thing as grammer there is no need to teach any of it. I don’t need to learn how to conjugate Etre or Avoir in french, I can just say what I want.
I have been completely supportive of respecting and validating every individuals personal and linguistic freedom, and respectful of a individuals right to be the authority on THEIR preferred prnouns and yet I am being called nineteenth centuray for politely asking a grammer question, on a post about why this very grammer should be taught (taught implying that there is some standard to teach). Furthermore, I am not a grammerian (please read all my above posts). I think style guides are useful, but we would lose half our literature if we were limited by them.
However, i know this is a commone expression that people use jokingly (and if you are wondering I did not report you the furst time and we not this time, but I do remember the word you used in your original post and have logically inferred which post it is)
People who set style standards and write style guides are not Style Guide Fuehers, with all the genocidal connotations this language contains. People who are particular about grammer are not genocidal mass murderors.
I really don’t understand your post or critisms at all ir where they are coming from.
However should I meet you I will refer to you as They is, and jive talk sounds interesting.
I respectfully asked a grammer question and instead of answering me you accuse me of being in the 19th century and unsuportive of civil rights.
I think you're right that tips and notes wouldn't work well as a place to put a note that native speakers would actually read. Given that many native speakers of English have been actively taught that singular they is wrong, I think Duolingo needs to give some sort of explanation, but I'm not sure where it could usefully be put.
At the moment, people have discussed their other language concerns in the forums and used a search engine to do searches for other words they contest in the courses. ("Emparedado" comes to mind.) Those resources would still be available for when people encounter Singular They.
I doubt that having one word for "you" actually confuses many native speakers over the age of, say, ten, since by that point, they have probably been exposed to "you" as a one-size-fits-all second person pronoun and have been taught that other alternatives are not part of formal, standard English.
That said, there's clearly pretty widespread uneasiness among native speakers about the one-size-fits-all approach, given how widespread regional variants for a separate plural you are. (You can, for instance, add "yinz" and "ye" to that list of variants.)
"Singular they" is awful. Worse than singular/plural you. Should it become established, will something like "they all" come next, to differentiate between singular and plural? Choose "he" or "she" or some new pronoun, but don't confuse things by re-using a pronoun already in use.
Is it really that confusing? English isn't my native language and I don't get confused with a singular they. I really like it actually and prefer it to something new madeup. I also don't see the need to add something to differentiate. Context is everything, Germans don't get confused by "Sie" as a polite singular you, "sie" used for she and "sie" as plural they.
I'm sure you and others will be able to figure out if a "they" is singular or plural. It's just an excuse not to accept that for some people it's just the prefered pronoun.
It's funny; it was only confusing for me because I was raised in an environment where singular they was never really taught or used (or, at least promoted). If it was, I never caught on. Or, I was just ignorant. I actually thought it was a made-up thing when I first heard of it. It wasn't until 2016 where I was truly exposed to the singular they. Then, I realized it was a well established pronoun. Now, I'm much more used to it, and it's really not as confusing as I made it out to be. Though, I had to adapt because I was never taught singular they. That's why I was confused about it in the beginning.
Sorry, if I offended you! I think I get what you mean. Maybe I took it for granted that there shouldn't be any confusion even from the start because I was being raised in German with all those forms of "sie" and learning English as a foreign language it was just another concept of a new language for me (one that I actually wish we had, not for myself, but for friends and well, just to talk about people whose gender I don't know, we "only" have a multitude of new made-up pronouns, but none of them stick and they don't flow with language the same way a singular "they" does in my opinion).
Though, I still think, that after some initial confusion there really shouldn't be the need for new pronouns to differentiate between the forms of "they".
Over 100 "new" pronouns were experimented with for more than a century. They all failed because in part they weren't part of the common lexicon (ever heard of the ze, pers, co, or ei pronoun sets?) and outside of that people didn't want to learn "trans pronouns". (Yup, someone's said that to me back when I was trying the ze set for myself.) Did you incorporate any of the alternative gender neutral pronouns your vocabulary?
Singular They is already established. That's no longer the argument at this point. It is whether someone will acknowledge that and put it into their course.
"It" is the appropriate choice for a gender neutral pronoun. It is the grammatically correct and established way of addressing asexual things or things that are neither male nor female. It would take a certain time to get accustomed to it, because at the moment it is not used for persons, but why not? IMO it is more logical to extend the meaning of a word in a way that's in line with current grammatical rules to include a new meaning than to invent a new usage which conflicts with grammatical rules.
But apart from that, these are new and political issues which are highly controversial, and Duolingo is certainly not the right place for this. Education shouldn't be misused for this kind of political movement.
"It" is a non-human object pronoun. It has also been used as a slur during violent attacks. To call someone who is non-binary "it" is a dehumanizing term of abuse.
Singular They is not a new usage, it is in fact very old and never died out. If we want to talk about politics, it was gender politics led by men who drove it to the periphery. Should we now consider that, and your stance, apolitical simply because time has gone by? The negative impacts of that history continue to ripple forward, impacting lives and also clearly discussions even to this day.
"Agender" and "asexual" are not synonyms. Not all non-binary people are agender, nor asexual. There are asexual men and women and we don't call them "it". We call them "he" and "she" or "they". (non-binary folks aren't the only people who want to use Singular They.)
Politics are not banned on Duolingo, so long as they are relevant. This has already been tested in the "court" of staff around 2 years ago, when another moderator and I debated it and brought in staff. That moderator wanted to lock the Swedish sentence "He cooks for his boyfriend", because people were talking about same sex partnerships. His reason for wanting it locked was because those conversations were "too political" for Duolingo. I argued it should be moderated under the same practices as all other forums. Comments should be removed if they are not discussing the grammar and pronunciation of the sentences. Similar conclusion, different reasoning. Staff did not agree that it was too political. Why would they, when Duolingo had helped facilitate an actual relationship, a marriage. I'll talk more about that below.
If politics were banned, we would not be able to discuss anything. When people say "don't talk about politics", minorities lose out. Everything is political to somebody. However, minority issues are the ones specifically framed that way. The consequences? It reduces the places where minority groups can talk about what is important to them, while giving priority and more space to members of dominant groups to represent themselves and their own interests as things that are just a given and not up for debate. (If they come up for debate, the other party is engaging in "politics.")
Take discussions about marriage: If people talk about same sex marriage, that's "political" to some people who don't want it to be talked about. But, if people talk about heterosexual marriage, it's just "marriage" and not "political". Back in 2013, Duolingo facilitated a marriage proposal via it's lessons source. It was celebrated, got news coverage, and people didn't accuse Duolingo of using its platform for politics. It was "just marriage". What if one person had been highlighted as an undocumented immigrant would it suddenly have been political, if it had been a same sex couple, if one or both people had been agender? Would the situation have suddenly changed into one where "Duolingo was using its platform for politics"? Is this sentence political?
Accusations of someone bringing politics into things on Duolingo has come in various forms over the years. Some people frame the accused content and its creator as causing "an unnecessary conflict", "causing a divide", "politically incorrect nonsense", among other things. Let's be straightforward, the mechanics of someone saying "too political" simply put, is to block a group from having equal access to the forums.
Non-binary people have the same right to be here, to use this space, to discuss language matters that are important to them. The people who are not welcome to use the forums to discuss their language-related topics are outlined in the Community Guidelines and the Terms of Service.
I'm sorry Usagi, but your response is in itself political as well. What was your motivation in bringing up the issues surrounding the Singular They? I'm assuming it was most probably because you were offended by the fact that some English learners were not able to understand its usage, which is perfectly acceptable to propose for discussion. What is not acceptable, however, is to imply, through your use of language, that specific political movements are correct and that others are wrong (in your case, the equality of LGBT individuals). This is now turning into a free speech issue where some users, like yourself, are projecting certain parameters of thinking (equality for LGBT individuals) on users, which is restricting freedom of speech and thought, and is venturing too far away from discussion on language. What I am seeing is promotion of controversial ideas posed as a question about language, which shouldn't be acceptable no matter one's standing in the Duolingo community.
Hello again rhythmixed,
I am replying to address some specific things you mentioned in your comment:
I'm assuming it was most probably because you were offended by the fact that some English learners were not able to understand its usage.
Actually, to date I've had zero problems with the EFL folks I've encountered. I simply state that my pronouns are the Singular They set, show them how it works, and they use it. One would think it was a very simple matter, if not for the native English speakers with a bias against it.
this is now turning into a free speech issue
As a point of clarification, "Free speech" is a legal concept referring to the First Amendment, which protects people's speech from the government. And, not all speech is protected in it. Duolingo is not the government. So I don't quite know the point your making with referencing it. Though, it is pretty late. I'll read your comment again tomorrow for things that I've missed on my initial read through.
What I am seeing is promotion of controversial ideas
According the Duolineo Guidelines:
Curiosity, questioning, and cultural understanding are something we celebrate. Be respectful of others and where they’re coming from...Duolingo is a safe place for learners of all backgrounds.
On Duolingo, the Community Guidelines and Terms of Service allow or disallow what language-related topics I am allowed to engage here. I know with a high level of confidence (with a small margin for error due to changes in staff which could alter previous interpretations) what those guidelines are because I review them regularly and have been a consultant for various updates. I am involved in ongoing discussions with staff and other moderators about the interpretation Duolingo prefers for each one.
when I was invited to be a moderator in 2013, I was already regularly talking about LGBTQ issues as they related to language (mainly gender though. BTW interesting fact: LGBTQ is an acronym of separate, allied communities. Though, casually our communities are referred as a singular "the LGBTQ community" ^_^) My interests in language are not a mystery to staff nor a new thing to them. (While many moderators have a linguistics background, mine is in sociolinguistics, aka how society and language interact.) When I visited Duolingo HQ this summer, I was greeted at the door by staff who were newer and they immediately asked me what my pronouns were.
I am aware that LGBT people are not allowed full participation in various social spaces. Duolingo is not one of those places. We are given the same access and restrictions as others here. However, if you feel that I have violated the Community Guidelines or Terms of Service, you have a right to report me for abuse. That way, if I have made a mistake I can learn from it. In order to report me for abuse, go Here and fill out the form. Make sure to select "abuse" under "Type of issue" so it can get to the right place.
There is a difference between using singular they as it is currently in widespead use in English and your proposed use as a replacement for he/she. Singular "they" has connotations that the person is not present, or that the person is a stranger. Proposing that singular "they" should be redefined as a replacement for he/she when referring to nonbinary people is a completely separate topic.
This reply chain is so long that I'm not sure if you are replying to me or someone else. In case you are replying to me, I've stated multiple times in this discussion that I don't endorse getting rid of gendered pronouns. Also, some non-binary people use he/she, and some binary people use Singular They.
I didn't say you were endorsing getting rid of gendered pronouns... I'm simply mentioning that singular "they" as it is currently used, is not being used as a replacement for he/she when referring to non-binary people. Singular they currently has a specific use, as I stated. It's used to refer to people who you are not familiar with. For example, suppose you are in a family and your sister was upstairs. You would say "She went upstairs" and never "They went upstairs" to your parents. But people do use "they" to refer to people they don't know, regardless of whether or not they know the person's gender. Sometimes people might actually use "they" because they don't know someone's gender, but that too is a different circumstance. It is not the same thing as referring to someone who claims they are neither male nor female.
Singular they currently has a specific use, as I stated. It's used to refer to people who you are not familiar with.
We agree there.
and never "They went upstairs" to your parents.
I use a mixture of gendered pronouns and "Singular They" to refer to my own, binary gender family members. My binary gender best friend uses it for his family, and many other people in our region use it that way too. Though, I acknowledge, as you've indicated, it doesn't apply to you.
I'm sorry but, though the use of Singular They should most certainly be taught on Duolingo, I'm not too sure if I like the implied political message pushed here.
(I'm assuming this comment will come off as controversial, but I just think that, if a post is implying a specific political agenda, it shouldn't be discussed. Yes, I respect Usagi as a moderator, but they are treading in dangerous waters here.)
they are treading in dangerous waters here.
There is no danger unless I missed a threat?
Whether spoken or unspoke, the same politics are involved in language, and it is involved in all aspects of language. Even the designation of whether one says it is a cocnout tree or coconut grass is deeply political. So, will you call it one or the other? Will it make a difference whether or not you remind people it is political?
Duolingo is first and foremost a teaching platform, so the use of singular "they" should be tailored to fit the goals of the platform.
For courses that teach English, I think that it's a bit too advanced of a grammar concept to teach beginners. It shouldn't be required to know at such a low level, but it should be accepted as an alternative answer when translating into English and the source sentence doesn't specify the gender. The non-English sentences should specify the genders to make translating into English more straightforward and to avoid situations where singular "they" is applicable, to narrow down translation spaces. It's not bad if the source language sentences are a bit awkward, like the ones in English for Japanese speakers that specify the sentence topic all the time ("kare wa", "kanojo wa" etc.). Maybe if the English courses were longer, then there could be a short lesson about it near the end of the tree, but I think other things should have priority.
For courses for English speakers, the situation is similar, but there are higher chances that an easy non-English sentence is gender neutral. For example, most Hungarian sentences with "ő" referring to people should accept three variants: with "he", with "she" and with "they". I don't know if that is the case, I haven't checked, mostly because typing "he is" is shorter than "they are".
In short: courses teaching English should primarily focus teach more common things, and courses from English should accept it as alternative translations for gender-neutral and gender-ambiguous sentences.
I disagree with your view that
it's a bit too advanced of a grammar concept to teach beginners.
Singular They and Singular You follow the same conventions. As Singular You is not considered too advanced, Singular They should not be either.
The most challenging part for course creators linking to English, will be how to go from Singular They in English, into a gendered language. I would not be the person to decide on a solution to the challenge. My area is not pure linguistics, but rather more the direction of sociolinguistics (how society and language interact). As such, I acknowledge that language in general deeply cultural and controversial at one time or another (whether or not people acknowledge it). Should a linguistic and cultural outsider think themselves the authority of another culture's language? My current opinion is no. Non-binary people aren't only a phenomenon in English speaking cultures though. In such cases, they are cultural and linguistic insiders among whom there would be people who are better equipped and knowledgeable to help address such a challenge.
(Edit: Though, as an English native speaker who is fluent using Singular They, I would be willing to advise on the English side of those courses if requested.)
For example, most Hungarian sentences with "ő" referring to people should accept three variants: with "he", with "she" and with "they".
I agree with you there. :)
In short: courses teaching English should primarily focus teach more common things.
In the United States, Singular They is used so often that AP Style Guide has relented and added it. It is a late adopter, with other style guides adding it before them. People use Singular They so often that most don't even realize they are doing it. In fact, I have used it in my reply to you and wonder if people will have noticed without going back and looking for it. (American English is the language Duolingo bases its English courses on, even though it accepts answers written in British English.
While I disagree with you on some points, I appreciate that you and others have taken the time to engage this topic. :)
Linda7Italian, Thanks for your feedback. I agree it is a tad too long. I was struggling with what to cut out of it before I posted it. I went through several versions of it and this was the shortest. If there is a specific target audience, it is easier to craft a more concise piece for a skilled writer. I have multiple target audiences here and am not a skilled writer. I hope I can continue to improve on this at a later time. If you felt that there was an area that could have been removed without compromising the message, feel free to quote it. I'll consider whether I can let go of it. :)
I go by singular they pronouns, so yeah, that would be great to include. Although it may get a little confusing, as English itself is just a very hard language, even for its native speakers (like me), and maybe some languages do not have a gender-neutral third-person pronoun. Sometimes I even get a little confused with just normal English words since they can have so many different meanings, so hopefully there will be some way to clarify what the words mean in such a context.