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How to teach a linguistic concept to native speakers of a language that doesn't have it? (part 1).

bunny cups
Images source 1, source 2

Language barriers are a real thing. In this discussion, the question arrives at, how to teach across languages that don't share the same gender and numerical grammar conventions?

There are languages where everything has a grammatical gender, languages where nothing has a grammatical gender, and languages somewhere in between. (List of languages with significant gender-neutral aspects.)

Some languages have singular, plural, and dual grammar (relating to only two subjects, as opposed to two or more. For example, the words "either" and "neither" in English), trial, paucal, and even more for grammatical number. Some only have singular and plural grammar. Others only have one form that can be determined by context to be either singular or plural (Japanese, with a few exceptions).

This and other linguistic differences between languages presents technical challenges for language teachers. Namely, how to teach an aspect of one language to native speakers of a different language that doesn't have it?

For example, Tamil, a Dravidian language, has a gender-neutral singular honorific form that is also used as the plural form for rational nouns. Source.

Similarly, English has a gender-neutral pronoun, "they", which is singular or plural, based on context.

I am keen on how people teaching French and Spanish native speakers, would go about teaching gender+number combined grammatical concepts that don't exist for them, like in the Tamil and English examples above. How could a Duolingo course go about it?

Brainstorm with me?

January 14, 2018



I’m not sure there is a simple answer for that. But, for me, one thing is sure: this can work only if the difference has been explained and if the learner is willing to try thinking in the target-language, instead of just translating. As a teacher, I find that the most difficult step is often the first one: explaining how it works, but also why it’s different, why it’s "more complicated", and of course why it can be interesting, more precise… The second step is more about repeating structures that use this particularity, and it will eventually become natural. Strangely enough, it’s not always more difficult to present a new structure than to explain a "lack". Like, "yes, in this language you learn you don’t make the distinction here". This situation seems to confuse my students quite a lot, instead of them thinking it’s easier.

I would add that, in my mind (but I’m pretty sure it’s also the case for you) these differences are what makes it so much fun to learn other languages, since after you see the world in a slightly different way :)

(on a completely unrelated subject: can I use the cute bunny picture you used, if it’s yours? Just to send to a friend who would love it)


Hi Aki-Mugetsu, I'll be replying more fully later when I have more time. For now, I wanted to get you the sources for the images. I tried a new thing this time (I altered two pics, put them together, then uploaded them to http://www.imgur.com. In the description over there, I posted the links to where I'd found the pics. But, I just copied the image address of where I posted them to imgur, and it didn't show me the source links I'd put with them :( Here is the source for the first one. Here is the source for the second one. :)


Thank you, I’ll send this to my friend, he will love them ♥ I’m sorry you had to spend this much time for that, thanks again ^^"


When I lived in Japan and worked as an English teacher, I had a few very enthusiastic students who wanted to learn some French. They could some to me after school for tips.

Grammatical gender does not exist in Japanese and my delightful students somehow internalised the notion that if you are a man, you use male adjectives for with all nouns, and if you are a woman, you use female adjectives with all nouns. I had great difficulty disabusing them of this idea. Since all my students were female (since I taught at a girls’ high school), they used feminine forms with everything. Eventually I stopped correcting them; let’s face it, if you consistently treat all nouns as feminine, you’ll be right about 50% of the time which is not bad for a beginner. :-)


Hi Michael.Lubetsky,

I have read various articles and discussions exploring Japanglish, Chinglish, Spanglish, Vietlish, and other languages have a way of adding twists when melding languages. In the last city I lived in, over the years various Japanese national study abroad students all seemed to arrive at the same name for the Market of Choice across from the university dorms: Makeccho (まけっちょ). This phenomenon is called "Second Language Transference" (SLT) and has various features, a few of which are explored Here. I wonder if the phenomenon you observed in your class would fall under SLT as well. I'm not sure because I didn't know what SLT was called until I finally went searching for it this evening.

Two things inspired me to do this search: An article titled A Linguist On the Story of Gendered Pronouns combined with your comment. The article talks about languages that have grammatical genders that are separate from social categories related to "biological" sex, and languages that relate the two. I appreciate having SLT in my reference banks. So, thanks for that!

>you’ll be right about 50% of the time which is not bad for a beginner. :-)

I observe too many beginners at the Duolingo stage of language learning who are fixated on beginner mistakes. They get stuck on a concept they can't seem to figure out and get so frustrated and discouraged it zaps their enthusiasm. I want to encourage them that if they never go beyond the beginner stage, there is no point in worrying really. And, if they go beyond the beginner stage, to frequently use the language to interact with native speakers, they will encounter the native patterns often enough to learn their way out of beginner mistakes. So again, no need to excessively worry at the beginner stage. ^_^

Thanks for sharing your experience!


The stuff about gender and nouns in some other comments reminds me of something I said in another thread:

"Actually, English still has only one [which might as well be none] grammatical gender. Think of how it's "el nuevo emparedado" and "la nueva manzana" in Spanish but "the new sandwich" and "the new apple" and "the new [each and every other noun]" in English. ;)

"Basically, these things are noun classes: http://www-01.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOflinguisticTerms/WhatIsANounClass.htm :)

"It's just that when a language has two or three noun classes, and especially when it puts men and women into separate ones, some foreign language teachers call them 'genders' instead of 'noun classes' and leave their students more confused than we need to be.

"Examples of other languages, which aren't like that:

  • English, which has all its nouns in the same noun class.
  • Swahili, which has a whole bunch of noun classes and puts men and women into the same noun class.

"Dutch is a special case. It has two noun classes, and still puts men and women into the same noun class (the 'common' noun class includes both men and women, and the 'neutral' noun class excludes both men and women). However, some people who teach Dutch to English speakers still call these 'genders' instead of 'noun classes,' as though they are teaching Spanish or German instead.

"Anyway, calling them 'noun classes' instead of 'genders' doesn't solve all the confusion. Think of the singular and plural of the same word:


  • Mtu (a/the person)
  • Watu (a/the people)


  • La persona (the person)
  • Las personas (the people)

"Some linguists say mtu and watu are in different noun classes. Some linguists say la persona and las personas are in the same gender. Why not say m- and wa- are the singular and plural prefixes of the same noun class too, or why not say la and las indicate separate noun classes too?"



In another comment where I mentioned Second Language Transfer (SLT) to Michael.Lubetsky, I linked to the article A Linguist On the Story of Gendered Pronouns, it explores some of that as well. I didn't get a chance to finish reading the article yesterday. I hope I will be able to at least by tomorrow.

Side note: I found that article while looking for stuff on Dravidian languages, mainly the Tamil situation I mentioned up top in the OP. Somehow, people are linking that and the Singular They. I felt, if I could find how people are teaching Tamil to French and Spanish native speakers, and how they are teaching that singular/plural gender-neutral Tamil word (whatever the word is, I keep finding reference to it but not mention of the word itself. I must have missed something obvious when searching for it without enough sleep), I might find a solution to the challenge I'm exploring, and perhaps also have something to offer to course contributors should Tamil enter the Incubator.

Anyhow, while the article started off very pro-Singular They, it delves more deeply into exploring grammatical gender (noun classes) in general and how it differs language to language, with social gender sometimes being put into different noun classes, and sometimes into the same one. I will be excited to read if the article goes into some historical exploration of when and why and how those noun class differences (ie separating along social gender lines or not came about.) The thing that I enjoy most about exploring language, is exploring its reciprocal relationship with societies. :)


Can you get in touch with the contributors to English for Tamil speakers and ask them?


O.O I had no idea a Tamil course had entered the Incubator. I am so excited for them! =D I will message them and ask them! Thank you lizsue!


See https://www.duolingo.com/comment/22360462 and check the link every week for more. :)


Focusing on your final paragraph regarding French and Spanish, does your question involve how to teach native speakers of those languages how to acquire gender and number combined grammar concepts not inherent in those languages, but which are included in a second language being studied? If I understand this as your question, could you offer a couple of additional examples in the target language in order for me to, possibly, provide assistance?


Hi FrankEdger, I was actually just editing that paragraph after realizing how atrociously written it was. I'm surprised you dared to wade into it before the edit!

Here is an example:
If someone wanted to teach a native Spanish speaker to write and understand the following sentence in English:

Azul went to the library yesterday. While they were there, they picked up a book on Organic Chemistry.

The sentence is gender-neutral and contains a pronoun that is singular or plural depending on context. In this case, it is used as a singular pronoun.

(I would add a sentence in Tamil. Sadly, I don't speak Tamil.)

Both Spanish and French have "Royal Language Academies" that control what can be considered "standard" for their languages. Course contributors on Duolingo follow these standards--at least for French. I don't know about for Spanish. So, although gender-neutral options exist in both French and Spanish, they are not considered "standard", so the courses will not use them as a bridge for teaching English.

Thanks for jumping in!


Haha, I did try to understand this last paragraph before, but it’s better with these examples. In French, for this context, where I guess "they" is used as a singular, there is no real way to avoid using a non-neutral pronoun if you translate directly. However, you could always rephrase to avoid any reference to the gender, especially when speaking, but it can also work when you write. For instance, here, I could just say "Azul était à la bibliothèque hier et en a profité pour emprunter un livre sur la chimie organique" (Azul est allé/e would be grammatically better, but if written then I have to write the two ending, I can include them in different ways: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Langage_%C3%A9pic%C3%A8ne#Fran%C3%A7ais )

For the plural, I would think that we have less problem. For a group of only boys, you use the ending for the "masculin" (ils sont allés), for a group of only girls, the "féminin" (elles sont allées), and for a group containing both, the neutral, that is the same form as the "masculin". (but, I need to insist: it’s not what we often hear, that "masculin is stronger than féminin", it IS what we have left of the neutral form, and the fact that it happens to be the same as the "masculin" doesn’t mean we forget about girls).


Could one translate they as “On” in french, in the above examples, and generally when gender is unstated. I am still fuzzy on the proper use of “on” myself but according the wikipedia: The subject pronoun on (from Old French [h]om, homme "man", from Latin homo "human being") is equivalent to the English indefinite pronouns one, you, and they (as in, "One is pleased to see...", "You never know what will...", and "They speak French in..."). It takes third-person singular verb forms in the same way that il and elle do, and is used.
Also, I fully support any teaching method that involves adorable teacup bunnies!



Any idea if "on" is supported by the Royal French Academy?

I too am interested if that would work and also if it is a strategy that any native French speakers are already doing.


For example “sa maison” could be his or her house. The feminine pronoun sa is refering to the house, which is feminine, and not the owner of the house, whose gender is unstated. Because french pronouns agree in gender with their object, not the person who is doing the action. In theory, this should translate to singular they in English

Nah, in theory this should translate to singular their in English. ;)


No, I am sorry, I have no idea. I can only assume “on” as a word is supported, as it is an old part of the language, but I don’t know in what way. I had always thought On was more formal, like the English one, and was completely unfamiliar with its use in casual conversation until duolingo. I was curious too and tried to look the Royal Academy up online but could not find their officially webpage (though I assume their must be a guide somewhere online) hopefully someone else knows, I did however learn this interesting fact, members of the Royel Academy are called Les Immortelles (the immortals). Also, there seems to be a big debate in France right now about gender inclusive language and the Royal French Academy is definately very convervative.


Also, as a side note, while french is a very gendered language, often the gender of the subject is unstated where it would be stated in English. For example “sa maison” could be his or her house. The feminine pronoun sa is refering to the house, which is feminine, and not the owner of the house, whose gender is unstated. Because french pronouns agree in gender with their object, not the person who is doing the action. In theory, this should translate to singular “their” in English, however out of curiousity I tried this in my English sentences a few times and so far it’s not being accepted by duolingo yet.



Also, there seems to be a big debate in France right now about gender inclusive language...

If you (or anyone else) happen to be aware of quality articles about the debate (for or against) in English, I would be grateful for the link(s).



in theory this should translate to singular their in English.

Are you saying that French would lend itself to teaching Singular They to native French speakers learning English? If so, could you articulate that out a bit more? I don't speak French. But, some who do have, I think, communicated that teaching native French speakers Singular They is not possible due to limitations imposed by the French Royal Academy.

I was rather arrogant in my previous post about Singular They not being too complicated for Duolingo courses to teach. This post is an attempt at realistic problem solving these sorts of seemingly impossible language barriers.

While I am personally interested specifically in how Duolingo courses could teach Singular They, I feel brainstorming a solution to this situation could lend itself to other linguistic situations that might have nothing to do with Singular They or nonbinary people. (Hence the title of this discussion.)

When I am trying to solve something I feel driven to solve, I start from the premises 1. "This is solvable" and 2. "I want to solve this". If one of those two premises are missing, I'm vastly more likely not to arrive at solving it. So, this time around, I hope that if members of the community adopts this mindset too and we work as a team we will yield a better out come than me being as brash as I was.

PS I don't arrive at "this is impossible" only, "I haven't found the right approach", "I found the right approach but is not available to apply yet." or "I erred in how I initially defined the situation" which either closed access to solutions, or I discover that it is no longer a problem I want to solve.


About "Are you saying that French would lend itself to teaching Singular They to native French speakers learning English?"

I wasn't saying that.

SilviaSpells said

"For example “sa maison” could be his or her house. The feminine pronoun sa is refering to the house, which is feminine, and not the owner of the house, whose gender is unstated. Because french pronouns agree in gender with their object, not the person who is doing the action. In theory, this should translate to singular they in English"

and I said

"Nah, in theory this should translate to singular their in English. ;)"

because "their" is to "they" as "his" is to "he" and "her" is to "she."

It's just a thing about possessive pronouns in English, nothing to do with French. :)


As for "how Duolingo courses could teach Singular They", I wonder if it's the right time to do that.

Not in a "society isn't ready for the concept!" way, but a "society has a bunch of ways to say this concept, wait until the native speakers decide which one will be standard enough to teach" way.

I mean, look at the set of present-day options at https://uwm.edu/lgbtrc/support/gender-pronouns/ (they, zie, per, xe, etc.).

It's a little like the way a Duolingo course shouldn't teach a writing system for Inuktitut or ASL because native speakers of Inuktitut are still deciding which of their options to make the standard, and the same goes for native signers of ASL.

Remember these?






BTW, whatever becomes the ASL standard will need to get into Unicode so people can not only write in ASL but also type in it online. Let's hope there's some room left in Unicode by then, instead of all the room for characters left in Unicode getting filled with emoji instead (see https://www.unicode.org/emoji/ and https://modelviewculture.com/pieces/i-can-text-you-a-pile-of-poo-but-i-cant-write-my-name ).

Back to English, it's a little like new tech. First no one has the idea and there's no term to call it, then some folks get the idea and they (especially the ones who write science fiction) come up with a bunch of different terms for it, then the native speakers or signers settle on what their language's main term for the thing will be.

Imagine if Duolingo started before 3D printers were a common idea, and picked "matter compiler" from among "3D printer," "depositor," "matter compiler," "nanofax," "plastic constructor," "stereolithograph," etc. during that initial flurry of new terms for the thing: http://www.technovelgy.com/ct/Science_List_Detail.asp?BT=Manufacturing , then taught non-native English speakers that "matter compiler" was the standard English term for the thing before we native English speakers had mostly made up our minds.

To make a long story short: look at all the options for it, reach a consensus, figure out how to type it if you haven't already, and then teach it in Duolingo. ;)


Just for the question about the use of "on" in French: no, you can’t really use it, since the meaning is something like "we" or a passive form ("on dit": "we say" or "it is said"). I’ve never heard anyone using it to replace a third person… Being gender neutral in this language is hard, unless you create now words (that are not officially recognized), or use avoiding strategies (such as using the name of the person instead of a pronoun).



Thank you for that information.

For the Singular They situation specifically, it is a matter of learning how to make the leap from French to English, and the hope that it could shed light on how to to solve other language barrier situations.

People are also welcome to work on other language barrier situations. Who knows, it might somehow provide a solution still other language barrier situations, and then further down the road perhaps inspiration towards Singular They, or not.

Bridges between seemingly incompatible language and cultures are of great interest to me. Though, so far I've mostly expressed that in terms of my most immediate situation of interest. I wouldn't want to pass up an opportunity to discover something unexpected though! ^_^


Thanks for that explanation!


Hi again Aki-Mugetsu, how about going in the other direction between the languages? Have you noticed any strategies employed? Or, do you have any strategies that you would suggest? The fuller the details, the better. :)


Are you asking about the gender topic or the general topic of concepts that don’t exist in the other language?

About the strategies on the gender topic, I don’t have much to say, but I did notice one thing. It’s generally easier to integrate a neutral use when it’s not your native language. For instance the singular "they" in English, that seems to create a lot of debate in English-speaking countries, seems quite natural for someone who learns English as a foreign language and doesn’t have to fight the habit. I personally encountered it quite a lot in the books I was reading, and the context made it quite clear. I might have wondered during 5 minutes, but not more, even though it’s not something that exists in my native language. And non-native speakers in some communities use it A LOT, even when there is in fact no real need to, and I don’t think they really try to be gender neutral on purpose, they just integrated this as part of the language.

About introducing new features, on duolingo: I’m not too sure about the method. For instance, a simple vocabulary problem: in Norwegian, there is a different word for your grandmother on your mother's side and the one on your father's side. Duolingo just explained that it worked like that, and I had to adapt. I guess it could be difficult for some people to grasp the concept. On the other side, I took the course for English speakers (because it doesn’t exist in my language) and it’s sometimes difficult for me to deal with the single "you" in English for both singular and plural, since Norwegian and French both have a different one in these cases. I already know the concept, but I’m curious about how it works for someone who only knows English.

A last example of how leaning a new feature works for me: in Japanese, on of the things that still need me to concentrate a bit is the number system. To be precise, the word for 10 000. In the other languages I know, there is a word for 100, one for 1000, and then you continue until 1 million. so, 200 000 would be two hundred and thousand, so 200 and 1000). In Japanese, you have an other step, 10 000. So 200 000 would be 20 and 10 000. It’s not complicated to understand, but because we always picture the numbers with the same categories, it can be difficult to use naturally. At the beginning, I had to concentrate a lot and drew a mental picture (or sometimes even write on a draft). So, for 200 000, I was writing with the blank here: 20 0000. I repeated it a lot, and it became easier to convert it like that.

Generally speaking, I think that learning something that is really different from what you know is not too complicated, since you are adding a new possibility in your brain. What is difficult is when it is only a little bit different from the things you know, because you have to "drag" it on the other side of your brain when you use it (sorry for the bad image, I can’t explain it better, but that’s how I feel).

I wrote a lot, I’m sorry… I hope that at least some parts of it will interest you :)


True lizsue, Good eye!


Usagiboy7, here is one article from the Guardian providing what seems like a nice overview to the situation regarding the debate between gender neutral language and The French Royal Acadamy. It links to the Academies official statement (though it is in French) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/03/french-language-watchdogs-say-non-to-gender-neutral-style (I hope the link works, I have been having a few technical issues lately)


"Azul went to the library yesterday. While they were there, they picked up a book on Organic Chemistry."

The [second] sentence is gender-neutral and contains a pronoun that is singular or plural depending on context. In this case, it is used as a singular pronoun.

I find the two model sentences above confusing. If a student were to write these two sentences for me, I would circle 'they' in the second sentence and note 'I.A.,' indefinite antecedent. 'Azul,' presumably, refers to a person and the pronoun in the second sentence should either be 'he' or 'she.' There is no need to be gender neutral with the pronoun and using 'they,' in fact, confuses the reader. If 'Azul' were to be replaced by 'Students' or another collective noun the second sentence would then be appropriate as written.



"Azul went to the library yesterday. While they were there, they picked up a book on Organic Chemistry."

I used myself as the subject in that sentence. My name is not "students." Depending on where I am, people call me "Blue" (I am the "Bunny" and "Blue bunny" course contributors referenced in all of the non "In House" courses aka all courses created in the Incubator".) It just so happens that "Azul" (Blue) is also considered a gender-neutral name in Spanish. It has been given to both boys and girls. (I only discovered this two days ago. I was very excited at the coincidence.) I am legally classified by my home country, The US, as neither male nor female. Neither "he" nor "she" applies to me. :)


My focus in our written exchanges has been on standard written English, specifically the two example sentences that you posted. In those sentences I endeavored to point out that 'one' named individual in the first sentence could not be referred to as 'they' in the second. That was the only point that I have been making. In spoken English, as in may other languages, users can be 'all over the place' as to how they use that language with others to make themselves understood. Many people will adjust the register of their language according to the individual(s) with whom they are speaking. Others do not.

Re: Names. I'm not clear on how you perceived my mention of Ting/Ho Hum to be an insult. This student came to one of our middle schools mid-year. Registration documents contain the name as written on a birth certificate. However, it was customary at intake (in our district of 165 schools) to ask every student what name they wish to go by on a daily basis in school. When a school representative takes that student to the homeroom teacher, the student will be introduced to the teacher with the birth name, and then the representative will mention that the student prefers to be addressed as ____ in class. It may be the given first name, a middle name, initials or a nickname. In this case, Ho Hum ( a real student) requested that he be called by a nickname that he had used in his previous school, Ting. I just used him as an example of a nickname rather than Bobby for Robert, or W.H. for William Hansen.

I don't know how you interpreted that as disrespectful of a culture other than my own. Although born in the U.S, I and my three siblings spent most of our early years living in Europe (my father was a military attaché). I was educated in schools in France, Germany, and England before returning to the States. In fact, I attended thirteen schools between grades one and twelve from among those four countries. I am quite accustomed to being with others who have non-Anglo names and who are from countries/cultures other than my own. I married a German/Lithuanian, my oldest son married a Greek, another son's wife is African-American, my oldest sister's husband is from Israel, and my oldest nephew is married to a Thai. Everyone in my nuclear and extended family speaks at least two languages and some of us speak three or four.


Hi FrankEdger

The misunderstanding came from me interpreting "ho hum" not as a name, but by this usage. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ho-hum and "Ting" as the onomatopoeia (http://www.onomatopoeialist.com/ting/) to bring attention, as people can do by clinking a fork to a glass. I thought you were doing it to indicate you were bringing attention to your feeling that what I had written was "ho hum".

Thank you for taking the time to bring my attention to the misunderstanding to clarify the situation. :)


Blue is also a very interesting adjective in Greek, in its description of color, as it is one of the few color adjectives that does not change in respect to the noun it refers to.

And Greek is quite nuanced in regard to grammatical gender.

ΜΠΛΕ, μπλε : blue written in upper and lower case in Greek.
When pronounced, it also has some interesting resemblance to the way we pronounce blue. Or perhaps I should put it the other way, English pronunciation of the word blue is remarkably similar to the way it is pronounced in Greek.

However in French, it does change its form ( spelling ), and also phonetics ( sound/pronunciation), when used in reference to a masculine noun or a feminine noun.


Blue turtles are so beautiful. Image of blue turtle


Oh wow, that is really cool lindakanga! This is the first I've read of that. :)


This may be totally irrelevant, but the Catalan course is full of blue turtles ("tortuges blaves") doing everything from running (not rapidly) to making too much soup.


That blue turtle is lovely. I wasn't even sure if blue turtles were real or a figment of the course contributors' imaginations.


BTW, I just remembered something: https://www.howtotrainyourdragon.com/explore/dragons/baby-zippleback

Whoever wrote this is inconsistent with the number. "They" could be especially handy here (not sure if it's male or female? not sure if it's one or two dragons? use "they"!).


Re: Legal Classification. To my knowledge, every child born in the U.S. is assigned a gender at birth and that classification is written on a birth certificate. At a later date, a petition can be submitted to the appropriate court of law if the gender needs to be changed. If Joseph decides to become Mary because he self-identifies with females, but does so informally, his family and friends may go along with that choice and then refer to "Mary" using the pronouns she and her.

Re: Names. English also has seen a proliferation of baby names over the last thirty or so years which, in and of themselves, do not indicate a specific gender. And, the spelling of first names in English has also become very inventive/creative. Regardless, whether called Azul, Blue, Bunny, Madison, Courtney, N'Kelle, Antwan, Ski, or **Ting, the name still refers to only one person.

Now, let's refer to the people above. Did you see *Azul today? Yes, I saw him (or, her) at the Library. He (or, she) picked up a book on Organic Chemistry. 'They' can not be substituted for Azul in the second sentence because the antecedent is still one person. Using the pronoun 'they' reduces clarity and cohesion.

substitute any name from the previous paragraph. * student chose this 'nickname' rather than his given name, Ho Hum.



The US states California, Washington, Oregon, along with the District of Columbia all recognize male, female, and nonbinary genders, as do several countries. My pronouns are not "he" or "she" or "it", but rather "they", "them", and "their". The vocabulary of my existence also extends out to the internationally recognized honorific Mx. not Mr. Ms. or Mrs.

substitute any name from the previous paragraph. * student chose this 'nickname' rather than his given name, Ho Hum.

Not being familiar with someone's culture and language usage because they are different is no reason to be insulting them.

Blue isn't my nickname, it's right there on my Social Security card and even if it wasn't, the naming conventions in my culture could likely be different than in yours. In mine, a persons real name is the one they use, whether or not another culture shares this same view. "Blue bunny" is my nickname because my avatar has a blue bunny and "Usagi" means bunny in Japanese. The world is a big place full of people, some of whom are going to be similar to you and others different.

We may use "they" differently, but, it does not make me wrong and you right. It means that your usage, whether personal or regional is different than mine. If you're looking for a language "authority" to confirm my usage, however, Associated Press, Washington Post Editors, Merriam-Webster, The New York Times, The American Dialect Society, and others acknowledge how I use Singular They as an acceptable option. I don't personally rely on them to tell me how I am allowed to use language, considering they don't create the language they endorse. They follow how other people use language and come late to their endorsements.

You don't have to adopt the way I use Singular They into your own day to language usage. We might have regional language differences and that is understandable. However, if you happen to mention me in the third person for whatever reason, please do not misgender me as "he", "she", or "it". If you won't use my correct pronouns, feel welcome to restructure your sentences to avoid Singular They, and use my name in it's place as alternative strategies to misgendering. :)


The concept itself is rather simple and, in theory, should be much easier to teach than, say the difference between "por" and "para" in Spanish.

As you probably remember from doing the Spanish tree yourself, Duolingo's method of handling that is basically to present participants with a lot of sentences and hope that they work it out for themselves. I don't think there's even a separate skill for these words, so the sentences don't even necessarily occur in conjunction with each other.

In practice, I doubt this works very well. Since I did the Spanish tree as review, I didn't have to figure out from scratch when to use which, but I imagine that people who are taking Spanish for the first time end up relying on some combination of whatever they can turn up on the Internet, any other resources they use regularly, forum discussions, and sentence discussions.

To introduce a concept that even native speakers may not be up to speed on, I'd recommend a rather more specific and focused instructional method, but unfortunately can't think of a specific example. (Maybe if I let it simmer at the back of my mind a bit longer.)



can't think of a specific example. (Maybe if I let it simmer at the back of my mind a bit longer.)

Please do let it simmer and bring us back anything it turns up!

One idea I've been nibbling on came from a dream. (No joke, I woke myself up talking in my sleep at a friend's house by saying "Ha! I figured it out!" My friend peeked into the livingroom in case I was talking to them lol. My two most frequent dream scenarios are language-related stuff and apocalyptic survival scenarios. I regularly wake myself up. When I stay over at my friends' houses, they all know to expect me talking about these things in my sleep.)

The idea is pretty simple: Expose people to it like native speakers are, ie encounter examples of it applied in context. Duolingo's format has a picture option that I believe would make this possible:

Picture exercise 1: a person the audience is likely to read as a woman. The answer they need to select is "she/they". Picture exercise 2: "he/they". Picture exercise 3: a group of women would be "they". Picture exercise 4: of a group of men would be "they". Picture exercise 5: a group of men and women would be "they". In this way, English learners are introduced to the concept that "They" can be used as both a gender-neutral singular and plural. No French of Spanish to translate from needed there. Royal Language Academies left in tact.

However, if that is a solution, then we return to whether or not both premises are met, or just the one: 1. "This is solvable" and 2. "I want to solve this". (Unfortunately, I'm not a course builder. So, replace "I" here with "They". Also, there is the possibility that there is still a problem outside of those two things I haven't considered yet. And, if I haven't considered it, then, I want it brought to my attention before I go announcing it as a concrete solution.

I am still interested in additional ideas though and also potential problems with my picture idea. :)


"Picture exercise 1: a person the audience is likely to read as a woman. The answer they need to select is "she/they". Picture exercise 2: "he/they". Picture exercise 3: a group of women would be "they". Picture exercise 4: of a group of men would be "they". Picture exercise 5: a group of men and women would be "they"."

Since the whole point is teaching people to not misgender other people, you'd want to make sure the two people in the first exercise don't feel misgendered by all the pronouns you're assigning to them.

At least as much as you hate being called "he," "she," or "it" (and for all I know you hate being called "zie" or "xe" or "per" just as much) instead of "they," a woman can hate being called "he"/"they"/etc.

Seeing a popular website calling her a "they" too instead of only a "she" may remind her of having been bullied and harassed for not meeting very strict definitions of femininity.

Seeing a popular website calling her a "they" too instead of only a "she" may make those people who bullied and harassed her feel vindicated.

So, don't pick random stock photos for the first two exercises. Find someone who is OK with both "she" and "they" for exercise 1's photo, and find someone who is OK with both "he" and "they" for exercise 2's photo.


Usagi - what you're suggesting is a good first step, but the proces needs a second step that conveys to learners the idea that people often feel rather strongly about which pronouns are used for them and that it's important to get those pronouns right.

I'm not sure how to do this, but a partial solution might be to build the information into some of the sentences themselves:

Example 1: "Mary prefers to be called 'her,' but Jan prefers to be called 'they.'" Example 2: "Mary was upset when the teacher called her 'they,' because she prefers to be called 'she.'"

And so forth.



I was thinking Tips&Notes to match what Duolingo has done for English < Japanese.

In order to translate between Japanese and English, the Japanese pronoun あなた (anata) was used for "you". However, あなた is a sensitive matter. It is considered a very intimate, and so rarely used pronoun. In it's place, native speakers often use the person's name instead of that pronoun, along with other strategies. Employing あなた was done because, like with Singular They, there was a cultural linguistic barrier that needed a solution. I am sure many beginner speakers will make the mistake of using あなた if they are not attentive to language context. However, they will either progress and learn their way out of the habit, or drop off and discontinue learning anyhow.

When it comes to Singular They, I've encountered fewer than five cispeople offline who took umbrage to people referring to them with Singular They. Those folks were rather vocally disrespectful towards trans folks while complaining about the matter. They didn't actually care about the pronoun. Insisting against it was their form of protest for the guidelines insisting they respect the pronouns of transfolks at the events we were attending at the time. The other cisfolks I've met, if they even noticed at all by the time I had a chance to privately exchange pronouns, didn't care much either way when I asked them. They pointed out the obvious, that their gender was plenty affirmed by the world around them. (Because of the cultural tradition of the pronoun exchange, I have discussions with everyone I get to know offline about which pronouns they want me to use for them. At mixed group events where cultural inclusion is a priority, there is often a public pronoun exchange ritual.)

I have gotten quite a few sincere objections from binary trans folks though. And, it makes sense. It is a group of people with members who have fought and died to have their identities validated. So, I totally agree on the need for a cultural sensitivity usage note.



I have not personally encountered cisfolks who insist on gendered pronouns for that reason, but I believe you! I know that cisgender people can also be the targets of gender motivated violence. I have witnessed that. And, I am sorry to those folks who have experienced this. :(


I know a few cisgender people who strongly object to other people assigning the wrong gender to them, not because they are anti-transgender but because they're sick and tired of being misgendered by people who have authority over them.

In these cases it goes like this:

Parent or teacher who speaks English as a non-native: [misgenders child or student]

Child or student who speaks English as a native: "Please don't do that"

Parent or teacher: "I can't help it, my native language doesn't have that!"

time passes

the same parent or teacher who speaks English as a non-native: [misgenders child or student again]

the same child or student who speaks English as a native: "Please don't do that"

the same parent or teacher: "I can't help it, my native language doesn't have that!"

and so on.

If you're wondering why they don't just switch the conversation to the parent or teacher's native language, that's not always possible.

In many cases a native speaker of language A teaching some non-language subject in language B to a classroom full of native speakers of B can't count on most of the students also knowing enough of language A to have those conversations.

In some cases parents actually don't teach their native languages to their toddlers. Sometimes it's from fear of the toddlers growing up ostracized. Sometimes it's from ignorance of how to teach anything outside the lecture-and-textbook format. Sometimes it's from something else. In these cases they can't just switch the conversation to the parent's native language because it's actually not also one of the child's languages.


I know another cisgender (and even straight) person who objects to being misgendered after enduring years of bullying that included misgendering for not meeting one of the bullies' favorite gender stereotypes enough.

It's not an anti-transgender thing, it's a "this really sucks! no wonder transmen and transwomen are pissed off, they get even more of this treatment!" thing.


Hi lizsue, I agree and I really appreciate that you brought this up. Staff mentioned somewhere about moving towards art and away from photos of people. So, when I was picturing this, I was picturing whatever art they had planned to represent men, women, and various groups of people.

What made me really happy about most of the photos I've seen here is that they are staff members. So, when a gender was applied, it wasn't just random stock photos of people who didn't have a say in how they were gendered. (No idea about the kids in the photos though.) This was literally one of the first things I thought about when I started using Duolingo: Who are these people in the photos? Did they agree to be gendered like this? My friends with a similar cultural background to me totally got it. I've even read some comments over the years from people I've never met in the forums who were concerned about the same thing. I find it comforting whenever I know I am not alone in a room/city/website/etc. with such concerns. I don't know what your cultural background is, but, again I'm glad that concern resonates with you as well. :)


So, I am not a teacher, but coming from the perspective of a student, I have mixed feelings about the teaching methods of duolingo in general. Don’t get me wrong, I love the simple bite sized learning and learning by practice, but if I could change one thing, it would be that translation would be removed as soon as possible. Instead of translating from English into the target language or vice versa, I would prefer to learn vocabulary through pictures as much as possible and to learn grammer through fill in the blank with the verb in the proper tense type sentences. I am not a programmer or a teacher, so I do not know how practicle this would be but I think the learning language should be removed as soon as possible. I see this stumbling block alot, where people are trying to translate concepts literally, and I think part of it is because this is an inherent weakness of translation based learning. I see that duolingo is already doing this really well with the stories, but I would like to have this kind of learning indtroduced at the very beginning of the course. I don’t know if this would help teach concepts that are different in different languages, but I think it might. That is my idea at least. However this would require a complete overhaul of all the courses so far probably it is not very practicle for duolingo at least for now.

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