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Dealing with Sexism in English Language: Classroom Context

We need to be clear concerning what we mean by sexism in language before dealing with the classroom and how teachers can deal with this issue. The expression covers at least three areas of concern:

  • It refers to the area of sex differences in language use; in other words, women speak differently from men, they both adopt different interactive styles.
  • It refers to sexism in the system. This means both men and women are tended to be hidden and women are trivialized and denigrated. It is demonstrated in the use of he/him/his as generic for both males and females as well as the use of vocabulary items for female that carry negative connotations.
  • Sexism in language can lead to alienation. Women are forced to see things from a male viewpoint, since men are the ones who create language to reflect their view of the world.

In addition, words are not sexist in themselves. It is how they are used in certain contexts that can be sexist. Unfortunately, didactic materials often perpetuate sexist stereotypes and teaching methodologies do not always impart the critical thinking skill necessary for their deconstruction. Sexist language is language that expresses bias in favor of one sex over the other and thus treats the other sex in discriminatory manner. The English language is sexist because it is constructed with a bias that typically favors males. In English semantics, or in the meanings available in English, males not only have more words but they have more positive words.

Besides, English does not possess a third person singular pronoun which is gender neutral. Instead the masculine pronouns - he, him, and his - are generally used to refer to males and females. Sexism in language is also showed in the fact that nouns of feminine gender can only be obtained by adding a certain bound morpheme to the noun such as master or mistress, governor or governess.

English teachers need to be open to alternatives and to use them in their own teaching practices:

  • Intervening effectively when students make sexist remarks during class or other school sanctioned activities and using those as age ‘appropriate’ teaching moments to make students more aware of their impact of their words.
  • Encouraging middle and high school students to avoid sexist language in their writing and analysis.
  • Teachers need to know about sex differences in language use in order to adopt new strategies. They can discuss the issue in class with pupils, monitor topics to see they aren’t biased towards boys’ interests, call on girls to speak, look at girls when addressing the class, get girls to chair groups and to report back work.
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