Gender Neutral Pronouns in the Foreign Language Classroom: A Call to Arms!

download Top Image: Retrieved from: Accessed: December 30th, 2018                 Bottom Image: Retrieved from: Accessed December 30th, 2018

As someone who has studied French, a heavily-gendered language, but who is also a part of the anglophone queer, transgender community where inclusive language and understanding of diverse gender identities a huge priority, I have at times felt that my interests are contradictory.  Historically, institutions such as l’Academie Francaise have maintained that the French language must continue to follow an established set of grammatical rules rather than make space for change.  When comparing French to English, this discrepancy is particularly obvious when we look at pronouns.  Singular they has long been prevalent in the English language (Baron, 2017).  This pronoun can apply when hypothetically talking to a person of an unknown gender and it is the pronoun that many, but not all gender non-binary individuals use to identify themselves.  In standard French, on the other hand, there is no such equivalent.  Instead, French contains what Ayoun (2007) refers to as the “masculine as default” (Ayoun, 2007, p. 141), when referring to someone of an unknown gender or when referring to a mixed-gender group of people.  Furthermore, a descriptive nouns such as those identifying a person’s nationality or occupation.  For example, while in English the word Canadian describes any person or people from Canada, in French a person, or group could be canadien, canadienne, canadiens, or canadiennes.

Standard French can be a tough language to navigate for gender nonbinary individuals.  English-as-L1 nonbinary individuals may be forced to “pick a side” when learning and/or speaking French (Hord, 2016) which can lead to gender dysphoria and general anxiety.  According to Doenyei (2005), anxiety about the language means less success in the SLA classroom.

Although traditional, mainstream French remains very heavily gendered, more niche groups, especially LGBTQIA groups, have taken strides to adapt the language.  In recent years, pronouns such as iel, ol, li, and ul (The 519) have gained popularity.   This is especially true of queer, non-binary transgender groups in francophone Quebec.

One of my big questions concerning the intersection between Second Language Education and Gender and Sexuality Studies is what can be done in the French language classroom to encourage more gender-inclusive language. This may be difficult as textbooks and other means of learning a language follow a standard model of French.  But what if we incorporate newer, emerging pronouns in the classroom as well?   This would go against traditional French textbooks and curricula, but would allow all students to use language that is more inclusive, even if there are no non-binary students in the classroom.  We can talk about theoretically about a person with the pronoun iel or refer to a group of people as iels.  

I have a general idea of what teaching gender-neutral French in the classroom might look like, but I want to first collaborate with others who have pursued teaching and/or using gender neutral pronouns in French or another historically-gendered language, such as Spanish.  Teachers out there who have incorporated gender-neutral pronouns in the L2 classroom– how did you do it?  What resources did you use? What worked?  What didn’t work?

Feel free to comment below or contact me with suggestions.  I look forward to hearing from you!




Works Cited

The 519. Pronoms neutres et pronoms genres. Retrieved from  Accessed 7 Oct. 2018.

Baron, D. (2017). Pronoun showdown 2017: Are nonbinary pronouns and singular they ruining the language or making English great again? Retrieved from    people/faculty/debaron/essays/Whats_your_pronoun_2017.pdf

Ayoun, D. (2007). The second language acquisition of grammatical gender and agreement.  French Applied Linguistics (141). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.   Retrieved from

Dornyei, Z. (2005). Other Learner Characteristics. The Psychology of the Language Learner: Individual Differences in Second Language Education. (197-217). Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge. Retrieved from

Hord, L. C. R. (2016). Bucking the Linguistic Binary: Gender Neutral Language in English,Swedish, French, and German. Western Papers in Linguistics/cahiers linguistiques de Western, 3(1). Retrieved from :

2 thoughts on “Gender Neutral Pronouns in the Foreign Language Classroom: A Call to Arms!”

  1. Salut! I am a middle school French teacher and I will have my first non-binary student in my classroom this upcoming school year (at least my first student who publicly identifies as non-binary). I am on a quest to make my classroom as gender-friendly as possibly which is…. difficult, to say the least. I have spent my summer researching and think I am ready for the start of the year, but would love to share the experience with others!


  2. Salut Liz! Ca va?

    I would first of all like to commend you for putting the time and effort into creating a welcoming environment for students of all genders. Not everyone takes the time to research and learn as you have (though they should).
    Doing little things to make the classroom more inclusive, such as writing or etudiant.e.s rather than the standard spelling, can make a big difference. Having a small, easy-to-understand lesson related to gender identity can also help, but I know that there may be drawback.


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