Language has the power to influence our perception of the world. Psycholinguist Dr. Sayaka Sato from the University of Fribourg explains how grammatical gender (“le, la” or “der, die, das”) influences our worldview and how we can use inclusive language to make people believe in themselves when choosing a profession.
fortytwomagazine: Dr. Sato, how does grammatical gender, such as “le”, “la” in French, affect our worldview?
Dr. Sayaka Sato: In our research we see that linguistical or grammatical markers influence how we unconsciously perceive visual information.
We studied both English native speakers who don’t speak any other languages and French-English bilingual speakers in an English context. They were presented with pictures of objects that are stereotypically related to either women or men. For example a necktie or a necklace. They looked at one of the pictures, and afterwards they were shown an androgynous face alongside a female and male trait word (e.g., “charming” vs. “realistic”). The participants then had to decide which word best described the face.
In theory, they don’t have to make any connections with the object seen before but bilinguals are very much influenced by the grammatical gender of the object they’ve seen. For example necktie is feminine in French “la cravate”, whereas necklace is masculine “le collier”. English monolingual speakers – our research findings show – seem to be influenced by the gender stereotype associated with the object.
42: Apart from grammatical gender, we also find different linguistic forms that express gender in certain professions or lines of business.
Sato: Yes, we’ve conducted many studies on how we talk about certain groups of people in grammatical gender languages, for instance in French. Nurses might be usually or stereotypically associated with being pursued predominantly by women. But even if you have 100 nurses, if there is only one male we would still refer to them using the masculine form, that is “100 infirmiers” instead of “100 infirmières”. It’s a grammatical rule in French, but we found the mental representation is much more dominant towards the male gender, the moment we start using the masculine form to refer to a group of people. Even if the stereotype is very much associated with the female gender.
If we were to have a job description, using the male form to talk about the open position for nurses, this male representation actually starts to dominate in our perception.
42: But since it’s a grammatical rule, everybody should know that they’re also included when such terms are used, shouldn’t they?
Sato: There are studies showing that children and especially girls, who witness that we use the masculine form to refer to certain jobs, are less interested in these professions. They can’t picture themselves in this job role. So it really pushes the stereotype even at such a young age.
42: What happens when you use the feminine form?
Sato: When we start to incorporate the feminine form – so instead of saying “mécanicien” only in the masculine form, using “mécanicienne” – we find that girls and even adult women are much more likely to feel that they can succeed in a job labelled in this manner.
42: Then using inclusive language has a big impact.
Sato: Absolutely. In the past 20 years we’ve seen the number of scientific studies increase that show using inclusive language explicitly does change how we see the world and how children perceive their future.
42: What about monolingual speakers who don’t rely upon grammatical gender?
Sato: Speakers of languages without grammatical gender, like English, aren’t influenced by grammatical markers, but rather by how the world (and social roles) are constructed. So if you were to talk about nurses and there is no masculine generic form, they’ll only rely on their knowledge. In this case: nurses are women. The battle is a little bit different here.
42: Can the inclusive use of grammatical gender language counteract the stereotypical system that is in place? For example, in German or French you may include and motivate girls or women to apply to jobs that are perceived as typically masculine using inclusive language?
Sato: Speakers of grammatical gender languages are influenced by their world knowledge as well. But they have the second element of grammatical gender information, so it’s actually much more complex.
But the issue of gender in general is just a very complex one in every sense. For instance, if we take non-binary groups, the discussion becomes even more profound, but there’s always a better way, at least linguistically, to approach the topic. For speakers of grammatical gender languages, it’s really important to use inclusive forms, where both boys and girls and non-binary children can feel like they can be part of any (job) group. If we start using more inclusive forms, there’s going to be a change. So there’s much hope for what we can do.
Interview by Ella Steiner
About Dr. Sayaka Sato
Dr. Sayaka Sato is a senior researcher at the Department of Psychology of the University of Fribourg. For her research she conducts psycholinguistics experiments and investigates how linguistic information, especially grammatical gender categories, influences our perception and categorization.