Mónica Sánchez-Torres: Non-sexist language should be made available to all language learners

  • Monica Sanchez Torres

Press/Media: Press / Media


Avoiding sexist language can be challenging for language learners because there is no universal formula that can be applied to all languages. In fact, the strategies that are used in one language can be controversial in another one. In her doctoral dissertation, Mónica Sánchez-Torres explores how native speakers of Spanish and Finnish read, use, and perceive sexist and non-sexist language in English. The interest in comparing these three languages lies in the fact that they convey gender differently and address sexist language differently.

The study investigates three core aspects of language: language processing, use and attitudes. One of the major findings is that language learners implement the strategies for non-sexist language that they use in their native tongues. In this case, Spanish speakers use more gendered forms in English than Finnish speakers. For example, Spanish speakers employ more feminine nouns such as poetessauthoress, and actress when referring to women, and double pronouns such as he/she when the gender of the person is unknown.

This is because Spanish speakers use feminine forms in their native tongue to avoid masculine generic forms and at the same time to render women visible in the language. In English, however, some of these nouns can be very controversial. On the other hand, Finnish speakers use more genderless forms altogether, because they are less accustomed to expressing gender in Finnish and see such practices as sexist.  

“This does not mean that Finns did not use gendered forms and Spanish speakers only used gendered words. In some cases, both Spaniards and Finns used singular they and genderless nouns such as poet or chair”, Mónica Sánchez-Torres explain.  

The absence or presence of grammatical gender does not determine the level of sexism in a language

Regarding the attitudes towards sexist language, the study reveals that Spanish speakers are more familiar with the topic because it is more frequently covered in the Spanish media. In Finland, the mainstream discussion only arose in 2017 when Aamulehti published in their editorial that they would drop all gendered titles.

Another interesting result is that people think that the more grammatical gender a language has, the more sexist it is. However, the absence or presence of grammatical gender does not determine the level of sexism in a language. Sánchez-Torres says:

“Finnish speakers believe that their language is neutral because there is no grammatical gender, but gender can be expressed in multiple ways, and it is still possible to convey sexist messages. For a Spanish speaker, it would be inconceivable to address a woman as puhemies (eng. spokesman) and claim that the word is neutral or that it has no gender.”  

Non-sexist language should be taught during the language lessons

The most significant result from emerge of this study is that most of the informants who took part in the study believe that non-sexist language should be taught during the language lessons. This is because when we learn a language, we are still taught words and expressions that can be regarded as sexist and discriminatory in certain contexts.

At the same time, as language learners, we are not made aware of the connotations that such words convey. If students are not presented with alternatives to these words, they will not learn them outside the classroom either. 

“For example, how do we call a person who delivers the post when we do not know their gender? Is it postpersonpostie or mail carrier? Most language learners do not know any genderless alternatives. Teaching non-sexist language is not about teaching what is right or wrong, but about the different options available when they encounter these situations”, says Sánchez-Torres.

Sánchez-Torres hopes that with her study the discourse over sexist language will remain active especially in multilingual and multicultural environments due to the challenges that language learners face when learning about the best practices within each language community. 

If you are still wondering how to address the person who delivers your mail, here is the answer: the denotation postperson does not really exist. In US English, using mail carrier is preferred. In Britain, letter carrier is more common but colloquially postie is also used.

Public defence on 14 April 2023

Doctoral Candidate Mónica Sánchez-Torres was born and raised in Guadalajara, Spain, but has lived and studied in England and Austria before moving to Finland in 2012. She is currently on maternal leave but hopes to continue her work as a researcher in Finland. 

The doctoral dissertation of Master of Arts in the field of English philology titled In the eye of the beholder: processing, use, and attitudes towards (non-)sexist language in a second language will be publicly examined at the Faculty of Information Technology and Communication Sciences at Tampere University at 12 o’clock on Friday 14 April 2023 at the city centre campus in the room D11 of Päätalo, Kalevantie 4, 33100 Tampere. The Opponent will be Professor Anne Pauwels from SOAS University of London. The Custos will be Professor Emeritus Juhani Klemola from Tampere University the Faculty of Information Technology and Communication Sciences. 

Period14 Apr 2023

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