Saturday, November 04, 2006

I Reinforce Gender-Roles

Though all these abstract discussion are fascinating, I'm attempting to Jeff's wish that we continue to discuss what feminists can actually do to help. Time for another personal anecdote:

I speak Japanese. Not fluently, but well. And I have taught Japanese in a variety of formats and contexts--most lately an actual classroom course. And in those classes, I have consciously, knowingly, treated boys and girls differently. And it is beginning to bother me.

You see, Japanese speech contains, on the whole, a lot more information about the status of the speaker and the addressee than English. There are actually separate conjugations--different tenses, in essence, of verbs--for formal and informal situations. There are at least a half dozen words meaning "I". There is the generic "I", the youthful masculine "I", the reserved and ladylike "I", the girly-exuberant "I", the course and macho "I". Simply by choosing a pronoun with which to refer to oneself, one chooses a station in life.

There are, as in any language, many subtly different ways to say the same thing, some more certain, some more hesitant, some more aggressive, some more passive, some more direct and some more circuitous. There are tiny little sounds that attach to the end of a sentence; some make a statement an affirmative declaration, others, a request for confirmation.

Japanese-speaking men and women speak, in effect, different dialects of the same language; there are many words reserved exclusively for female use, and some for male. (There are more for females; as in all cultures, one has to work harder to be feminine, while masculinity is the default) The same goes for certain sentence structures.

It should come as no surprise that female Japanese is more hesitant, more flattering, more deferential,and more self-deprecating than male Japanese.

What can I do about it? A major goal of my teaching is to help students not only be able to understand and communicate ideas--many already grasp vocabulary and syntax from self-taught textbook sessions or copious anime fandom-- but to help them be culturally fluent in Japanese--to convey not only the appropriate facts, but the appropriate feelings, and the appropriate mannerisms. I strive to teach my students to speak Japanese as a Japanese person would speak it.

I teach my students to speak in a gender-appropriate. I have even, on occasion, "corrected" my female students by suggesting ways in which their speech could be made more feminine. I would never, as a general rule, tell my female friends they need to be more "ladylike' but as a language teacher I have done so without even thinking about it.

I do explain what I am doing and why, and allow students to speak as they chose. But I definitely encourage students to conform to gender roles. I have reasons for doing this-- knowing how is, to my mind, part of learning the language "correctly", is a necessity for fluency is you define fluency as "speaks in a fashion not distinguishable from a native speaker"

This all seems to make sense to me, and yet when I apply the same logic to domestic affairs, the result is repulsive. The ideal solution, I suppose, would be to teach both ways of speaking and encourage students to choose carefully, and as much as I can , I do. But class time is limited, and students remember what I make them practice; for the students who are not motivated enough to study gender issues on their own, I am forced to make the choice for them. Making my students speak submissively seems like a great injustice.

On the other hand, teaching my female students to speak in a way that will mark them some combination of outlandish, rebellious, and ridiculous if they visit Japan isn't a great choice either.

Thoughts?
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