Languages and gender, through the eyes of a three-year-old (by Kathleen Green)

My sister, her partner, and their two kids came to visit me here in Montreal this past weekend. Because I feel the need to try to explain everything in great detail to my 3-year-old nephew, and because I’m just fascinated by everything he says and thinks, these visits inevitably get me thinking about things like belonging, identity, language and diversity. Two of the things I’ve been coming back to since this last visit are how to engage monolingual children with the multilingual reality of their world and how to allow kids to play with concepts like gender, while also preparing them to live in a world that doesn’t always welcome that kind of play.

My nephew is from a pretty strongly Anglophone environment and doesn’t have much opportunity to hear or interact with other languages in his everyday life. So, when he comes to Montreal, I try to get him thinking about the existence of other languages. He says “bonjour,” “merci” and a few other words or phrases when prompted to do so, but tends to get frustrated if people in his trusted circle spend too much time speaking French in front of him. I think that part of this frustration comes from his knowledge that my sister, my partner and I sometimes speak French when we want to discuss something in front of him that we don’t want him to know about. I’m nervous that this practice of ours has given him a bad taste for languages other than English. Should I not be doing this? I wonder if other parents (or close, adult family members, like me) of monolingual kids have come up against this kind of resistance to the presence of other languages in their kids’ lives. How, I wonder, do I make playing with languages fun for him?

Another thing that my nephew had me rethinking this weekend is gender – how we identify with our genders, how we teach gender, and how performing gender like everyone else does helps us to feel like we belong. For at least a year now, my nephew has thought that I’m a “boy.” Every time he says this, his mother corrects him, telling him that I’m a “girl,” but he inevitably reverts back to thinking of me as a boy. This doesn’t bother me in the slightest, and I think it has actually opened up some pretty great opportunities for talking to him about how complicated gender is and that it’s okay for boys to be like girls and for girls to be like boys. My nephew is not the only person to read me as male (though normally, the other people who do are strangers) and his insistence has gotten me thinking about what kinds of cues I give out that make it easy to interpret me as male.

As I’ve been thinking about how my body, voice and mannerisms are interpreted, my mind has turned to thinking about how gender – and how my gender is interpreted – has a huge influence on the ways that other people are allowed to interact with me and the ways that I’m allowed to interact with other people. I wonder if this is something that others spend lots of time thinking about. Do you ever notice how your interactions are constrained by how your interlocutor thinks about people of your gender? Have you ever challenged this? Does anyone else have examples of moments when they have been read as another gender and how they feel about or respond to this?

Apple Emily.JPG
Kathleen with Emily

Getting back to my nephew, his favourite fictional train character (from a series of shows and books) is called “Emily,” and he often insists on being called Emily when playing (or just when living life). I thought this was adorable, and played along joyfully, but continued using male pronouns for him and calling him a “boy.” At one point, while we were playing, I said to him, “you’re such a lucky boy!” He stopped, gave me a confused look, and said, “Um, Emily’s a girl.” To which I replied, “You’re right, Emily. You’re such a lucky girl!” This was met by a huge grin, and we continued playing. I’ve been thinking about this interaction of ours quite a bit, since. Part of me thinks that it’s great that he’s given the freedom to play and experiment so freely and in such safety. Part of me is worried that I’m not properly preparing him for the world that he’s going to be living in.

It seems to me that I have two opposing responsibilities, when it comes to helping my nephew to learn and grow. One is to keep him safe, emotionally and physically. The other is to let him explore and question and pretend freely. I wonder to what extent is it our responsibility to teach kids to follow the rules, act and speak as they’re “supposed” to, so that they stay safe? To what extent is it our responsibility to let kids discover and create and break the rules?

I don’t yet have answers to these questions. But it’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. I’d love to hear what the rest of you think.





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