During the fall semester of my year abroad in Hamburg, I took a class on the poetry of French Renaissance writer Louise Labé which involved readings in French and class time conducted in German. This made me nervous because I found it difficult to speak the two languages at once, but I hoped it would help me become more comfortable moving from one language to another. To be more confident switching between French and German, I would have to participate in class discussions in which both languages were spoken over the course of a single sentence. Though I had never taken a course conducted in two different foreign languages before, my experience in literature courses in French and German at Smith helped me to adapt to this new hybrid model.
As I navigated the course’s multiple languages, my command of German improved significantly more quickly, as it was the dominant language in the classroom. I gave an oral presentation on the introduction to Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, which I first read in English, then referred to the German translation in order to convey the concepts to my classmates. This constituted what was essentially my first engagement with theory in a literature course, although some of the basic concepts in Gender Trouble were familiar to me thanks to the open discourses about gender and sexuality at Smith. However, I was fairly surprised when most of my classmates had difficulty understanding the concepts I was discussing, such as the difference between gender identity and biological sex.
Part of the problem seemed to lie in the language itself—any vocabulary used to describe gender was either basic or borrowed from English. In German, Geschlecht means either gender or sex, unless you extend it to Geschlechtsidentität, which specifies gender identity. In a presentation for which I had to distinguish explicitly between gender and sex, I was advised simply to use the English terms as I explained the theory to my classmates in German. Explaining the different components of phallogocentrism (Phallogozentrismus), or the male-centered quality of language, resulted in more confusion. Having attended Smith for two years made me forget that not all or even very many universities encourage conversations about these issues the way Smith does. It surprised me, too, because we often assume that Europeans are much more progressive than Americans with regard to social and political issues. One might think that Germans in particular would have a more open view of gender based on the fact that their language includes a third, neutral grammatical gender. In our class discussions, however, it became clear to me that their engagement with the material began and ended with the theoretical.
This presentation was important to me as a linguistic and intellectual exercise, but was also personally meaningful in a way that didn’t seem to resonate with my classmates. While issues of gender identity have played a significant role in my own inner life and the lives of many of my friends at Smith, the concepts we discussed in this course seemed limited to the abstract for my classmates, who may have only been taking the course to fulfill a major requirement. In comparing discussions I’ve had in German with discussions in English on gender identity, it seems to me that English is a more inherently flexible language, particularly with regard to lexical invention and introduction of new words into everyday speech. This quality has made it easier to facilitate conversations about unique identities, pronoun usage, and other subjects for which a new vocabulary simply must be created.
In the end, it made me more grateful to return to Smith where I would be among like-minded classmates, but it reminded me, too, that there is much work to be done in other less welcoming spaces when I leave. Language certainly shapes the way we view the world, but I realized that that view might not always be more expansive simply because the grammar is. If I want to engage in deeper discussions of gender and sexuality in new cultural and linguistic environments, I’ll need to make the effort to search for the communities where these concepts are treated on a discursive level closer to my own.
Dinah Lensing-Sharp is currently a senior at Smith, enjoying the last few weeks of college with their friends. They are finishing up an honors thesis in Comparative Literature entitled “Sensational Internationals: Gender, Sexuality, and Foreignness in Ruth Landshoff-Yorck’s Die Vielen und der Eine,” which entails a partial translation of the novel as well as an interpretation of its themes informed by critical literary and queer theory. In Fall 2016, Dinah will begin studying for a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley.by