Talk about gender confusion! A recent study by University of Alberta researchers Elena Nicoladis and Cassandra Foursha-Stevenson in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology into whether speaking French influenced how children assigned gender to objects yielded some interesting observations. Nicoladis and Foursha-Stevenson found some differences between the unilingual English children and the bilingual French-English children they surveyed. Some of the more startling results from the Anglo crowd? Cows are boys. Cats and stars are girls.
Le culture or la culture: our bias
The researchers showed objects or images to the children participating in the study and asked them whether the objects seemed to be masculine or feminine in nature. While the unilingual children seemed to identify most objects as masculine, many younger bilingual children were willing to consider that, globally speaking, some objects could be feminine in nature even though, Nicoladis says, “their categorizations didn’t correspond very well to whether the objects were masculine or feminine in French.”
As to how Bessie may have inadvertently became Bernie, Nicoladis says that there is an explanation as to why the children may have chosen masculine more often than feminine, even for cows: it reveals a bias embedded in the language.
“Traditionally, in most languages — and English is no exception — the kind of default pronoun is a masculine pronoun,” Nicoladis says. “If you read prescriptive grammar books, they might say ‘everyone put on his coat’ not ‘everyone put on his or her coat.’ The default, even when the gender isn’t specified, is masculine.”
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