Excuse Your French: Questionable Content Within USYD Foreign Language Classes


Beginners to intermediate language courses at the the University of Sydney broadly aim to provide a dynamic knowledge of the given language. After three semesters of study, they are said to grant students the ability to “express themselves on a range of topics, and express a point of view”. Arguably, the earlier stages of studying a foreign language are the most important – foundational vocabulary is learned, and a little toolbox of grammar is acquired. Students can then begin to express themselves like so, albeit being limited to this basic grammar and vocabulary.

In these stages of early language acquisition, in situations where students are required to speak a language on demand, it is not likely that they will form their own sentences, but rather remember learned phrases in their entirety, which they will repeat. It’s reasonable to expect that beginners/intermediate language coursework is then neutral in the ideas it presents to students, so that they do not regurgitate the biases of, for example, the particular author of a particular textbook.

Apparently not.

* * *

Madeleine* is a student in Senior French 7.

“There was a distinctively awkward and sexist exercise in my book this week where we had to assign "masculine" or "feminine" to a list of attributes that are related to workplace behaviour (e.g. patience, ambition, risk-taking). Super awkward when the whole class is reluctant to assign genders to attributes and our French teacher starts trying to tentatively suggest genders and we just end up staring at each other.”

* * *

Georgia* started a new topic in Senior German 1 titled ‘Men, Women, Couples’.

“The introductory discussion was based around ‘what is a typical man, and what is a typical woman?’ and encouraged discussion around ‘clichés’. Some of the textbook content had things like ‘women can't park a car, but at least they take care of children and do housework’. Some girls in the class openly expressed that they felt uncomfortable before being told to ‘try and say that in German’. The tutor acknowledged that the content was ‘old-fashioned’, but kept pushing the class to discuss and reiterate the ‘clichés’ anyway. If you're trying to learn a language, and this is the way you're being taught to discuss ideas, it’s worrisome, especially for people who might be apolitical, if their ideas are to be informed by this coursework.”

* * *

Catherine’s* Chinese 1C lecturer makes a point of saying that he doesn’t agree with the content. But some of it is, nonetheless, vaguely sexist.


“The second half of this passage says ‘Everyone in my family has to listen to my father. When he's not here, they have to listen to me, because I'm a boy and I'm the oldest.’ The last part says ‘My grandfather only likes boys, so he likes me and my little brother but not my little sisters.’ One of the comprehension questions is ‘Who is the head of the family?’ and ‘Why does the grandfather not like the sisters?’”

* * *

Imogen has been studying Arabic at the University for a few semesters.

“We've had some weird readings about the importance of the family home (e.g. not being able to leave the family home until you're married). I feel like so often in language classes – because of people’s limited vocabulary – students often resort to really sexist tropes, and often separate it from their "real" personality bc they don't know the word for "equal pay" or "human rights"”.

* * *

The questionable content is not limited to sexism, as Karen* found out in her French classes.

“I've been taught some vaguely racist sayings in French, but after two months in France I think that may just be the French language. One word was basically the ‘n-word’ for Arabic people which we used regularly in class; I didn't realise that was a thing until speaking to an actual young French person. It's kind of hard to think critically about what you're learning when you're not super sure what any of it means.”

* * *

A glance at University policy in relation to the content provided in courses provides only a vague statement as to what might be suitable. As per the Learning and Teaching Policy (2015), “undergraduate award courses must be designed to develop and assess graduate qualities … in a way that enables students to be effective in exercising professional and social responsibility and making a positive contribution to society”.

Vague as this is, when paired with the University’s Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination Prevention Policy (2015), which generally prescribes that “direct discrimination occurs when a person, or a group of people, is treated less favourably than another person or group because of one or more characteristics”, it must be asked why both implicit and explicit instances of sexism and racism are permissible in University course content.

Indeed, what is concerning is not the attitude of tutors and staff – most appear to be at least skeptical of the tropes in the coursework, and rightfully so. Rather, the broader pedagogical effect of these socially outdated reading materials leaves one wondering why they are still prescribed at all.

The idea that students may have less of an aptitude to critically consider what they are learning, due to the fact that it is all in a language still foreign to them, is dubious. It is no excuse for historically problematic clichés and stereotypes to be reinforced. Were such things to be taught in strictly English-speaking units, we surely wouldn’t let this inconspicuous double-standard slide.

Pulp Editors