Inclusive language – why are we making it so difficult?
AI-generated image using Bing and the prompt “painting of people of different ethnicities trying to understand something difficult, with question marks around their heads” .
I have been interested in this subject for a long time – studying, teaching, and working with clients to make their content more inclusive. And, while I expect some degree of resistance from unaware clients and students, it still surprises me to see seasoned translators and writers rejecting it on principle.
Trying to understand the reasons behind this aversion among language professionals, I came to realise that it is not all rooted simply in prejudice and having a "back in my day..." mentality. Inclusive language advocates, myself included, may be making too much of a fuss of something that is (mostly) just common sense.
While they are valid and clearly have their place, lengthy expositions on complicated grammar and extensive sociological discussions on gender inequality are frequent in inclusive language courses, and perhaps that is not the best way to go about it.
One of the things we must keep at the forefront of our minds is the trade-off between raising awareness of the need for writing in an inclusive manner and the real risk of losing the interest of the audience we're trying to convince. For example, if in a three-hour webinar for language professionals, two hours are spent discussing the ways in which women are poorly portrayed in our society and the structural origins of gender inequality, and only one hour is devoted to the actual techniques we can use to make our texts gender-neutral, then we are doing a disservice to our “cause” (for lack of a better word). If attendees bothered to set aside some time to learn about the topic, they are already aware of its relevance, and are most likely just struggling to incorporate that into their daily work practice.
The thing is, it isn't that difficult to be inclusive, really – even in gendered languages like my native (Brazilian) Portuguese. We have to be mindful, of course, and “watch our every word”, as one attendant to my recent workshop complained. But, as translators and copywriters, aren't we doing that already? Aren't we always carefully considering every word in our final pieces, minding the register, the accuracy, the tone? Surely, the good professionals among us do that every day. Adding “inclusivity” to the list of things we look out for in our texts doesn't take that long, and over time it becomes second nature.
Of course, in gendered languages there is more work to be done. And it usually involves having a proper conversation with our end clients, to discover how far we should push it: is the audience ready for a neolinguistic system, or should we keep our text firmly within the realms of the current grammar books? However, in my experience, that conversation always pays off. We get to produce texts that are better suited for the readers, we establish a closer partnership with our clients, and, who knows, we might even help make our communities that little bit better.
The question then becomes how we can help demystify inclusive language, turning it from a semi-niche topic into common, everyday practice for anyone who works with words in any language. Practical workshops in the target language are an obvious place to start – and, again in my experience, boosting the participants' confidence by reminding them that they already know the techniques needed to do so is much more effective than going on and on about the terminology behind these strategies. Inclusivity-focused discussion groups could be a good resource, too, especially when we need help to solve a particularly problematic sentence.
In short, if we want inclusive language to be widely adopted, we must continue talking about it. But we also must be mindful about how we talk – and isn't that exactly what we're advocating, anyway?