Teaching Spanish Language and Gender with Open Resources

This is the latest in our current series of short essays by participants in the Open Knowledge Fellowship coordinated by the Mina Rees Library. Fellows share insight into the process of converting a syllabus to openly-licensed and/or zero-cost resources, as well as their experiences teaching undergraduate courses at CUNY.

Silvia Rivera Alfaro is a student at the Ph.D. Program in Latin American, Iberian and Latino Cultures and a GC Digital Fellow. She is co-founder of Indisciplinadxs: Feminist Linguistics Circle, an international Spanish-speaking community of professionals and activists working on language, gender, and sexuality.

I learned about the Open Knowledge Fellowship thanks to previous fellows, especially Katherine Rivera Gómez and Britt Munro, from whom I personally heard about their beautiful experiences learning about OER. Then I got interested in being part of this group that comes together to think about how knowledge is created, and for whom. As I am planning to create a digital dissertation, I found the Open Knowledge Fellowship would offer me an invaluable opportunity to learn how to create a resource that is not only publicly available but also written in an accessible way. 

I have been very interested in open knowledge and Open Educational Resources (OER), and the question of how to create more open knowledge channels in academia for a long time now. I worked at academic journals at the University of Costa Rica and, as part of them, I received some previous training. Nevertheless, knowledge has a strong relationship to context, and so having the opportunity to discover more about OER at CUNY in the United States context was a key component for me in this experience. 

In this regard, I have to say that finding open resources in my discipline was not easy. When I started to look for materials to curate on Spanish as an additional language I found very out-of-date resources. This is not a new finding for a fellow coming from the Ph.D. in Latin American, Iberian and Latino Cultures. For example, Inés Vañó García worked on the subject (I am really thankful for her dedication to this!) and created a list of materials that is important to check. Nevertheless, these and other available options produced results that were very limited for my particular interests. 

My proposal for the fellowship has been to work on a specific section of the Spanish 101 syllabus, which is teaching gender in the Spanish language. Spanish is a gendered language so words have grammatical gender. For example, ‘table’ is feminine (‘la mesa’) while ‘tree’ is masculine (‘el árbol’), but a word could also be both, such as ‘the heat’ which can be ‘la calor’ or ‘el calor’. These are not gendered objects, but again we have grammatical gender. And if I want to say “bonita” (beautiful), I have to change the adjective according to the gender of the word, which would be “la mesa es bonita” vs “el árbol es bonito”. Teaching these concepts can be a lengthy process in the Spanish classroom, as you’ll be learning the gender of the words as you learn them. 

But that is not the only gender we mark in language: we have gendered beings, such as ‘un hombre’ (a man) and ‘una mujer’ (a woman), and their identities are marked across language with all the historical and cultural weight of patriarchal societies. In Spanish, there are  certain ideological presumptions behind the labels, and also current social battles about how to name people. That being said,, gender-fair language is not only about changing a single pronoun, but also about the way grammar plays out across and throughout the other sentences. 

The feminist and LGTBQ+ movements have come a long way since the 1970s, towards the goal ofin working  widespread language inclusion. And not so recently, they have proposed new morphemes for non-binary people. What is quite recent is how mainstream the discussions on gender and language have become, and the political battles around language. However, in Spanish as an additional language classroom, this subject is quite new (Parra & Serafini, 2021). Most materials just keep following the norm and the power institutions when it comes to grammar, and there is little room for sociolinguistics approaches to these urgent contemporary topics. 

Therefore, as I have previously created materials with Creative Commons licenses and I currently co-lead a project where we create and curate open access specific resources on gender and language (linguisticafeminista.com), I decided to take the challenge and propose developing my own OER in this subject to make it available to others. The response from the library, especially with the guidance of Elvis Bakaitis, has been very positive. I am currently in the stage of producing Marking gender in Spanish: a guide for language learners in PressBooks.  


María Luisa Parra & Ellen J Serafini (2021) “Bienvenidxs todes”: el lenguaje inclusivo desde una perspectiva crítica para las clases de español, Journal of Spanish Language Teaching, 8:2, 143-160, DOI: 10.1080/23247797.2021.2012739

About the Author

Elvis Bakaitis is currently the Head of Reference at the Mina Rees Library. They're also proud to serve on the University LGBTQ Council, and as a board member of CLAGS: The Center for LGBTQ Studies.