Has Cambridge University’s German department driven off in a Wokeswagon?

Reports in today’s media give the impression that Cambridge University’s German department has just issued a diktat that students must, from now on, eliminate all gendered terms when they are speaking or writing German. The rather sensationalists reports accuse the department of jumping onto a woke bandwagon.

As far as I can tell after some digging around, the only source for this story is the following page on the German department’s website https://www.mmll.cam.ac.uk/german/inclusive-language

What does that page say?

In view of the fact-free reporting in the media, it is worth summarising what that page actually says:

  • ‘In our lessons and handouts we aim to use gender- and non-binary-inclusive language when we address or refer to students and colleagues, both in writing and in speech in English and in German.’

    This seems to be a description of what the teaching staff aim to do, not what students must do.
  • ‘In German-speaking countries there is a clear ambition to refer to people in a gender-inclusive way …’

    It seems hard to dispute that this ambition exists. Whether it is shared with universal enthusiasm may be more doubtful.
  • ‘In extended German texts … going gender-free is difficult to achieve. … a range of possible ways forward has been proposed. German publications have taken different approaches depending on their politics and other factors.’

    It is hard to disagree with these 2 statements.
  • ‘In order to expose students to the kind of variety which you will encounter in the German-speaking world, we use texts in language teaching which represent a diversity of choices.’

    This is exactly what I would expect a university’s foreign language department to do: let students know about the range of options used by speakers and writers of German as a 1st language.
  • ‘On the same principle, students are free to choose for themselves how to engage with inclusive language when speaking and writing in German.’

    Leaving this choice to students seems sensible, providing they do so within the confines of what is actually today’s German.

    Some people may object to an apparent pre-supposition here that students must ‘engage with inclusive language’ in some way, though they remain free to decide how to do so.
  • ‘If you would like more information on the current discussion in Germany, we recommend the following links. … All view a move to more inclusive language as a positive goal. … all are written from the perspective of promoting inclusion’

    This statement leaves students firmly in the driving seat. They do not have to follow these links if they would not like more information.

    The links provided are not intended to examine any arguments against using more inclusive language. But I’m not sure it should be the role of a university’s foreign language department to argue either for or against using more inclusive language, rather than just telling students what means the foreign language makes available to speakers and writers.

    It may perhaps be a matter for a university (rather than individual departments) to decide whether and how it should promote more inclusive language across the whole institution.  

Summary

The press reports are massively overblown. The department does not seem to be trying to eliminate non-inclusive language. It is telling students what means exist for speaking and writing German in a more inclusive way.

Students will come across non-inclusive language and may want or need to use it. So, the department would be failing in its duty if it didn’t tell students how they can—if they wish—speak or write German in a more inclusive way, as competent users of German in a manner that is consistent with the expectations of German-speaking societies.

Beyond that, the page probably does nudge students discreetly towards using more inclusive language. Some people will, no doubt, think that is a step too far, but to me that seems a reasonable thing to do.

Other posts on inclusive language

Here are links to other posts on inclusive language: https://languagemiscellany.com/tag/inclusive-language

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