Is the word “boat” feminine or masculine? If you are studying a language in which nouns are assigned a gender you’re bound to experience this kind of uncertainty on a regular basis. That’s because individuals who grow up speaking English are only used to dealing with gender when choosing pronouns to describe people and sometimes animals. Yet many of the world’s languages assign gender to nouns of all shapes and sizes, including people, places, objects and ideas. Your new language may have a binary masculine/feminine system or you could also be dealing with neuter cases. While getting the gender of a noun wrong won’t necessarily make it hard for people to understand you, it does sound sloppy to native speakers and they may judge your communicative abilities accordingly. Fortunately there a number of tips & tricks that make it easy to remember the gender of words.
Even highly proficient language learners continue to struggle with gender long after achieving fluency. The reason for this is gender is a somewhat arbitrarily assigned category. Nouns may be placed in a certain camp because of their spelling or the way they sound but it’s also possible for them to have received their gender assignment at random. Keep in mind that words and the concepts/ objects they describe are different entities. Just because a noun has a gender it doesn’t mean there is something inherently feminine about the idea of la liberté (liberty) in French. Similarly, not all French cats are masculine le chat (cat). This is important to understand as gender can be different for the same noun across languages. Boat is masculine in French le bateau, yet feminine in Italian la nave.
Of course there may have been some early significance to gender assignments. Historians have identified nouns that have to do with the sacred or come from the Earth as having feminine genders in ancient languages. When monotheism and patriarchal societies became the norm, countless formerly feminine words were transitioned to the masculine gender and today many languages use the masculine as both a masculine and a neutral form. Learn more about gender in language.
Why learn gender?
Gender can impact the pronouns you use, how you form adjective-noun agreements, select the correct verb ending (or beginning) and make nouns plural. More often than not it also dictates the definite and indefinite articles that accompany a word. Some of those word endings change pronunciation too. In other words, you can’t get around gender so it’s important to learn.
How to go about it
- Study gender from the get go. When you first meet a word in the context of a paragraph it can be difficult to miss gender because you will often see feminine or masculine markers around it. However, studying isolated vocabulary from a list or set of flashcards won’t necessarily guarantee that the gender of the word is apparent. That’s why it’s important to look up the gender of new words when you learn them. Dictionaries will have this information and you should include it whenever you write the word in your notes or make flashcards to study.
- Include gender when you review. Gender is a property of every word, just like spelling, pronunciation and meaning. When you review your vocabulary make sure you test yourself on gender too. This is especially important for plural nouns where the gender may be hidden by the word ending. The more you correctly identify a word’s gender the greater the chances you’ll remember it when you need to use the term in fluent conversation.
- Pay attention to patterns. While gender is an arbitrary category, native speakers often have a sense of whether or not a word will be masculine or feminine even for vocabulary they’ve never seen before. This is due to their familiarity with a wide variety of terms and ability to notice patterns, including word-endings which commonly belong to one gender or another.
- Learn the exceptions. Many languages have a handful of words that break the masculine feminine rules and look like a noun from the opposite category. These are problematic because they can throw off language learners who are really paying attention. The word “problem” is a great example as in Spanish it is masculine el problema but has an -a ending which makes it look feminine. The same goes for the word “hand” in Italian la mano which is feminine but with a masculine looking ending -o.
Tips & Tricks
There are a number of ways to learn and remember gender — try this list for starters:
-Picture the object in a specific color. One of the easiest ways to remember the gender of a noun is to visualize it in either blue or pink. If a word is neuter picture it in tan. This works well for concrete nouns that you can picture but is less effective for abstract concepts with low imaginability. If you want to go the extra mile, do a little drawing and color it in. Spending extra cognitive energy and attention on the word and involving a kinesthetic element will boost your learning.
-Adorn the object with a gender marker. While it may not be politically correct to put a pink bow on a feminine object and a blue tie on a masculine one, feel free to choose any signs you associate with gender. Visualize nouns along with their gender marker, for example in French you might think of a bunny rabbit wearing a tie (le lapin) or a car with a bow around it (la voiture).
-Visualize a famous person. If you’re still having trouble you can use people to help you remember gender. Think of a male actor or celebrity and place them in the garage to help you recall that it’s le garage or imagine Julia Child in the kitchen to learn that it’s la cuisine.
-Make audio recordings of vocabulary. If you are less of a visual learner it can be helpful to have native speakers say your new words out loud. Enlist a man to read out the masculine words and a woman for the feminine words to help you remember the difference.
-Write the word using a different color pen. Repeatedly writing a word by hand or typing it on the computer can help with spelling but if you add colour you can also work in gender.
-Create groupings of same-gender objects. If you’re sitting down to create a vocabulary list you want to study, separate it into different lists based on gender. You can also create semantic associations to help. If you know a particular word is masculine then come up with a story that links it to another masculine word you find hard to remember.
-Highlight foreign language text for gender. Get out your multi-colored markers and go through a few pages of text highlighting feminine and masculine nouns in different colors. Next, take a pen and go on the hunt for additional signs of gender including verb and adjective endings.
Putting it into practice
Hanging out with native speakers is a great way to get a gender workout as they almost never make mistakes. The more you hear them use gender correctly, the more likely you’ll pick up on a word’s gender without even realising it. The same goes for reading and repeatedly encountering a word along with gender markers such as definite or indefinite articles. If you’re stuck and you can’t think of the gender of a particular noun, try to talk in circles around the object or concept and get the native speaker to say it first. You can then adopt whatever gender they’ve used and pass it off as your own knowledge. Your conversation partner will be none the wiser.
It’s great to try these tips for learning new words but what happens when you continue to stumble on the gender of a term you’ve already learned? Applied linguists refer to this as a fossilized error and the best way to treat fossilized errors, including mistakes in spelling or pronunciation, is through concentrated study. You need to effectively re-learn the word and apply heaps of cognitive energy and attention to set down a new memory trace with the correct information.
Mnemonics are of great help when it comes to correctly re-learning word gender. Create a story that can help jog your memory, for example “hammer” is le marteau in French. You might think of a man named Marty who has big muscles and uses a hammer to hang pictures of moustaches on the wall. Remember though that making mistakes is perfectly normal and if you continue to struggle with the gender of “hammer” it will be more of an annoyance than a fluency deal-breaker.
Do you have any tricks for learning gender? Please share them in the comments!