21

The problem

When a foreign language uses genders for nouns and pronouns, memorizing these genders is a difficult process.

Sometimes it is possible to follow rules or hints: 1; 2; 3. E.g.:

  • In French, words ending in -ette are (98%) feminine (source)
  • In Portuguese, a substantive ending in a is usually feminine, and one ending in o is usually masculine;
  • In German, words ending in e tend to be feminine.

The question

But when such rules are not available, what strategies can I use to memorize the gender?

Am I stuck with rote learning?

8
  • When you say "when such rules are not available", (I assume meaning any language without commonly used gender ID rules), your question becomes too broad, because usable techniques might vary by language. Some example languages and specific concerns would be helpful.
    – user3169
    Apr 14, 2016 at 20:47
  • 1
    All I am saying is that the "strategies" might depend on the language involved. By not saying which language, you seem to be asking how to memorize anything that does not have set rules. I expect that the language involved will indicate any technique that might work.
    – user3169
    Apr 15, 2016 at 2:01
  • 1
    @J.Past Ah, I see what you were asking. Yes, for me that counts as rote learning; but it's a very useful technique. E.g. a friend of mine was learning verb inflections without the pronouns, and I suggested learning with them: "eu olho; tu olhas; ela olha; nós olhamos; eles olham" so that when constructing a sentence the correct form jumps more naturally after the pronoun.
    – ANeves
    Sep 1, 2016 at 9:33
  • 1
    Thank you very much for your answers. We are trying to establish if this question Learning the grammatical gender of nouns in languages that have no articles is a duplicate. I will simply mention your clarifications in the comments of the question in question :-D , maybe it will be of some help. Depending on the outcome of that discussion, maybe I or someone else will then add an answer with this method/technique here, just for the sake of completeness.
    – J.Past
    Sep 1, 2016 at 9:59
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    Regardless of the outcome of the discussion, @J.Past , feel free to add the answer. :)
    – ANeves
    Sep 1, 2016 at 18:01

4 Answers 4

11

The book Fluent Forever introduced me to a simple game (mnemonic) for this exact problem. The author suggests devising a specific, contrasting concept to attach to each gender (or it could be any other mundane grammatical concept with a small number of options).

  • Masculine nouns burn. Feminine nouns are ice cold.
  • Masculine nouns are fast. Feminine nouns are slow. Neuter nouns travel in reverse.

Come up with your own, then study the nouns (or other concepts) consistently, visualizing your mnemonic.

From the book:

I want you to imagine all of the masculine nouns exploding. Your tree? Kaboom, splinters of wood everywhere. A branch gets embedded in the wall behind you. Dog chunks splatter all over the ceiling and floors. You wipe bits of fur and gore from your forehead. Make your images as vivid as you can stomach.

Feminine nouns should catch fire. Your nose spews fire out like a dragon, a flaming cat sets fire to your bedroom. Feel the heat of each image; the more senses you can involve, the better.

2
  • 1
    have you read the book? Do you recommend it?
    – Ooker
    Apr 21, 2016 at 9:27
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    @Ooker: I have, and I do. But one should read more than one book on the topic, any single book cannot give you a well-rounded view of the subject matter.
    – Flimzy
    Apr 21, 2016 at 14:39
4

One technique I figured out is to memorize them in a romance language (my mother tongue) when the genders in both languages match, and to memorize them in English (L2) when they don't.

So I would memorize: - Die Banane (f) = a banana (f); - La fenêtre (f) = a janela (f).

But I would memorize:

  • Der Mond (m) = the moon, because moon is feminine in my mother tongue;
  • La mer (f) = the sea, because sea is masculine in my mother tongue.

It's not a very strong technique; but it helped me when I had no alternative.

9
  • 2
    It's an interesting approach, but clearly it won't work for everyone, or all the time. I don't know French very well, but I know that in Spanish gender can be quite ambiguous at times, so it wouldn't always work. And not everyone's native language has gender anyway. But the bigger problem I have with this approach is that you shouldn't be memorizing translations in any language; you should be memorizing that "janela" means "Abertura feita em parede ou telhado de uma construção", not "window" or "fenêtre".
    – Flimzy
    Apr 14, 2016 at 13:43
  • @Flimzy first third of your comment: clearly it won't work for everyone, or all the time - no single technique will work for everyone, or all the time. Your "simple game (mnemonic)" approach won't, either. It will work very well for me (thx!!), but a friend of mine can't deal with visual abstractions like that and gets confused when I shared them with him.
    – ANeves
    Apr 14, 2016 at 14:12
  • @Flimzy last third of your comment: if I can already think in the target language, and think of concepts complex as Espace vide, généralement carré ou rectangulaire, laissé dans une surface, un écrit, etc., it's much too late to learn genders. Better late than never, yes; but I cannot agree with this part of your comment, I think it's not realistic.
    – ANeves
    Apr 14, 2016 at 14:20
  • The idea that visual mnemonics can't work for everyone, I'd question very seriously. The fact of the matter is that all language is is visual mnemonics (Try to describe an apple, without visualizing one). But you're right, that not all techniques work equally well for everyone. It sounds to me like the problem with your friend isn't mnemonics, though, but explaining the technique. Perhaps it's 6 of one, half dozen of the other...
    – Flimzy
    Apr 14, 2016 at 14:42
  • As for describing complex concepts: If you can learn complex concepts in your native language, using your native language, you can learn complex concepts in your target language, using your target language, too.
    – Flimzy
    Apr 14, 2016 at 14:43
3

A possible approach is: don't bother.

One philosophy of learning language is to get the grasp of general grammar and necessary vocabulary and work out the details later (I refer to this as a philosophy rather than an approach, because it is still too general.) That is, you learn what is absolutely necessary for communicating and being understood, hoping that you patch the wholes - like not using correct genders - later.

This is a practical approach for somebody who lives in a country and needs to master the language as quickly as possible in order to survive, find a job, communicate with the in-laws. This is not a good approach, if one aims at speaking beautifully and correctly, with a good accent, especially if the language is your professional tool (e.g., if you do research in linguistics, write books, or take interviews as a journalist.) In fact, the don't bother approach almost precludes you from ever learning to speak language correctly - surely with time you will memorize the gender of the common words and lots of shortcuts for recognizing the word gender, but incorrect use would by then fossilize and require constant conscious effort to keep in check. Still, I think it is worth mentioning.


Interlanguage fossilization is when people learning a second language keep taking rules from their native language and incorrectly applying them to the second language they are learning. This results in a language system that different from both the person's native language and second language.

1

There is no shortcut. Most or at least a significant portion of the time the gender of a noun simply does not make sense (though in Portuguese, I admit it does make sense most of the time, as opposed to German, for example). You should get used to memorizing the gender of a noun as soon as you learn it, since you'll most likely always use it together with a construction which would indicate its gender anyway.

1
  • 1) In my opinion the answer from @Flimzy contradicts your first sentence. 2) I fully agree with the rest of your answer. But I already had that opinion before I asked the question. I still want a trick (a "life-hack", if you prefer) to help me memorize those genders; since they "make no sense most of the time", I could use some mental crutch.
    – ANeves
    Apr 29, 2016 at 10:06

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