How To Figure Out Grammatical Gender In A New Language

When your mother tongue is English, grammatical gender can be one of the toughest challenges in a new language.
How To Figure Out Grammatical Gender In A New Language

When your first language is English, learning how to figure out grammatical gender is a pretty difficult task. You’re learning Spanish, and all of a sudden what you thought was a regular old bridge turns out to be a masculine bridge (el puente). Or, if you’re learning German, it’s actually a  feminine bridge (die Brücke). By choosing to learn French, Spanish, Italian, German or a number of other languages, you’re forced to sort out the gender of all these objects that very clearly do not have XX or XY chromosomes. And that’s not even mentioning neuter, the third gender in German (and some languages have even more).

For people who deal with gendered languages in their native language, trying to figure out grammatical gender don’t seem to cause much confusion. A person learns the language, and it seems almost logical (“Of course the table is feminine.”). But for native English speakers, who have almost no grammatical gender but little else, it’s probably one of the hardest parts of learning another language. To help you out, we’ve collected a few tips for getting the genders down.

Learn Your Vocab With The Gender Markers Attached

We’ll start with the most obvious piece of advice because it’s worth repeating. When you’re learning a gendered language, you should try to learn your vocabulary with the “the” attached to the word. That means you’re not just learning casa (feminine) and problema (masculine), but la casa and el problema. There will be different signs for every language, so just figure out which ones most clearly signal the gender of the word you’re learning.

Learning your vocabulary this way won’t solve all of your problems. After all, there are thousands and thousands of vocabulary words, and repeating them over and over can only take you so far. Still, it’s a pretty mandatory first step.

Figure Out The Patterns And Rules

In pretty much every language that has grammatical gender, there are a handful of rules that can help you figure out a noun’s gender. A potentially obvious example in Spanish is that almost all nouns that end in -o are masculine, and nouns that end in -a are feminine. If you can learn the basic rules, it’ll save you a lot of time. Unfortunately, there are going to be exceptions to the rules (problema is masculine, despite ending in -a), but that doesn’t mean you should throw them out entirely. Learning the rules will save you a lot of time.

Research has shown that learning the rules is, in fact, the most effective method for people learning a second language as an adult. It’s basically impossible to figure out grammatical gender for every single word in a language, so you’ll need to determine the patterns to speed you along. Yes, you might be driven up the wall by the exceptions, but that’s all part of learning a language.

But Avoid Making Up Your Own Rules

One thing that’s very tempting to do when you’re learning the genders is to try to make up little stories in your head to explain things. Unfortunately, this can fall flat. For example, you might try to remember that the Spanish word for “rock” (la roca) is feminine because it comes from mother earth. When you’re trying to remember this fact a week later, however, you might think, “Oh, it must be masculine, just like Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.” Trying to find any rhyme or reason for why something is feminine, masculine or neuter will likely just confuse you more.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. For animate objects in Spanish, for example, the feminine will always refer to female people and animals, but in other cases it can be more convoluted, like how the German “girl” has a neuter gender. On the bright side, learning a second language does make you more likely to see grammatical gender as arbitrary.

Just Take A Guess (And Have Someone Correct You)

Frankly, if you’re learning a new language, grammatical gender is not the most important thing to get right every time. Sometimes turning a feminine noun into a masculine noun will change the meaning of the word, but most other times it will just be a minor flub, and the person you’re talking to will still be able to understand what you’re saying. So once in a while, when you really can’t remember if something is a die or a der, you can just guess. After all, there’s a decent chance you’ll get it right.

Randomly guessing might not appeal to you because it seems too arbitrary, in which case a good option is having someone correct you. The same research that found the importance of learning rules also shows that getting regular feedback helps the learning process. If you have a native speaker friend, or are learning with a group of people, being corrected (preferably in a gentle way) will help you commit grammatical gender to memory.

Need help with your grammatical genders?
Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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