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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.
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How To Figure Out Grammatical Gender In A New Language

When your first language is English, grammatical gender is a pretty difficult concept to wrap your head around. You’re learning Spanish, and all of a sudden what you thought was a regular old bridge turns out to actually be a masculine bridge (el puente). Or wait, if you’re learning German, it’s actually feminine (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).

If you speak a gendered language from early childhood, they don’t seem to cause nearly as much confusion. You learn the language, and it seems logical to you: “Of course the table is feminine.” But for us English speakers, who have pronoun 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.

Don’t Spend Too Much Time Rationalizing The Genders

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.

Find Patterns And Learn Rules

When you’re learning a new language, sometimes the “rules” you’re taught can be a bit frustrating. It’s not like you ever learned what the pluperfect subjunctive is in English, and now you’re forced to know it in a language you’re just getting a grasp on.

Though it may seem painful, research has shown that learning the rules is, in fact, the most effective method for people learning a second language as an adult. Like we said, it’s going to be very, very hard to memorize the gender of every word in a new language, so knowing the patterns is far more effective. Yes, you’ll be driven up the wall by all of the exceptions to the rules, but that’s the worst part of learning any new language. Locating the patterns in languages will make your life easier in the long run.

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.

Try Babbel

Babbel is a language-learning app designed with your native language in mind. While a French speaker learning Spanish will be plenty familiar with grammatical gender (in fact, often the genders in the languages are the same), an English speaker won’t be. This is just one of many reasons why Babbel’s lessons are structured differently depending on your mother tongue.

Babbel’s features incorporate many useful techniques for understanding grammatical gender. You’ll learn all of your vocab along with the “the”s, you’ll get lessons in your native language about patterns and rules, and you’ll get feedback on whether you got the gender right. There’s no surefire way to get the gender correct every time, but Babbel will put you on the right track.

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