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Teaching the gender of nouns

Having recently read an article about the effectiveness of learning through chunks, I was reminded about an issue which has always struck me as significant. This is a nuts and bolts question for language teachers and it's about teaching grammatical gender.

Getting the gender of nouns right plagues second language learners, even those working at near-native speaker standard. Personally, after years of exposure and practice, I rarely hesitate with French gender, but still get caught out by the occasional word which I already know or which is new to me.

How can we help learners to acquire gender effectively?

My hunch has always been that it is better to present nouns in a list together with an article, rather than indicating the grammatical gender in brackets. Why? Individually learning, memorising and storing in long-term memory the gender of every TL word seems like a boring, cumbersome and ultimately impossible task. Far more successful is to present and practise words with their accompanying article so that students get to hear these chunks multiple times.

When presenting and practising nouns with beginners it is useful to be consistent about the article you use, definite or indefinite. This presents a conundrum. In German the definite article works best since the indefinite article "ein" is the same for masculine and neuter nouns. Better therefore to use "der, die, das" as much as possible. In the very early stages of learning French you could stick to "un" and "une" as far as possible. Confusion quickly arises if you mix up indefinite and definite articles.

Unlike German, with French and Spanish gender is generally distinguishable with both definite and indefinite articles. The "l apostrophe" in French causes a problem, however, so this might suggest a case for using indefinite articles. On the other hand, I would argue that, where possible, you should choose the article most commonly combined with the noun. For example, the word "vérité" might better be practised with the definite article "la" since, I assume, this collocation is more common. In this way, as with child learners, students will think of the chunk "lavérité" as much as "vérité".

Another aspect is the fact that many nouns are commonly preceded by a plural article, e.g. "des gants, des champignons, les yeux, les cheveux". Better, therefore, to list and use these in the plural, separately indicating the gender for information.

In lists, if you value consistency, you might default to either indefinite or definite articles as far as possible, i.e. with beginners in French you would list simple nouns preceded by "un" or "une". You may also wish to separate out masculine and feminine (and neuter) nouns and list items in alphabetical order to help students with memorising. Colour-coding is another useful aid to memory with beginners.

At an advanced level you can teach the relationship between gender and noun endings. There are some quite effective general rules (with exceptions) for this in French. In German you can point out such patterns at an earlier stage. These rules are no doubt handy, but the basic feel for gender, developed through exposure and practice, is more fruitful in the end.

Whether you lean towards a skill-acquisition model or a nativist, comprehensible input approach, repeated exposure to the noun with its article is most likely to lead to successful gender acquisition. So you need to make sure students are exposed to chunks of article with noun as one phonological entity. Careful planning and recycling of lexical items will accelerate the process of gender acquisition.

Experience tells us that students who get to an intermediate or advanced level achieve a significant "gender sense" and can correctly guess the gender of most words when you ask them. I make the assumption that they did this in a similar way to the first language learner, by hearing repeated examples of the noun with its article. My advanced level students were generally very good at guessing the gender of lexical items, even invented ones.

Finally, as an example of a list at beginner level, you might end up with something like this for French (clothing). You could add colour to this.

Un blouson
Un chapeau
Un haut
Un pull
Un T-shirt

Une chemise
Une cravate
Une jupe
Une robe
Une veste

Des gants (m)
Des chaussures (f)
Des chaussettes (f)

At a more advanced level, on the theme of cinema, you might get:

Un acteur
Un cascadeur
Un comédien
Un film
Un navet

L'écran (m)
Le producteur
Le réalisateur
Le son
Le tournage

La bande sonore
La caméra
La projection

Les critiques (m)
Les effets (m) spéciaux

Any comments would be welcome, here or via Twitter.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. I teach Spanish at a primary school and present vocabulary words with an article to aid in learning gender. This year, the students found it hilarious how "things" had gender, and learning new words (spontaneously) became a gender competition! The girls clapped because "la luna" is feminine, but the boys were thrilled to hear that "el universo" is masculine. Then they heard "la pizza" and "el chocolate". So much fun! Thank you for the article.

  2. Hi. Glad you found it iseful.


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