Masculine or Feminine?
La table!, Le verre!, L’hôtel!, Une maison!, Un jardin!
One of the hardest things for a native English speaker learning French, is remembering when to use the masculine “le” or “un” or the feminine “la” or “une”.
Even very advanced speakers of French have this problem, if their first language is English.
So why is it that “les anglos-saxons” struggle so much to remember the gender of a noun?
Are our brains wired differently?
I have a theory, that a native English speaker’s brain has had no use for remembering whether a word is masculine or feminine and so it has no system for storing this information.
If this is true, then when faced with a language, such as French, that has both masculine and feminine words, maybe the brain just has no method of storing them. So it organises all the French words according to existing categories such as meanings, feelings and sounds etc, without making any provision for the gender. Maybe, there just is no mechanism in place to deal with different genders.
Can we create a system for categorising masculine and feminine words as we learn them?
Research into language learning has discovered, that even in later life, our brains remain highly malleable and that learning a second language actually changes the shape of the brain.
The secret is to challenge the brain, to do novel and stimulating tasks that do not rely on established ways of doing things.
Brain Plasticity in Older Adults Learning new tricks in older age. (Psychology Today)
If the brain is likely to change when we learn a second language, could we consciously encourage it to create and embed a new system for distinguishing and storing words that are prefixed by different genders? I mean proactively pay attention to gender and notice how our brain begins to establish a new system for dealing with this new problem.
Clearly, people do resolve this issue when they learn a second language. Ways have been found to remember the gender of French words or any other language that uses gender, German has 3!
However, it’s also true, that grappling with masculine and feminine words remains one of the greatest obstacles to speaking fluently.
I wonder whether Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), with its focus on the modality of language, could give us some clues as to how we might consciously coax our brains into establishing a solid system for capturing the gender of a word early in the second language learning experience?
Does it matter if we get the gender of a word wrong?
Well yes and no.
Alliance Française, the French teaching quango, told me that even if you take one of their highest qualifications in French, you won’t lose marks for getting the gender of a word wrong. Maybe they’ve cut some slack, even for fluent second language speakers, because it is such an insurmountable problem.
The example they gave was, if you say “le maison” throughout a speaking test, the examiners will overlook it.
I’m not convinced though.
I don’t believe that there is such a thing as speaking a language perfectly, so I’m not arguing the case for perfection. I just think that too many misses on the gender of everyday French words may get in the way of a person understanding what the speaker is saying.
It gets in the way of fluent speech
A think there is a bigger problem, though, if the brain hasn’t resolved the issue of words having a gender. It slows down the speaker’s planning and processing of what they are going to say and ultimately gets in the way of fluent communication.
This is because every time the speaker uses a word with a gender, they are making a fresh decision as to whether the word is masculine or feminine. A common tactic is to hedge their bets and start the sentence using one gender and finish using the other. That way they’ve got all bases covered.
Are there any short cuts or handy tips for remembering?
This is all very well but how do we answer the question “Masculine or feminine in French. How can you remember which one to use?”
My tips are:
- Consciously log the gender of French words as you learn them
- Stick with the gender you’ve labelled a word with rather than hedging your bets
- If you find out that you had labelled a word with the wrong gender. Relabel it in your mind and relearn it as the other gender
- All nouns ending in -ion are feminine
- All nouns ending in -age are masculine
- Try to notice how you are storing masculine and feminine words in different parts of your brain. NLP theories on modalities might help you work this out
Have you got any strategies that have worked for you?
Please share them in the comments below.
Thank you for reading my article Ellie Louis. All the opinions and theories are my own.
Here’s some proper research into language and the brain: