[Image: Vector created by Dooder on Freepik.com]
For someone whose native languages didn’t have the concept of grammatical gender, I found the idea strange at first.
I still remember the first time I was in France, probably 4 or 5 years of age at most. My mother was telling me that French objects were either male or female. I thought it was the weirdest thing ever. Why should a chair be female?
When I started to learn French in university, I didn’t find weird as much as frustrating. Despite people telling me that native speakers can still understand you when you mess up the genders of words (which is true), I still would rather get them right.
I dislike making mistakes, especially when it comes to things that I feel I should know. If I know that noun, shouldn’t I also know the gender? It feels as though when I get the noun wrong I’m exposing my incompetence.
By the time I started learning German, I had already been exposed to the concept of gendered nouns to find it completely normal. (I had explored Greek a little before that, so the third gender – neuter – didn’t come as a surprise. My friend, who had learnt some German, had also mentioned the third gender.)
Still, the problem remained: How can I remember the gender of a noun?
While in the end it will still require effort to learn the genders, here are 4 tips that can make the learning process easier.
(Since the current language I am focusing on is in German, the examples that follow will be in German.)
1. Memorise the Gender with the Noun
Whenever you learn a new word, learn its gender at the same time.
This means that instead of simply learning that Hund is German for “dog”, you learn it as der Hund. You remember that a flower is die Blume, and a child is das Kind.
Unfortunately, this alone might not always be helpful when you have a language where the feminine definite article is the same as the plural. It can get confusing if you have a noun with the same spelling in its plural form, such as das Zimmer, “the room”, which becomes die Zimmer, “the rooms”. When faced with this, I sometimes mistake the neuter noun for a feminine one.
Fortunately, the next tip could help.
2. Associate the Noun with a Colour According to the Gender
The next thing you can do is to associate the noun with a colour based on its gender.
The typical colours that are chosen for this is red for feminine nouns, blue for masculine nouns, and green for neuter nouns.
Now, I don’t really like stereotypes, but I have to say that in this case, they do help me. If you find that you work better with another set of 3 colours, then go ahead and use a different set of colours.
Now, for the association. For example, if you make vocabulary lists, you would write the word die Blume with a red ink pen instead of black in your book.
I do not write vocabulary lists, mostly because I learn my vocabulary with Memrise. Unfortunately, there is no way to change the colour of the text in Memrise.
Instead, what I did was to upload each of the pictures below as another column in the word database.
If I got the word wrong, then when the full information of the word is displayed, there would also be the image with the respective colour displayed.
If not, if the noun is the name of a concrete object, you can remember the object as having that colour. For example, a sofa is das Sofa. I would then imagine a green sofa. Similarly, for das Zimmer, I would imagine a room with green walls, floors, and furniture.
It is more difficult to apply these to more abstract objects, or nouns referring to places. However, the next tip might help. It would require more effort and imagination, but the benefit would be that it’s more likely to stick.
3. Associate the Noun with a Person According to the Gender
Instead of a colour, you can also use a person to aid in the memory.
For example, when the noun is masculine, think of a man. For a feminine noun, think of a woman. Finally, for neuter nouns, you can think of a child, since the child is usually neuter (das Kind in German). Or if not, you can think of an animal as an “it” instead.
Let’s say you have a noun such as hunger, der Hunger. It’s a masculine noun, so imagine a very hungry man. He’s so very hungry, but there are no shops around. Finally, he spots a food truck. Finally! He buys some pork belly and wolfs it down.
You don’t always have to make up a whole story around a single noun. It’s easier to come up with a story for some nouns than others.
You might, for example, simply remember die Messe (the fair) by visualising a woman at a fair. Or a university canteen (die Mensa) full of women. How about that genius kid who could write a computer program (das Computerprogramm)?
I usually reserve stories for the nouns that I have more difficulty with. This means that when I review the noun, I frequently get it wrong.
If you make up a story, not only will the nouns tend to stay in your head longer, but you can also can take the chance to learn a few more masculine nouns while you’re at it.
In the story above, I could also learn the genders of der Laden (the shop), the food truck (der Imbisswagen) and the pork belly (der Schweinebauch).
In fact, the story method works great for learning nouns in general, so you don’t have to limit yourself to nouns of a single gender either!
4. Recognise Common Ending Patterns Through Familiarisation
It can get tiring to learn the gender of one word at time (except if you made a story as was suggested in the last tip). There is a shortcut to memorising the genders of groups of words: Look at their endings.
Many times, the ending of a word is a giveaway for the gender.
Now, depending on the language that you are learning, you can easily find list of the common endings on the Internet. When I started writing this post, my intention was to provide such a list for German. But then I realised: I don’t learn from such lists.
In fact, I pretty much ignored the list that my teacher gave me during my first semester of German.
Why? Firstly, there were lists of exceptions to the general rules. I’d much prefer to learn something that was 100% guaranteed.
Secondly, it’s just too abstract of a thing to learn. I mean, it’s a suffix that you need to memorise. It felt too much like a chore, even for someone like who would normally be okay with memorising new words through repetition alone.
So how do you recognise common ending patterns? Learn them through familiarisation.
As you learn words, pay attention to their endings. Be conscious of any similarities that you encounter. Pretend each you are a scientist collecting data, and each new word you meet as a new sample. Draw your own conclusions based on the data.
In German, I now know that the ending -ung is always feminine: die Beratung, die Erholung, die Erfahrung, usw. Similarly for -keit (die Wirklichkeit), -schaft (die Mannschaft) and -in (die Bibliothekarin; for female professions). The ending -chen is neuter, as is -lein. -mus is masculine.
This isn’t limited to “true” suffixes, but might also extend to nouns that are at the end of a word. Composite words in German take the gender of the last portion. I know das Haus is neuter, so is anything that ends in -haus (das Autohaus, das Krankenhaus, das Bauernhaus).
I didn’t learn this by rote from a list. It probably took longer to learn the information, but it also meant that it was properly internalised.
My teacher says I think too much, because when she asks a question, I carefully process the information to make sure I answer as correctly as possible. I spend a lot of time trying to find the rules to apply when I know the rules because I have learnt them, and then applying them. I still do this for other things (like whether to use the dative or the accusative for two-way prepositions), but not for genders of words that I know.
It’s far more effective when you already have the information internalised. Then, you can use it naturally, as a native speaker would.
Bonus: What to do when you really don’t know the gender of a noun.
What can you do when you don’t know the gender of a noun? You have to guess, of course.
But even then, you can increase the odds so that they are in your favour. Why? Because the distribution of nouns by gender is usually split unequally among all the genders. Just because there are 3 genders does not mean that you have a 33.333% chance of being right.
For German nouns, according to an article on Duden, 46% of nouns are feminine, 34% are masculine, while 20% neuter. So if you don’t know the gender of a German noun? Default to using the feminine articles.
How do you normally learn the genders of nouns? Do you have other tips for remembering the genders of nouns? Let me know in the comments.