Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

3 Proven Techniques for Learning Noun Genders

Learning noun genders - GamesforlanguageIn English, you don't need to worry about noun gender. But in languages such as German, Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc. you do.

The Non-logic of it All

There seems to be little logic about the gender of nouns. Take the word for "sun," for example. In German, it's "die Sonne" (feminine), in French, it's masculine: "le soleil," and in Dutch, it's "de zon," a word of common gender, which is a masculine/feminine category.

On the other hand, "house" is neuter in both German and Dutch: "das Haus" and "het huis," but feminine in French: "la maison."

So, how can you learn the articles for all these nouns? Well, you can't get around doing it. But here are three ways you can make this task a little easier and stick better.

1. Auditory Memory

A language is a series of sounds. Even if you're just reading or writing, you're often silently "sounding out" the words in your mind.

Sound is a powerful tool for memorization. Don't memorize "Haus is neuter." Repeat "das Haus" a few times, focusing on the sounds that go together, in this case, "-s with Haus."

Later, when you're trying to remember the gender of "Haus," - the feminine or masculine articles will just not sound right with this word.

Similarly, if you say "la maison" a few times and remember that the "la" article goes with the "ai" sound, using the masculine article will not fit as well.

2. Visual Memory

Unless you only want to hear and speak a language, you'll spend plenty of time reading and writing it. These are excellent ways to get words, phrases, and structures into your visual memory.

Don't just memorize "soleil is masculine." When you write out "le soleil" a few times and remember the “e” in both the “le” and “soleil”, the feminine article will simply not look right with "soleil."

3. General Rules and Exceptions

There are no iron-clad rules about the gender of nouns. But there are general rules you certainly should add to your tools and each language has a few that can supplement your auditory and visual memory. (Following are just a couple of examples, it's by no means an exhaustive list.) 

In French, nouns ending in "-e" are feminine, barring a few notable exceptions, such as "le problème."

In Spanish and Italian, nouns ending with “o” are generally masculine, those ending with “a” mostly feminine (with "el problema" [Spanish] and "il problema" [Italian] again one of several exceptions.)

In German, words ending in "-e" are mostly feminine; words that have the diminutive ending "-chen" or "-lein" are always neuter. For example, die Küche (kitchen), die Straße (street); and "das Mädchen" (girl), "das Sträßlein" (little street).

Learn to Trust Yourself

And once you've learned the general rules, you'll be able to apply your auditory and visual memory to the exceptions as well.

With time, you'll learn to trust your auditory and visual memory more and are on your way to building that wonderful, uncanny skill that we all strive for: a real feel for the language.

Let us know about YOUR experiences with visual and auditory memory!