Mastering Grammatical Gender In French

Perhaps the most common and glaring mistake of English-speakers in French is getting the noun genders wrong. Anyone who has studied French knows that all French nouns are classified as either masculine or feminine, indicated respectively by articles un or le and une or la, as in un repas "a meal", le repas "the meal" and une tarte "a pie", la tarte "the pie".

Let's clear up right away a common misconception about this naming convention. The distinction is totally arbitrary except for certain references to living animals. There is nothing feminine about la tarte or masculine about le repas.

The reason this distinction is so important is that French grammar uses the fundamental principle of gender agreement of the whole chain of words linked to the noun. Look at the following examples:

La nouvelle voiture est belle. "The new car is beautiful."
Le nouveau vélo est beau. "The new bicycle is beautiful."

In English only one word changes from one sentence to the other. In French, on the other hand, there are four changes. Even in these very simple examples we can see right away that in French you have to know the right gender before you arrive at the word itself in order to use the right article or determiner (la, le) and the right adjective (nouvelle, nouveau).

This is where mistakes happen and French-speakers wince when they hear something horrible like la nouveau voiture est beau. There are further complications. Certain prepositions distinguish gender. Consider the following examples:

Je vais à la maison. "I'm going to the house."
Je vais au bureau. "I'm going to the office."
(Please avoid the common mistake, Je vais à le bureau.)

Je viens de la maison. "I'm coming from the house."
Je viens du bureau."I'm coming from the office."
(Please avoid the common mistake, Je viens de le bureau.)

Again we see how French makes multiple changes where English makes just a simple word substitution. There are other areas of French grammar where gender is important, but I think you get an idea of how the system works. This principle of gender agreement is so foreign to English-speakers that they don't pay attention and end up making glaring mistakes.

As you can easily appreciate, this gender agreement system is very complex. A mistake is easily made, especially when sentences are long. It's really quite astonishing that by the age of six French children master this system quite well.
There are two parts to the problem of learning to master French gender agreement. The first, relatively simple, is getting the noun gender right. This is not too difficult because the ending of a word often indicates the gender. Most words ending in -tion, -té -erie, -ise, -euse, -esse, -elle, -trice, -ine, -ure, and -ette are feminine.

For masculine words, things are a bit complicated. Most words -but not all- ending in -eur, -age -ment, -in, -isme, -eau, -et, and -eux are masculine. Beyond that, you basically have to learn the gender of each word.

In my opinion, the best way to learn the gender is to learn the word in combination with an adjective. This highlights the agreement connection. So instead of learning la salle, le système, le véhicule, learn la grande salle, le nouveau système and le véhicule neuf.

The second part of the problem is getting all the agreements right. And this has to be done without too much hesitation. As we move from left to right along the sentence, we have to automatically make all the necessary adjustments for gender in addition to paying attention to all the other stuff like plural forms and verb conjugations.

What is the best learning strategy for mastering this complicated system? As always, lots of repeated exposure to authentic material is important. When listening, pay particular attention to word endings that indicate gender agreement. You will soon develop a heightened awareness of the system.

In addition to all this active listening, a very effective strategy is to use a three-step process called Imitate - Assimilate - Create. Simply put, the idea is to start by memorizing and imitating authentic examples. These are, of course, sentences and snippets of dialogs that highlight the gender agreement rules.

After a while the patterns are internalized and assimilated, that is to say you have developed an understanding of how the system works.

Then the final step is to progressively create new sentences based on the original pattern by substituting components and making all necessary adjustments. With lots of practice the whole thing becomes automatic and the correct forms will just start to roll off your tongue.
(First publishd by articles@ezine )