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  • Writer's pictureIan Gibbs

Language Learning Law 7: Learn The Gender Of Everything - It’s Important

Whoever it was who invented languages where the whole universe is divided up into things that are considered either male or female has got a lot to answer for.

As a simplistically-minded English speaker, I just don’t get why a glass should be considered ‘male’ and a cup ‘female’. I mean, really, what is the point?

All it does is confuse.

How can they not see that it all works perfectly well without any gender being arbitrarily assigned to anything?


Ranting aside, we have no alternative to accept this divisive yin-yang obsession of carving the universe up into two groups (or even more, given that some languages have a neuter gender, too). It’s not natural for us anglophones but there’s no option other than to get on and learn it.


It’s important not only for communicating fluently but also because some words can totally change their meaning depending on their gender.

In Catalan, for example ‘Un clau’ (masculine) is a nail – something you hammer into wood, whereas ‘Una clau’ (feminine) is a key – something you open a door with.


Often, there are general rules of thumb that work well.

In French the majority of nouns that end in ‘-e’ or ‘-ion’ are feminine (with the exception of words ending in ‘-age’, ‘-ege’, ‘-é’, or ‘-isme’. In Italian many nouns ending in ‘-i’ or ‘-o’ are masculine and nearly all nouns ending in ‘-e’ or ‘-a’ are feminine. But there are always exceptions.


So how does one go about learning the arbitrary gender of hundreds (and eventually thousands) of inanimate objects and abstract concepts?


The best way I’ve found so far is to go back to the yin-yang and use it in your favour.

Yin-yang is the Chinese philosophical way of considering the universe to be made up of opposing yet complimentary forces.


Clearly invented by a man, Yin is considered feminine, passive, negative, inwards, downwards, cold, liquid and so on. Whereas Yang is masculine, active, positive, outwards, upwards, hot, aerial, etcetera.


But this can come in very useful when learning language genders and here’s why.


Suppose you’ve just learned a new word in Spanish, let’s say it’s ‘mano’, the word for ‘hand’, which for some reason in spite if it ending with an ‘o’ has been deemed feminine.

So as feminine yin is also cold and wet, then imagine your hand also being cold and wet - very cold and very wet. Imagine your hand has just spent ten minutes in the freezing-cold arctic ocean.

It’s painfully cold.

It’s turned blue and now has small icicles starting to form from your fingertips. Imagine the feeling. Imagine the pain.

Remember this image every time you think of the word ‘hand’ in your new language.

The striking image of a blue-veined, hypothermic, shivering hand will stay with you forever and with it, the ability to remember that hands are female regardless of how large and hairy they may be.


Similarly, you can do this with masculine things.

In Spanish the word for ‘shoe’ is ‘zapato’ which even if it has a six-inch stiletto, is still considered masculine.

Masculine is Yang.

So now imagine the shoe to be hot, very hot.

It’s glowing red.

It’s on fire!

With every step you take you leave scorched footprints.

As you walk you can smell the acrid vapours of burned carpet!

Again, this image, along with the gender will stay with you for life.


The key to this is to make the associated image as sensually extreme as possible.

We are genetically programmed to remember sensual data.

If something is painful, it’s best to remember it so we can avoid it in the future.

If something is nice, we want to remember it so we can go back and get more when nobody’s watching.


But what about the neuter gender, you might be asking if you’re studying German or Polish.

Well, following the yin-yang idea, where yin and yang exist in equal amounts you have peace, harmony, balance. So if you come across a new word that is considered neuter such as the word for ‘baby’(which in German, conveniently is ‘Baby’), imagine the baby to be quiet, asleep, snuggly warm, happily lying in its cot glowing in peace and harmony.

It’s neither too hot nor too cold.

It’s not dripping through the mattress or exploding in your face.

It’s very existence is tranquillity.

If you can keep this image with you, you can remember it’s linguistic gender is neuter.

So don’t just learn the word, remember and learn the gender, too. It’s important.

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