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Building more native-like gender system?

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United States
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2615 posts - 8805 votes 
Speaks: English*, FrenchB2
Studies: Spanish, Ancient Egyptian
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 Message 1 of 22
30 January 2013 at 8:18pm | IP Logged 
Over the last year, I've gotten a lot better at French gender. I know the genders for nearly all the nouns in my day-to-day vocabulary, and I refuse to guess genders when I speak. When listening, I notice lots of little gender markers like the final consonant in intelligente. When speaking, I notice a good fraction of gender errors and can consciously correct them. I have a pretty good idea about how to accurately guess the gender of words from their spelling. And if I rack my memory for a moment, I can often remember a sentence or an expression which gives away the gender of a word.

But it all still requires too much conscious control, even compared to things like the subjunctive, which I can get mostly right without thinking. I'd like put in some extra effort and encourage my brain to work a little bit more like that of a native speaker.

So I'd be very interested in personal experiences, links or scientific papers addressing either of the questions below, especially with respect to Romance languages, where the number of genders is small, and where the choice between words like "mon/ma" depends on both gender and the phonetic context.

1. If you're a native speaker, what does gender "feel" like in your head?

For example, does it work like human gender, where your brain tries to decide between male and female as quickly as possible, and basically never forgets? Or do you rely more on recalling the word along with the article, and saying "It's 'une voiture', so it's feminine." Has anybody ever described the subjective experience of gender well?

Also, what's up with young kids? How long does it take them to get things right? And are there really public figures who make lots of gender errors despite being native speakers?

2. If you've ever achieved near-native accuracy with gender, especially in adulthood, how did you do it?

Even highly fluent L2 speakers of French seem to commit 1 or 2 gender errors per minute of speech, though these errors may be very hard to notice. Have you successfully reached this level in any of your languages? Have you ever gone beyond that and achieved near-native error rates? If so, was this the natural result of long-term immersion, or did you also take specific steps to help fix the bugs?

As always, thank you to all you wonderful folk at HTLAL for sharing your experiences and knowledge!

Edited by emk on 30 January 2013 at 8:19pm

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Senior Member
Czech Republic
Joined 3338 days ago

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Speaks: Czech*, German, English
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Studies: Russian

 Message 2 of 22
30 January 2013 at 8:50pm | IP Logged 
In my native language (Czech), there is "masculine", "feminine" and "neutrum" but no articles. When learning as children, we use demonstrative pronouns as a helper.

In everyday life, we usually don't think about what gender a word has. Perhaps an analogy in English would be the use of the correct verb tense - a native speaker isn't analyzing a sentence to see if "he is going" or "he goes" or "he went".
There are some exceptions to this - there are some nouns which can have two or even all three genders, loanwords which start using one gender and then the common usage switches to another one. There are even some problematic nouns - few town names, where there is the "correct" gender and the "most used gender".

As a non-native, I have learned German to a high level. I am still making mistakes here and there (but not several per minute of speech).

I am learning French and simply learning the article with the noun, or better yet, an adjective. In your example, I am not learning "voiture" but "une voiture blanche". In anki, I am using colors to write the word or the whole "article+noun+adjective" (red, blue, /black/) because this way it seems to stick better. I have never had much success with learning a "system". Well, in German, there are few endings where you can say for sure the gender of the word and few rules of the thumb. But it was simply easier for me to learn the word including the gender.
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Senior Member
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 Message 3 of 22
30 January 2013 at 9:55pm | IP Logged 
The difference between your brain and that of a native speaker is practice and exposure. That's it.

Gender doesn’t feel like anything. It’s just a grammatical requirement and habit you need to obey, just like you say “spoke” instead of “speaked” – it doesn’t feel like anything.

I don’t personally link grammatical gender to personal gender. It's just a habit and a convention, and I'm better at it than you are because I've got a shitload more experience than you have.
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Senior Member
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Speaks: German*, English, French, Latin, Italian, Russian, Swedish
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 Message 4 of 22
31 January 2013 at 12:01pm | IP Logged 
I don't know where I read this, but there seems to be some evidence that native speakers of languages with grammatical gender associate certain characteristics with words of one gender. For example, in German it's "die Sonne" ('the sun', f.) and "der Mond" ('the moon', m.). According to this study people would associate feminine characteristics with "Sonne" and masculine characteristics with "Mond". There has also been some discussion about this on HTLAL, but I can't find the thread at the moment.

So, while there may be some associations going along with gender, it doesn't feel like anything and people certainly don't have to think about it. Making a gender mistake is very uncommon and will draw attention immediately, although there may be some words that have more than one possible gender, in which case there will automatically be a discussion about which article is correct.

The only people who are "allowed" to make gender mistakes are foreigners and little children, all others are expected to get their genders right all the time. For example, a colleague of mine is "Deutschrusse" (Russian with German ancestry) who speaks German as a heritage language. He is perfectly fluent, but sometimes he'll make tiny grammatical mistakes such as gender. He'll say something like "die Verständnis" (f.) instead of "das Verständnis" ('the comprehension', n.), because "-nis" is an ambiguous ending in German, which can be feminine or neuter. Everybody understands what he means, but it nevertheless sounds strange and weird coming from a person who is fluent in German.

Unfortunately, getting gender right in your L2 is highly difficult. It's easier when gender goes along with certain endings as in Spanish, Italian, Russian, or Icelandic, but when you have to learn articles by heart as in German, Swedish, or Gaelic, it's really difficult and can only be done by lots of exposure and practice.
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Super Polyglot
Winner TAC 2012
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 Message 5 of 22
31 January 2013 at 12:12pm | IP Logged 
You don't, you practice until you die and hope you get it right one day. I don't get it
right in French, Swedish or German often, but I've stopped racking my brain about it.
It'll get better.
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Bilingual Triglot
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 Message 6 of 22
31 January 2013 at 12:15pm | IP Logged 
It's easier in greek, because the endings are pretty clear. There are some exceptions (of course...) in nouns like η μέθοδος (method), η πρόοδος (progress) , η είσοδος (entrance) etc., that have a masuline ending, however they are female. It's like a accident waiting to happen, ecpecially for non native speakers. However, even Greeks get it wrong, particularly in the plural, when they are engaged in conversation and are speaking very very fast (the adjectives, if any, should be female, not male). It's one of those details that show the level of education of a person, but it can certainly be a slip of the tongue as well.

As for how they feel, I had never thought of that. I don't think you can tell out of intuition, if that's your question. You know because of the ending and because of experience.
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Russian Federation
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 Message 7 of 22
31 January 2013 at 1:06pm | IP Logged 
I agree with both Arekkusu and Josquin.
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Joined 2997 days ago

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Speaks: Finnish*, Polish, English

 Message 8 of 22
31 January 2013 at 1:57pm | IP Logged 
emk wrote:
1. If you're a native speaker, what does gender "feel" like in your head?

I as a native speaker of a romance language never even think about it. As far as I know children don't have problems with gender, nor is it an error public figures do. Native speakers don't "recall words", especially not with the article. They just know the word, of which the gender is a part of, and apply the correct article as a consequence. This applies as well if they have to think for a second to recall a word. If they recall it, they know the gender as well.
It's exactly the same as knowing where the stress falls in the word (no, my native romance language is not French!), though, unlike gender, stress placement of difficult (rare, literary, foreign) words can cause errors in native speakers. Children can have problems with the meaning of words and less frequently with the aforementioned stress placement, but not with gender. I suppose when they learn a new word in a natural context they internalize the gender with it without any conscious effort to do so.

2. If you've ever achieved near-native accuracy with gender, especially in adulthood, how did you do it?

Polish is "easy" from the gender point of view, as usually the word itself tells you the gender. Words ending in -e, -o or -um are neuter, those ending in -a are feminine unless clearly masculine (artysta, poeta, dentysta, etc.). The only ambiquity are words ending in a consonant, which usually are masculine, though there are plenty of feminine words as well (noc = night). Often the ending gives away the feminine gender (-ść for example). Native speakers don't have problems, I do at times (I thought księżyc, moon, were a feminine word, but it's masculine). But I am far from a near-native level in Polish!

The problem in Polish for me are plural-only, not viril words. These words have exactly the same declination but for genitive plural, which depends on gender. Even natives sometimes have problems with these words, especially if they refer to place names. Kaliski is a village, people live in Kaliskach, but do we go to Kalisk or to Kalisków?

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