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The thorny issue of gender

What’s your view on gender in language, and how it affects learning? English stands out from other European languages by not have gendered nouns, so the city is not feminine as it is in, say French and Spanish (la cité / la ciudad), and nor is the country masculine (le pays / el país).

We tend to think that not having to bother with these elements makes it easier for learners of English, but does it? If your worldview (built upon your mother tongue) includes genders for things, that presumably also means that those things which share a grammatical gender also, at some level in your mind, share certain characteristics. So does a language without those markers somehow seem a bit ‘black and white’, and lacking in perspective? Does it actually make it harder for learners not having that added dimension to deal with – what do you think?

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Sharon Creese

6 Comments

  • As an English teacher and a language learner. No.

    I would argue that English might as well have genders as long as you can’t say “a apple” or “an hat”
    Not to mention the two ways of pronouncing “The”.
    Does this change the way you think about apples and hats? No. Is it useful? No.

  • Danish, Norwegian and Swedish have a system where feminine and masculine grammatical gender have merged into common gender. Only persons, and sometimes animals, are referred to with the equivalents of he or she – as in English. Other nouns may be neuter or common gender. This makes no sense at all, and is difficult for foreign learners to remember – although it doesn’t matter much if you make a mistake, nobody will be offended. It is hard to say that this system affects Scandinavians’ worldview.

    Finnish, on the other hand, has the same noun for he and she, and Finnish-speaking learners of Germanic languages sometimes get their grammatical genders mixed up. This may offend people, but it is not intentional. However, I have not noticed that Finns have problems telling men from women.

  • When a student I helped another student from Spain to handle the task on verb conjugation in Russian. By the end of it he said, that our language is sometimes so hard to understand. And as an example he mentioned the neutral gender. He said: “I uderstand ОН (he), I know what ОНА (she) means, but what is ОНО (it) about? Is it somewhere in between? What is it for?” So I got it that for those who has no genders their existence in other languages is a mystery.

  • Genders are useful if you want to read or write a poem. For example the moon in Italian is feminine (la luna) while the sun is masculine (il sole) and they have different denotations in poetry (not only there) in German language is the opposite, the moon is masculine and the sun is femminine.

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