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  • Writer's pictureAlison McDonald

What It’s Like Learning a “Gendered” Language

Grace went to some lengths to immerse herself in the French culture during her travels.

Those of us who have spoken English since we were born probably have not thought much about the notion of English being a “gender-neutral” language. I remember the first time this was brought to my attention was in French class in primary school. My classmates and I found it incredibly humorous that inanimate objects such as a table (la table) could be assigned a gender when to us, it seemed to lack the necessary equipment.

One of the key struggles gendered-language-learners face is not only having to remember a foreign word, but also having to remember its assigned gender. For those of us who haven’t had to worry about gendered nouns in our mother tongue, it can at-times feel frustrating and unnecessary.

So why do nouns need to have a gender?

Basically, assigning a gender to a noun is just another way of breaking up nouns into classes. It is a feature of certain languages that was inherited by the ancient speakers of those languages. In fact, English used to also be a gendered-language, however English speakers stopped classifying nouns by gender during the late Middle English Period (c. 1100 – c. 1500).

It was only after taking my studies of the French language to a University level that I began to appreciate the poetic value that gendered languages possess. There’s something almost romantic about describing things like rain as feminine (la pluie) and the sun as masculine (le soleil).

The other day I saw a lovely French quote on a piece of jewellery, “Les jours sont roses, à qui sait amourer.” Which loosely translates to “The days are pink to those who know love.” Pink, being a colour that one would agree is commonly associated with romance and femininity, when used in this sense refers to a positive or bright outlook on life. It made me appreciate the role that implied gender can play in adding flavour to what is said, even as a native speaker of English.

Here are some fun facts about other gendered languages:

  1. In the Siberian Ket language, nouns that are considered to be of no importance to the Kets are classified as feminine, whereas nouns of importance (e.g. fish, wood) are classified as masculine. It is likely that this is an indicator of women’s status in Ket society.

  2. The word for “manliness” is actually classified as feminine in the following languages: Spanish, Latin, German, Polish, Russian and Hindi.

Newcastle Speech Pathology can offer you support on your educational and learning journey no matter what your language background.

Written by Grace Office Manager & Therapy Assistant Newcastle Speech Pathology

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