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Le est de Mars, la est de Venus: understanding and learning French noun genders.


This paper addresses the complicated issue of attribution of gender in French nouns. Firstly, it presents a range of views on how native speakers address noun gender allocation, plus some insight into why they are accurate with most, but by no means all, gender attributions. Secondly, the paper explains some of the inconsistencies in noun gender allocation and challenges the value of a system which has long been discarded by several other languages. Thirdly, it explains the confusion noun gender allocation presents for students and introduces a refreshingly simple, but effective, system to help. Finally, the paper concludes that, because mastering the gender of every noun is all but impossible, not only for learners, but also for native speakers, the best approach for students is to master the strategy presented in this paper, and for teachers not to penalise gender errors too harshly.

Key Words

Noun gender, error correction, French, language reform



Native French speakers and noun genders

While accurate syntax is the essential adhesive which gives meaning to groups of words, excessive inflexibility apropos what is commonly regarded as correct or incorrect language may itself become a catalyst for social exclusion. Searle (2003), for example, writes '... non-standard [language] forms can serve to denigrate the character of speakers from minority groups ...' (2003, p. 378. See also Kerswill, 2006 and Le Roux, 2005). Accordingly, languages are bound to accommodate a range of variations. Notwithstanding any such flexibility, however, predictable grammatical patterns provide a series of parameters which separate meaningful information from (often) confusing utterances. As well as the universal variations of popular, regional, vulgar, idiomatic or metaphoric usage, each language has its own convoluted peculiarities, a situation which can be exacerbated by the absence of any definitive rule or template to arbitrate on what is generally regarded as correct and incorrect. Moreover, many native speakers are not well informed about the syntax of their own language, especially the more intricate and complicated components. Having acquired language by natural immersion, very few native speakers undertake the same intense syntactical analyses of their lingua franca as do second language students battling with those same idiosyncrasies. Consequently, in what may seem an unlikely contradiction, second language learners often amass a sophisticated understanding of the rules, patterns and exceptions in their target language, whereas native speakers are frequently not similarly equipped. Ironically, this means that many native speakers are not as successful at explaining and teaching certain peculiarities of their own language to learners. French noun genders are one such peculiarity.

Debate over the innate relationship between a word's spelling and its gender is no less intense now than it ever was, and how the French deal with noun genders has always fascinated this writer. Firstly, it is a language phenomenon not present in his native English, but equally, noun genders are provided in French dictionaries as part of a highly prescriptive, right or wrong, system. That system almost never tolerates variation yet cannot be satisfactorily explained by rules or protocol. For over four decades this writer has repeatedly asked (and still asks) native French speakers (a) if they ever confuse the genders of nouns and (b) if they have a way of knowing which are which. In response, none has ever suggested rules such as final letter combinations, nor admitted that 'well ... some French people might get one wrong occasionally, but not very often ...' or 'maybe, but only very rarely ...'. Even when the question turns to unusual or newly invented words in science, medicine, computing and the like, the response is always strongly that the French 'just know'. In other words, they are born inherent masters of their own language, right down to the last gender. Lyster (2007) describes gender mastery as the '... seemingly effortless and flawless acquisition of grammatical gender by native speakers of French' (2007, p. 71). Surridge (1999) also promotes the concept of naturally acquired gender accuracy among native speakers in concluding that '... Francophone children, once beyond babyhood, rarely make gender errors' (1999, p. 2; my emphasis). Yet which genders, and why, should one allocate to words with non-prescribed endings, to those not previously encountered and to culture-specific borrowings such as the Maori word haka and the Japanese word sushi?

Genuine sympathy is due to any French speaker unable to use delice 'delight' and amour 'love' correctly, both of which Grevisse, the noted Belgian grammarian and long-time author of Le ben usage, describes as masculine in the singular but feminine in the plural. Few native speakers are aware of such chicanery and, although of fascination to foreign academics (including this writer), such obfuscations are arguably extremely rare and of negligible importance in the wider discourse. Notwithstanding the minimal contribution genders actually make to communication, however, gender accuracy is required for reasons of syntax. Noun genders govern the correct forms of modifying adjectives, possessive adjectives, demonstrative adjectives, pronouns, definite and indefinite articles and past participles (other than those followed by an infinitive as in je l'ai laissee 'I let her' but je l'ai laisse retourner 'l let her come back'). Locating the noun gender conundrum within the broader picture of French nouns in general, Lyster (2006, p. 90) points out that rule nonconformity is a hallmark of French nouns, not only in gender attribution, but equally in the formation of plurals. This is not to diminish the gender allocation predicament, however, and in that regard the notion that native speakers simply disagree on noun genders rather than make mistakes in attribution (Ayoun, 2007) is problematic. Ignorance and mistakes in language can be tolerated and excused, but not promoted as matters of personal choice. Accepting incorrect syntax merely as individual preference is akin to promoting in English that lay and lie and bought and brought differ only through personal preference. Many native speakers of English do confuse these patterns and, notwithstanding earlier comments in support of language flexibility, it is untenable to accept that such confusion is merely a matter of personal preference. For example, the soldier lay the princess on the grass differs so vividly from the soldier laid the princess on the grass that personal preference can never be the rationale. Spelling variations (in particular the British-American English debate) can be accepted as part of the 'living language', and in most instances neither communication nor syntax is thereby compromised. Such is not the case with noun genders, however, and, notwithstanding Battye, Hintze and Rowlett's (2000) model and the variations of popular usage, every French noun has an allocated gender, although most native speakers are inaccurate by at least 10% (see, for example, Lyster, 2006; Walker, 1992; Wilson, 1978).

Two recent episodes of a French television quiz show demonstrate how even native French speakers can struggle with gender allocation. In the first scenario (Case Study 1), the contestant was required to choose which of algebre 'algebra', alchimie 'alchemy', algorithme 'algorithm' and alcoolemie 'blood alcohol level' is masculine.

In the second scenario, the contestant was required to choose which of halegene 'halogen lamp', ammoniac 'ammonia', ephemeride 'ephemeris' and vermicelles 'vermicelli' is feminine.

In Case Study 1, all four options ended in -e, eliminating the 'final -e = feminine' rule of thumb. Also, all words began with a vowel, words most likely to cause gender errors (Schriefers & Teruel, 1999). In Case Study 2, two vowel words were chosen plus halogene (silent h = l') and vermicelles (takes the ambigeneric plural article les). In each scenario, all words were deliberately challenging because of their relative infrequency and morphology. We know that spelling (if, indeed, genders are spelling) is not a measure of intelligence, and the point of the case studies is not to demean the academic status of the contestants. Moreover, it should be noted that both contestants performed creditably in other questions about politics, general knowledge, history, music, geography and so on. Rather, the significance of the case studies lies in the following deductions:

i) The very inclusion of noun gender questions in the quiz show acknowledges the problematic nature of the linguistic phenomenon to native speakers.

ii) Although the words were chosen because of their challenging morphology, algebre, ammoniac, vermicelles and alcoolemie are not uncommon, while most French adults will have heard of halogene, algorithme and alchimie.

iii) Of the four words in each case study, the contestants' inability to select the correct answer was exacerbated by their failure to allocate genders to the three alternative answers as well, ruling out the process of elimination. Both contestants failed with all four words, not just the one correct answer.

iv) Apart from noting the 'final -e' and the 'initial vowel' characteristics, neither contestant seemed aware of any other final letter combinations. For example, Burns' (1998) rubric (nouns ending in -me are sixteen times more likely to be masculine) would have proved useful in Case Study 1.

v) For words outside one's personal experience and whose morphology does not match known final letter sequences, or where the speaker does not know those final letter sequences, correct allocation is extremely unlikely.

vi) The case studies are significant, not only because of the failure of the actual participants, but even more because substantial percentages of the live audiences were equally unsuccessful. In Case Study 2, 33% of the 120 (approximately) people in each audience failed the final 50/50 choice, while in Case Study 1, 27% of the live audience failed. In the latter case, the audience had spread their answers evenly over the three incorrect options, suggesting uninformed guesswork rather than the application of logical strategies.

Some commentators claim that the prescriptive intensity of noun gender requirements is such that incorrect attribution and/or incorrect modifier agreement can reduce one's ability to convey the intended message. For example, Surridge (1995) concludes that '... gender assignment in French depends on a ... complex network [of systems] ... native speakers are now thought to internalise the various systems [from] simple nouns [through to] complex nouns' (1995, vii). She then suggests that gender attribution is so complex and internalised that psycholinguistic turmoil may ensue if a customer in a French bakery (for example) were to ask for une petite pain 'a bread roll' (Surridge, 1995, p. 2). In other words, a native French speaker, influenced by the two feminine descriptors (une and petite), would anticipate that the next word must also be a feminine noun to complete the utterance accurately. However, as the final word pain is masculine, the listener may not even hear the 'bread' meaning at all. Rather, he/she would be mentally searching for a feminine word with the same pronunciation as pain and, because no such feminine word exists, the sentence may struggle for meaning. Dahan, Swingley, Tanenhaus, and Magnuson (2000) also demonstrated that native French listeners anticipate subsequent information based on having first heard the gender-prescriptive article of a word. A useful analogy might involve an English-speaking environment where a customer holds up an ice-cream and asks the shopkeeper 'how much is he?' Knowing that ice-creams are never referred to as he, the shopkeeper, even while looking directly at the ice-cream, may well wonder if the focus of the question is elsewhere.

Further along the continuum of the French noun gender discourse, commentators such as Harma (1999) regard attribution as random, while others such as Zubin and Kopcke (1986) conclude that genders are pattern-governed and that apparent inaccuracies and inconsistencies merely reflect our lesser understanding of the overall nature of the patterns. Carroll (1995, cited in Lyster, 2006) also argues that for native speakers, noun endings are a non-issue when analysing and allocating genders. Less extreme, others such as Berard and Lavenne (1991) and Bosquart (1998) reject the notion that there is any regular relationship between a noun's final letter(s) and its gender that reliably assist native speakers. On the other hand, Tucker, Lambert and Rigault (1977) are among the very clear majority who regard a noun's ending as the major indicator of the word's gender, both for native and non-native speakers. For example, Karmiloff-Smith's research (1979) also deals with native-speaker acquisition of genders and concludes that noun endings are the most important clue for French children as they build up patterns of competence and understanding. When Holmes and Dejean de la Batie (1999) tested native and nonnative speakers' ability at allocating genders to real and contrived word stems attached to actual gender-predictive endings, they found that second language participants relied almost exclusively on final-letter combinations, while native speakers did so only when they were unable to conclude a prelearned or lexical association (= meaning) for any given word. Also looking at childhood noun gender accuracy, Seigneuric, Zagar, Meunier, and Spinelli (2007) found that while gender allocation is based upon (i) cues presented in word endings and (ii) semantic cues based on the natural gender of animate items, even very young children were able to allocate genders based on a word's final-letter grouping, a skill which increased with age. In other words, a French child builds up the sorts of final letter combinations alluded to earlier and is, therefore, able to apply a natural gender attribution process based on those patterns. The psycholexical application of word endings as the overarching determiner of gender attribution helps explain not only why native speakers are so adept at allocating genders to nouns, but equally, perhaps, their (sometimes over) confidence in their ability to deal with nouns they have not previously encountered.

The value of noun genders

The well-documented evolution of languages over hundreds of years suggests that linguistic patterns which confuse, which do not contribute to communication and/ or whose overly complicated application outweighs any benefits, provide fertile ground for linguistic change. Harma (1999, pp. 612-614), for example, provides some interesting examples of Old and Medieval French where masculine determiners and pronouns were once used in reference to uniquely feminine nouns. In English, the steady demise of the subjunctive, plus the changing uses of like and as, who and whom, sank and sunk and me and I, are striking examples.

As part of the wider academic debate of understanding noun gender allocation, in modern French also, the questions 'what useful purpose do noun genders serve?' and 'would French be a poorer language without them?' hold currency. The following two exchanges highlight the syntactical importance but communicative unimportance of French noun genders. In the former, the sentence is accurately formatted (as required) based on the gender of jupe being correct. In the second utterance, the syntax is palpably incorrect because jupe has been allocated (deliberately) the incorrect gender. It is not difficult to argue that the latter is no less successful than the former in conveying the intended meaning.

Tu as vu cette petite jupe verte que j'ai achetee a Londres?

'Have you seen this little green skirt that I bought in London?'

Oui, tu me l'as montree hier.

'Yes, you showed it to me yesterday.'

Tu as vu ce petit jupe vert que j'ai achete b Londres?

Oui, tu me l'as montre hier.

Also, la fleur est tres jolie 'the flower is very pretty' demonstrates the compulsory agreement for an adjective modifying a feminine noun, unmistakable in the written format, yet indiscernible when the sentence is spoken. Given its inaudibility, what would be lost if the agreement were not there at all? Even more vexing are phrases such as l'auberge rouge 'the red inn', the combination of a feminine noun and its adjective. In this case, the noun's gender is neither provided by the definite article, nor by the adjective. Due to its morphology, rouge already ends in e and cannot take another e to complete the prescribed feminine agreement. Consequently, the feminine agreement is neither visible in the written form nor audible in the spoken form. One might well ask whether the adjective is agreeing with its feminine noun or not and, if not, whether any meaning is lost as a result.

So, while Harma (1999) describes noun gender attribution as '... one of the phenomena which ensure [French( syntactic and textual cohesion' (1999, p. 610), communication in most languages is not compromised by the absence of noun gender agreements. For example, in many languages (notably German, Asian, and Pacific languages) qualificative adjectives, which show agreement, are not modified when used as predicate. The French language itself acknowledges this by insisting on masculine formats for all plural modifiers. In other words, when feminine and masculine nouns are grouped together, all modifiers must take on their masculine format, even if the group were to comprise one book (masculine) and a thousand chairs (feminine), or one man and a thousand women! One example where the French ranguage openly admits to the dubious value of gender agreements is in the invariable adjective feu 'late' (as in 'deceased'). Thus, while la feue reine 'the late queen' requires feminine agreement, the more common usage of feu is invariable. In other words, in the masculine structures 'the late king' and 'my late father' (feu le roland feu mon pare), feu is predictably masculine or non-agreeing. Of note, the feminine examples of the late queen and my late mother are also written feu la reine and feu ma mere. Feminine agreement of feu is neither possible nor required, and no meaning is lost.

The obvious natural gender of a word (man, woman, rooster, bride etc.) will reliably indicate gender, although unpredictability occurs in a range of French words such as male and female genitalia (McLauchlan, 2007). However, it is the noun as a lexical construct which is gender-prescribed, not the object identified by that noun, a phenomenon which can cause further confusion when possessive adjectives are involved. In this case, French grammar follows noun gender attribution so slavishly that there is no way of knowing whether sa voiture and son velo, for example, mean his or her car and his or her bike respectively. Yet the gender of a common object is irrefutably less important than the gender of the person possessing that object. Equally puzzling, to learners at least, is why the exclusively male role of inter alia bass singer (la basse) is a feminine noun, as shown in the following exchange:

La basse est formidable, quoi? 'The bass singer is amazing, don't you think?'

Oui, elle est fantastique 'Indeed, she [meaning he!] is terrific.'

Context will almost always overrule ambiguity, so apart from separating occasional homonymic pairs such as la tour 'tower, castle' and le tour 'ride, trip', le manche 'handle' and la manche 'sleeve', le mode 'method' and la mode 'fashion' and so on, noun genders arguably contribute very little to that aspect of French communication (see Weber, 1999. and Ranson & Carlisle, 1996). Moreover, while gender can play a role in allowing listeners to distinguish pairs of homophones such as le sandre 'perch fish' and la cendre 'ash', such instances are also rare.

Helping learners of French

Rules of thumb such as 'i before e except after c' and 'change y to i and add es' are among the numerous configurations which help students learn English language patterns. In their attempts to assist noun gender attribution, academics have identified unwieldy lists of gender-predictable endings. In his Le Truc de Genres, for example, Walker (1992) claims that his 40 separate word endings allow the genders of 75% of all nouns to be established with 90% accuracy. Wilson (1978) claims even higher success (92%) in gender allocation by applying his reduced selection of 20 final letter patterns, describing the strategy as 'management by exception'. In other words, the key function of final letter patterns is to deal with the [majority of] words which fall predictably within those patterns, thereby identifying the exceptions for special learning attention. Lyster's (2006) extensive corpus analysis examined 9,961 nouns and found that gender attribution of 80% of all masculine words and 81% of all feminine words is reliably rule-governed by final letter combinations (2006. pp. 89-90). These very detailed grammatical 'flow-charts' are invaluable in written work and in the academic application of French, although they may not afford similar assistance in the cut and thrust of speaking and interpreting. Indeed, the effort involved in memorising and applying so many multi-letter combinations can be akin to remembering individual genders themselves. Possibly unaware themselves of such substantial word-ending lists, many French teachers encourage their students, at least in the early stages, to concentrate on several simpler, broader strategies as follows.

Beginner students of French have traditionally been taught to allocate genders from the starting point that nouns ending in -e are predominantly feminine, that all nouns ending in -tion are also feminine, that most (but not all) English borrowings are masculine and that nouns ending in a consonant are more likely to be masculine. This package is efficient, but Burns (1994, p. 4) advocates an alternative approach. Firstly, she suggests that students deprioritise the 'final -e = feminine' hypothesis in favour of the 'final consonant = masculine' concept. Noting that nouns ending in -e are only twice as likely to be feminine as masculine, Burns (1994) provides good evidence for her 'masculine approach'. She demonstrates that nouns ending in a consonant are 48 times more likely to be masculine while those ending in -ge, -le, -me, and -re are sixteen times more likely to be masculine. After establishing the 'masculine approach' rule, the 'final -e = feminine' rubric is applied.

The best solution for French teachers and students lies in identifying a system with the smallest number of categories, but which covers the greatest number of possibilities. I am grateful to Dr Peter Low, University of Canterbury, for his advice in compiling the following ten categories, listed below in order of importance. Students who have mastered the following categories will achieve a high level of noun gender accuracy.

1 Most nouns are masculine, particularly those that end in a consonant (le bras 'arm', le pied 'foot', le doigt 'finger').

2 Nouns denoting men's and women's genders, roles and professions have the corresponding genders (le frere 'brother', la soeur 'sister', le violoniste/la violoniste 'violinist').

3 Most nouns ending in -e are feminine (la jambe 'leg', la chemise 'shirt', la musique 'music'), but most nouns ending in the other vowels (a-e-i-o-u-y) are masculine (le visa 'visa', le care 'cafe', le ski 'skiing', le stylo 'pen', le genou 'knee', le rugby 'rugby').

4 Most abstract nouns are feminine (la grandeur 'greatness', la liberte 'liberty/ freedom', la competence 'competence', but note le silence 'silence').

5 Almost all nouns ending in -tion and -sion are feminine (la natation 'swimming', la manifestation 'protest', la station, etc., la mission, la confusion, la discussion, etc.).

6 Almost all English borrowings are masculine (le jogging, le DVD, le lipstick, le goalkeeper).

7 Words formed by verb + -eur are masculine (le porteur 'porter', le nageur 'swimmer', le vendeur 'vendor'), although many denoting professions change endings depending on gender (le vendeur/la vendeuse, le pharmacien/ la pharmacienne 'pharmacist', l'acteur/ l'actrice 'actor').

8 Most compounds formed by verb + noun are masculine (le lave-vaisselle 'handbasin', le seche-mains 'towel', l'ouvre-boite 'can-opener', le porte-documents 'briefcase').

9 Most words for trees are masculine (le chene 'oak', l'arbre 'tree', le hetre 'beech'), as are metric units (le metre, le litre, le gramme), but all car makes (la Nissan, la Renault, la Jaguar) are feminine.

10 The -e suffixes: -acle (le spectacle), -eme (le probleme), -ome (le tome, le dome) and -isme (100%) and -age (99%) are masculine. A final letter combination is not always a true suffix, and so single syllable words such as la cage and la plage 'beach' conform to category (3) rather than to this category (10).

Many other useful tips exist, such as the abbreviation of a word retains the gender of the original word (la television [right arrow] la tele, une automobile [right arrow] une auto). In fact, almost endless numbers of further categories also exist, but they cover ever-decreasing numbers of increasingly infrequent words. Accordingly, it may be argued that such narrow categories lack any practical use, as remembering and applying them can be more tiresome than learning individual words with genders. Overall, students should be advised to i) guess masculine if the word ends in a consonant, ii) guess feminine if it ends in -e and iii) memorise important exceptions in set phrases that signal gender (bon anniversaire 'happy birthday', bonne nuit 'goodnight', bon voyage, en pleine mer 'out at sea', une boisson chaude 'a hot drink', liaisons dangereuses and la premiere lois 'the first time'). French people develop a sensitivity to genders and suffixes and use this technique, as did the TV quiz contestant considering vermicelles in Case Study 2.

As well as the sorts of tips suggested above, serious students should also be encouraged to engage with the concept that French noun genders are '... an idiosyncratic property to be learned with the word' (Battye et al., 2000, p. 120). In other words, genders are part of a word's generic morphology (spelling) and need to be learned correctly with their nouns at the point of first discovery. Carroll (1995, cited in Lyster, 2006) also argues that genders are learned by native speakers as co-dependent morphological items, whereas learners rely extensively on each word's final letter combination. Schriefers and Teruel (1999, p. 638) also support the morphological paradigm, based partly on their finding that words beginning with a vowel are the most likely to generate incorrect gender attribution. Whatever one's approach, memorising nouns and genders is a vexing challenge. McLauchlan (2007) found that learning vocabulary was the single most cited academic reason contributing to discontinuation among secondary school students, while Tucker et al. (1977) describe noun genders as (possibly) ... the single most frustrating and difficult part of the study of French as a second language' (1971, p. 11). Harma (1999) claims that native speakers view genders as systematic and non-problematic, yet the reality is that even by following Battye et al.'s (2000) advice (above), noun gender attribution remains a conundrum for learners of French.


Such, then, is the guerre de genre with which all students of French (and, indeed, native speakers on occasions) must contend. Because of grammatical and curriculum requirements, students have little option but to learn genders as best they can, preferably by the dual process of memorising each new word with its correct gender and/or allocating genders according to identified final letter combinations. Their own motivation for learning French may involve an ideological choice between basic communication and linguistic accuracy. These two pedagogies are not mutually exclusive but, depending on the reasons for studying, gender accuracy need not assume a high priority. A holiday in France or the impending arrival of a French home-stay guest, for example, may mean that simple communication is the best option. On the other hand, an academic course leading to a formal university qualification should require finely developed grammatical accuracy. In the former scenario, genders and subsequent agreements, especially those which are not discernible in the spoken mode, will likely be given less emphasis than in the latter where they should be an essential component of the highly cumulative process of accurate French acquisition.

While the actual number of words whose gender is unguessable is not huge given the total vocabulary of the French language, the serious linguistic ramifications which flow from incorrect attribution may, at some stage in the future, generate calls for reform. Some French spelling reforms have taken place recently, although on a limited scale, with limited success and with no changeover time frames. Similar investigations into noun genders, a language phenomenon described generically by Weber (1999) as 'a nominal category without any function' (1999, p. 495), are unlikely in the near future. However, the extent to which the complex nature of genders and their negligible contribution to communication lead to reform over the next hundred years may be a different matter. In fact, the eventual disappearance of French noun genders altogether (as has already happened in Dutch and Afrikaans) is not as unlikely as we might think. Not only do they rarely enhance communication, but many feminine (and plural) agreements are discernible only in written French, while others do not occur at all, such as in l'auberge rouge. In the meantime, because entire sentences depend upon correct genders for structural integrity, they remain a sine qua non of accurate French.

Research informing the current field of enquiry appears to focus exclusively on literate native and non-native speakers, leaving a rich vein of untapped research into the accuracy of gender attribution among illiterate or semiliterate native speakers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, in everyday parlance at least, gender allocation by the latter is largely accurate within the framework of their own linguistic experiences, even though subsequent patterns of agreement may rapidly lose their accuracy. Research into noun gender allocation among less educated people would prove useful. There also appears to be a lack of definitive information on how native speakers actually acquire and apply final letter combinations, and just how conscious they are of such patterns. The patterns are not formally taught at school and, moreover, French children apply correct genders long before they can recognise final-letter combinations. This suggests that the process begins at a behavioural level, and subsequently develops into an explicitly cognitive strategy.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for teachers and students of French is the ostensible dichotomy between an emphasis on accuracy and the creation of an enjoyable learning environment. On the one hand, accurate syntax so often depends initially on correct gender attribution, while on the other hand, being overly concerned with genders may itself form a barrier to continued learning. As numbers of students learning French plummet worldwide (McLauchlan, 2007), teachers who steer a middle course whereby i) beginner students are not overly penalised for incorrect genders and ii) increasing accuracy is expected at a more advanced level, may well generate increased enjoyment and success among their students, as well as lower rates of attrition.

Photo of Venus by Josiah Gordon courtesy of stock.xchng


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Dr Alastair McLauchlan is a freelance education consultant and researcher who has published three books and numerous peer reviewed papers on a range of linguistic, anthropological, and educational issues. He can be contacted at
Case Study 1

Contestant's Comments and
Strategies (annotated) Implication

I understand these No prior knowledge of required
words but I don't use gender. Word meanings give no clue
some of them often

... they all end in -e Knew the final -e rule, but
so that's no help' inappropriate as all four words
 ended in -e

... all begin with a Best practice involves learning
vowel so I can't say noun + gender at point of discovery.
le or la...' Vowel words preclude this, as point of
 first discovery involves ambigeneric l'

Applied un and une to A more successful strategy for higher
each to find frequency 'vowel words' which should be
(unsuccessfully) a learned with the indefinite article un
natural link' or une to incorporate correct gender.
 Still unable to find the natural
 sounding pattern

'I can only think of Was looking for the 'sound' of an
facile and difficile' agreeing adjective to indicate
 possible feminine gender but facile
 and difficile offer no such clue

'They are all to do with Moved back to word meaning but unable
science ...' to progress further

'I did algebra at school Previously learned genders can fade
and used the word every with non-usage of a word, as with
day ...' spelling. Or, even at school he many
 never have known, through not needing
 to know

Requested studio audience 73% voted correctly, remaining 27%
to help by electronic evenly spread over the three incorrect
vote options

Selected algorithme only Unable to choose correct answer by
because of audience vote himself

Case Study 2

Contestant's Comments and
Strategies (annotated) Implication

Comments that spellings Unable to use Batteye et al.'s (2000)
make le and la impossible approach of le and la being
 morphologically integral

'... all 4 words end Similar predicament to Case Study 1
in -e ...'

Has used ammoniac and See Holmes and Dejean de la
halogene, but only with Batie (1999)
l' and unmodified

Unsuccessfully tried to The actual meanings of the words
apply un and une to three precluded the un/ une strategy for
vowel-initial words vowel words

'Thinks' (but not sure) Recalls seeing the word in
that vermicelles is supermarkets, modified by chauds
masculine (masculine format)

Played the 'split joker' Disappointed that vermicelles was not
which reduced the one of the two remaining words
options by half, leaving
halogene and ephemeride

Requested help from 33% of audience voted halogene,
audience electronic vote 67% voted ephemeride

Selected ephemeride Contestant unable to select answer
because of audience vote. for himself. No, idea whether his
 choice was correct or not
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Author:McLauchlan, Alastair
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:May 1, 2009
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