31 May 2015

Tom of Finland's Gender Game: this weird trick will help you learn languages.

If you're a native English speaker, you're at a disadvantage when it comes to learning other languages: you're not used to having to remember the gender of words. Here's a trick that will help.

Most English words don't have gender, so we're not used to having to think about it when speaking. But if you want to speak another language properly, you need to learn not only the words for things but their gender as well. Most European languages have two or three. And while you can make yourself understood without getting the gender of words right, you're always going to sound like a tourist.  If you want to speak properly you need to remember the gender of every noun.

That's a major task, though. It means remembering twice as much information as you would need in English. With Spanish or Italian it's not so difficult, because the word endings usually give it away: -o for masculine,  -a for feminine. But German, for example, has three genders and there is no such rule. (Actually there is, but we'll come back to that.)

Students of German are told,  "you just have to remember the gender when you learn each noun." That's easier said than done.

Why are some words masculine and some feminine? It often seems as if there is some obvious rule.  But there is not. In French the moon is feminine and the Sun is masculine; in German it's the other way round.

When it comes to learning the words for things, there is a simple widely used technique: word association and imagery. This is based on the idea that vivid images are easy to recall.

For example,  one book suggests remembering the word Teller, for plate,  by imagining going into a bank and finding the tellers all have plates in front of them. Thinking of the image will associate these words in your mind. But you also have to remember that Teller is masculine. How? The experts say, remember it's Der [masculine] Teller. How do you fix that in your mind?

There actually is a simple rule for German genders. There's only one problem with it: it's often wrong.

In fact, there are three rules.

1. Every word in German is masculine.

2. Except when it ends in'e'. Then it's feminine.

3. Except when it's not.

Now this rule will actually get you the right answer well over half the time. That might not seem very helpful but it really is. It just means you have to remember the exceptions: the masculine words which end in 'e', the feminine ones which don't, and all the neuter ones.

The trick is what I call Tom of Finland's Gender Game.  It works like this. When faced with one of the exceptions,  you have to think up an explanation as to why that word is that gender. It doesn't have to make sense. In fact, the more ridiculous the better.

Why is Reh, a deer, neuter?  Because when you're writing to someone, you begin "Dear Sir or Madam." Why is Kartoffel, potato, feminine? Because Germans like their women to look like potatoes.

These are not good examples. I'm sure you can do better.  The more fun you have, the more it works. See if you can make yourself laugh out loud. That's one that will stick in your mind.

And why is it named after celebrated homoerotic artist Tom of Finland? I can't think of a better example to remind you: be as outrageous as possible!