Saturday, 1 March 2008

Learning French

handwritten French verb to be

There has been something of an excited debate following a post on the Language Log, with comments on Heideas and Language Hat, plus further post on Dadge.

Briefly, a study was being conducted to compare how learners of French as a second language were learning the gender of words. In order to compare their progress against native speakers of French, they tested 17 adults and 42 teenagers with a list of 93 masculine and 50 feminine nouns.

To the researcher's amazement, the native speakers were not only far from 100% correct, there was considerable disagreement between adults and teenagers.

table showing results for 10 nouns

Most commenters have expressed surprise at the low agreement between adults and teenagers, but most also point out that among these particular words some are especially difficult or formal words that adults might be more likely to use.

A further point is that oasis and primeur, although originally feminine, do now have common masculine forms. Oasis is a drink and primeur is used as "en primeur", first of the crop more often than the feminine form, a news scoop.

The two words that the teenagers knew best were "cible", target, and "victime" which one commenter thought could be significant. Another though pointed out that "La Cible" is a television programme.

I have been finding the discussions fascinating, especially because I seriously thought French children were so well drilled in their language that it would be inconceivable that there should be errors of this sort. Additionally I had no idea that the gender of a word could change over time as is apparently the case.

I have always thought that people who learn a language by assimilation, and are prepared to have a go, end up much more fluent even if not always grammatically correct, whereas people like me hesitate while making sure verb endings and noun genders are correct. Clearly it has largely been a waste of my time learning grammar because even French people get it wrong! See, Miss Howcroft!


  1. This seems a very interesting subject. I'd like to learn italian language. Grammatical is very difficult too, I heard.

  2. This is interesting! I just assume I should get away with getting the gender wrong as I'm a learner.

    I have read all the Petit Nicolas books. I was struggling with the subjunctive tense as the concept doesn't exist in my mother tongue. But the Petit Nicolas learned the subjunctive at the age of five! And I realised the learning curve of a foreigner is definitely not the same as a native speaker.

  3. That is really interesting. I speak "better" French than my sister, but when we were on holiday together, she would just go ahead, and everyone understood her, while I was hanging shyly in the background trying to remember the pluperfect.

    (I'm fine about the subjunctive, as it drives me mad in English books and newspapers when they fail to use it after "if".

  4. I find it depends on the register - when speaking I just say lela with a raised inflection before a word I don't know the gender of - someone will always helpfully then tell me which, at home I ask my kids who are bilingual though certainly not infallible, in short all very casual. However when writing, out comes the dictionary and the dreaded 1950's grammar textbooks. I remember from Uni that there are rules governing gender, but can't for the life of me recall what they are, other than the obvious all ions are feminine, with exceptions to prove the rule, bien entendu!

  5. @Clausie, I did start learning Italian. I didn't get very far but I didn't notice the grammar being any more difficult than French :)
    La traducteuse, the subjunctive at five years old! Torture!
    @Elaine, that's my experience too, and by the time I've thought of the right answer, the conversation has gone somewhere else.
    Hi j! I really haven't got the hang of the casual approach to conversation - sadly. The other gender I now remember is nouns ending in -ité all being feminine, only because the surgeon I used to work for told me. I've never been taught the rules and to tell the truth I'm surprised I remember that one.


Forethoughts, afterthoughts, any thoughts. Tell me.


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