When you learn a new language, (depending on the language) you usually very quickly come face-to-face with “GRAMMATICAL GENDER”. In most Romance languages for example, nouns are divided into “masculine” and “feminine” categories. In German and most Slavic languages, the categories are “masculine”, “feminine”, and “neuter”. (If you want to jump on the distraction train right now and nerd out on a Wikipedia page that lists languages that have this feature and languages that don’t, click here. 🤓)
This can present a challenge for the learner, since when you first learn a word it’s not always obvious what gender it belongs to. Even in languages where the ending of the noun usually tells you the gender, there are always many exceptions to the rule. So when learning Spanish, how do you remember to say “EL agua” and not “LA agua”?
A few years ago while listening to the Language Mastery Podcast, I heard an interview with Gabriel Wyner that changed the way I looked at memorization. He has many tips and tricks for memory, but today I’d like to share with you the one that helped me stop banging my head against the wall trying to remember the gender of nouns.
Make It a Movie; Make It Dramatic
Imagine something really, really dramatic happens to every masculine noun in the language you’re learning. Let’s do an experiment. Let’s blow our masculine words up. 💥
So for example, imagine you’re studying German with your favorite app or book and you come across the word der Mond (the moon). 🌙 It’s masculine.
So before you move on, you close your eyes, lean back in your chair and imagine the moon, big and bright on a backdrop of stars. You make it as vivid as possible. You see the outline of the craters; imagine the moon landers still on the surface that were left there by the Apollo missions.
But what’s this peaking around from the dark side of the moon? It’s the DEATH STAR!!! Its lasers take aim and blow the moon to bits. Moon ruble expands in a fiery ball and space ruble and moon dust rain down on earth.
Every time you come across a word that’s masculine, you take a few seconds and imagine it getting blown to bits, making it as vivid in your mind as possible.
Now we need a completely separate kind of dramatic event for feminine nouns. I like to freeze them. 🥶
So after you blow up earth’s one and only moon in you mind (you monster), you go back to studying German and come across die Bank (the bank). 🏦 It’s feminine.
So you close your eyes and imagine your local bank on a nice summer’s day. See the ATM on the outside you usually use. Imagine the layout of the building and what’s around it on the street.
Now Gru pulls up with his minions and blasts the front of the bank with his freeze ray. The entire front of the building it coated in ice. Then it shatters like glass.
Every time you come a across a feminine noun, you freeze it and shatter it in as dramatic a way as possible.
Our Brains Remember Drama
After I started doing this, I noticed a huge improvement in my ability to remember the gender of a word. The trick is to take a few extra seconds to think of something super dramatic and apply it to each word when you learn its gender.
And it’s not absolutely necessary to blow up or freeze everything. Your dramatic action can be anything.
The Russian word печь (pyech’) means stove/oven and is feminine. To remember it’s feminine, you could make it explode, catch on fire, melt, shatter like glass, evaporate, shoot it with a ray gun, throw it out a window, drop it in the ocean, whatever! Just pick one dramatic thing for each gender in your language and then invest 15 extra seconds of imagining whenever you learn a new word. It really works.
And the application isn’t limited to noun gender. Depending on the language you’re learning, you could use this method to remember:
- Which tone a word is in a tonal language
- If a noun is countable or uncountable
- What case a verb invokes in the noun that receives its action
- If a verb is reflexive vs. transitive
- Sun letters vs. moon letters in Arabic
- The “Never write the letter ‘Ы’ after the letters ‘Г, К, Х, Ж, Ч, Ш, Щ’; instead use ‘И’” spelling rule in Russian
- Any grammatical or spelling concept that groups words or letters into categories
Try this:The next time you catch yourself forgetting the gender of a noun in your target language, take a few seconds to try the method outlined above. After you’ve finished imagining its dramatic demise, write the word down, but not the gender or what dramatic thing you did to it. Then review that word in a few days. See if you have an easier time remembering the gender.
Cover photo by Luke Jernejcic.