Understanding Gender in Spanish: High School Spanish Study Checklist

by | Jan 12, 2016 | Uncategorized

I remember sitting at a table in the backyard garden of a veteran who had learned French during the
war; he was the private French tutor of my middle-school friend.  My friend had invited me along to her lesson for fun and I happily obliged (even at that age I guess I had an interest in learning a foreign language).  I was like, “Heck yeah, I’ll be speaking French by next week!”  Instead I walked away from that lesson in frustration.  Why?  Gender.  Here I share with you some explanations about gender and tips on how to master it in your language study.  If you are a parent wanting to teach your little kids Spanish, the cool thing is you can study this topic for yourself (because adults like to ask “Why?”) and then just apply tip #3 with your kiddos.  Kids learn language so naturally and without question, so all you need to do with them is just learn new words.

Gender For the English Speaker

Gender is that first little speed bump in the Spanish-learning journey that gets me a confused gaze from my students, or friends learning Spanish.  Gender just does not make sense for us English-only speakers.  Maybe (probably? I don’t know ask your linguistic friends) back in the day of Chaucer English had gender.  But not anymore.  So we have a hard time contextualizing why Spanish has it.  A friend told me recently, she noticed while learning Spanish colors on YouTube with her kids, that sometimes the color word ended in an “o” and then sometimes the ending would change to an “a.”  That might be the most annoying part (and I use the term annoying most affectionately–remember? I am in love with Spanish) about gender–it affects the entire sentence.  

5 Tips to Get you Started

If you are in a high school Spanish class learning about this, if you are an adult wanting to dabble in Spanish as a hobby or learn it for your job, if you are a parent wanting to help your kids get some foreign language exposure, this applies to you: Just think about gender as a way to classify nouns, or put them in groups.  Why?  Well I don’t really know. For a more sophisticated answer you can go to college and study linguistics.  Then come back here and let me know the reason, okay?  Until then, here are a few tips to wrap your head around gender in the Spanish language.

1) Learn the Feminine and Masculine Endings

Some general rules do exist when it comes to gender.  Generally feminine nouns end in -a, and masculine nouns end in -o.  Other feminine endings are -dad, -ión, -z.  Other masculine endings are -ma.  It helps to know these in case you run across a new word and want to guess the gender of it. 

2) Memorize the Tricksters

Every story involves a sly trickster, amiright?  Brer Rabbit, the Big Bad Wolf, where would we be without them?  They keep us on our toes, on the lookout.  In keeping with tradition, then,the Spanish language has its own tricksters.  You just have to memorize them–much like you would memorize the face of someone on a wanted poster–and watch out for them.  Here is a list of the most common ones:

la mano
the hand
el mapa
the map
la radio
the radio
el día
the day
la foto*
the photo
el problema
the problem
la moto*
the motorcylce
el programa
the program

*It might help to remember that these words are shortened versions of words that end in -a: la
fotografía and la motocicleta.

3) Memorize Each Noun with the Word “The”

Like I mentioned before, gender affects the entire sentence.  Which you can actually use to your advantage.  When learning new words, simply learn them along with the word “the.”  You can see this in the chart above.  The feminine word for the in Spanish is “la,” and the masculine word for the in Spanish is “el.”  If you are not sure if a word is feminine or masculine, just go to www.wordreference.com and type in the word.  If you see nm next to the word it’s masculine, so memorize it like this: “el libro.”

If you see nf next to the word it’s feminine, so memorize it like this: “la manzana.”

4) If you start to feel frustrated, take a small break, tell yourself some T-Rex jokes, then come back to it.

This always makes me feel better.

Photo credit

5) Practice!

Anything worthwhile in life takes dedication, right?  Practice is the best way to solidify the whole masculine/feminine thing in your mind.  I have gathered a list of extra resources on this topic.  Even if the information seems repetitive, I suggest you commit to reading one each day and then doing any practice quiz or podcast that might accompany it.  Some of the following are just articles written to help you understand the subject, and they go a little further than I do here.  Whether you are an adult trying to learn Spanish on your own, a high school student looking for more help on this subject before a big exam, or a parent trying to help your child learn Spanish the following list should help you get a handle on gender in the Spanish language.

Day One: The Sexualization of Nouns — video (parental discretion advised)
Day Two: Masculine & Feminine Nouns — article from SpanishDict with a FREE PRACTICE QUIZ that includes 40 questions automatically graded for you.
Day Three: Words That Break the Gender ‘Rule’ — an article to help you with the “tricksters”
Day Four: 8 Simple Rules for Mastering Spanish Gender — this is an article that has a printable form, so you can take the 8 simple rules with you, or tuck them in your study notebook.  Just ignore the parts where they try to sell you FluentU and keep scrolling.
Day Five: Spanish Nouns (People, Places & Things) — this article explains what to do when there is more than one noun.
Day Six: Gender of Nouns: Part 1— here you will find a written explanation of gender along with a basic quiz, a mini test, an oral practice quiz, and a podcast all for FREE.  There are additional quizzes too, but you have to pay for a membership.
Day Seven: Gender of Nouns: Part 2 — this offers the same as above, however the content goes more in depth and covers more than


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