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Mastering Grammatical Gender: How to embrace learning like a child

Hello there! I’m Katrina, a linguist specializing in bilingual language development and a coach specializing in supporting parents to raise their children with multiple languages. 


After years in academia (I have PhD Candidacy!) studying and working with a wide range of bilinguals and multilinguals I began to notice a pattern. While the majority of the world is bilingual, parents are seriously lacking the knowledge and support they need to successfully raise their children to speak multiple languages. That’s where I come in, through my work at Bringing up Bilinguals I’m on a mission to bring research-backed, data-driven, and evidence-based linguistic knowledge to support families on their unique bilingual journey. 

I’m so happy to be collaborating with Juliana and Language Mindset to be guest authoring a series of blog posts highlighting some of the science behind language learning and development. 


Learning a new language can be a thrilling yet challenging journey, particularly when grappling with grammatical concepts that might not exist in your first language. One of these concepts that is particularly challenging for learners is grammatical gender. Spanish and Italian, both Romance languages, employ gendered nouns, where every noun is assigned either masculine or feminine gender. While mastering grammatical gender might seem daunting, adopting a childlike approach to language learning can make the process not only manageable but also enjoyable.


What is Grammatical Gender?

Technically, gender is a system of classifying nouns in two (or more) categories. It’s a very common feature of languages around the world but is not present in Modern English making it very challenging for second language speakers to master. While the gender is locked on the noun, its gender is ‘traced’ by marking on determiners and adjectives that need to agree with the noun in gender. 


La Casa Roja

La Casa Rossa

The red house (lit. the house red)


The markings on accompanying determiners and adjectives is considered the only way to reliably identify the gender of a noun. 


Marking gender correctly is no problem at all for Spanish or Italian children (gender is mastered with almost 100% accuracy in native children by age 2) but remains a problem for second language speakers even at high levels of fluency. So how can second language speakers embrace grammatical gender like a child?


Embrace Immersion and Repetition

Very young children learn language through immersion and repetition, and older children and adults can benefit from the same approach. Surround yourself with Spanish or Italian as much as possible—listen to music, watch movies, and engage in conversations with native speakers. Repetition helps reinforce gender associations with nouns, making it easier to internalize gender patterns over time.


Learn Through Context and Visual Cues

Children often learn grammatical gender through context and visual cues rather than explicit grammar rules. Similarly, adults can associate nouns with their gender by paying attention to the articles and adjectives that accompany them. Visual aids such as flashcards or labeling everyday objects with their corresponding gender can further reinforce gender associations in a practical and intuitive manner.


Make Mistakes and Learn from Them

Children are not afraid to make mistakes when acquiring language—they embrace errors as part of the learning process. Adopting a similar mindset allows adult learners to take risks and experiment with language without the fear of embarrassment. When you make mistakes, view them as valuable learning opportunities rather than setbacks, and use them to refine your understanding of grammatical gender.


Engage in Playful Learning Activities

Learning should be fun and engaging, just like playtime for children. Incorporate playful activities into your language learning routine, such as language games, role-playing scenarios, or storytelling. These activities not only make learning more enjoyable but also stimulate different areas of the brain, enhancing retention and comprehension of grammatical gender concepts.


Create Mnemonic Devices and Associations

Children often use mnemonic devices or associations to remember new information, and adults can employ the same strategy to master grammatical gender. Create memorable associations between nouns and their corresponding gender—for example, imagining a masculine sun (el sol) or a feminine moon (la luna). Mnemonic devices help anchor gender associations in your memory, making it easier to recall them when needed.


Practice Patience and Persistence

Learning grammatical gender in Spanish and Italian is a gradual process that requires patience and persistence. Just like children, adults may encounter challenges along the way, but perseverance is key to mastering language skills. Celebrate your progress, no matter how small, and trust in your ability to gradually improve over time.


Conclusion

Mastering grammatical gender in Spanish and Italian is achievable with a childlike approach to language learning. By embracing immersion, context, and visual cues, making mistakes, engaging in playful activities, creating mnemonic devices, and practicing patience, adult learners can navigate the complexities of gendered nouns with confidence and ease. So, channel your inner child, embrace the joy of learning, and embark on a linguistic adventure that will enrich your life in more ways than you can imagine.


 


I’m Katrina and I’m a linguist specializing in childhood bilingualism and heritage language acquisition. Originally from Toronto, I’ve spent the last 8 years living between Canada and Spain where I’ve completed two degrees in linguistics and received doctoral candidacy for my research on English as a home language in multilingual children in Spain. ​As a bilingual parenting coach I work with families around the world bringing my years of experience and expertise to your multilingual home. Raising children can be stressful and with all the advice out there it can be hard to know what is relevant and applicable for your bilingual family. I’m here to take away some of the stress and anxiety that comes with bilingual development and help set your family on the best path forward (backed by science). 



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