Cognitive Daily

ResearchBlogging.orgOne of the most exciting moments of my junior-high-school career was stepping into my first-ever foreign-language classroom. While foreign language studies had a reputation for being tedious, I was nonetheless thrilled at the idea of being able to communicate with people from a different, seemingly more exotic part of the world. We were allowed to choose between French and Spanish, and I picked French because it seemed more “glamorous.”

Excited as I was to learn a new language, I was still shocked to find out that every word was either “masculine” or “feminine.” Livre, “book,” was masculine, but bibliothèque, “library,” was feminine. It made no sense. Was Madame Goldstein playing a cruel joke on us? No, it said so right in our French textbook. Eventually I came to grips with the idea of gendered words, but I always wondered why a language would need such a seemingly arbitrary construct. What possible use could assigning genders to words have?

In the decades since I first encountered the French language, researchers have begun to come to a consensus on the utility of gendered words: they help listeners to predict what word is coming next, and therefore aid comprehension. For example, “où est le livre?” means “where is the book?” and “où est la lingerie?” means something entirely different. It could be extremely important to distinguish between the two possible phrases, if, say, they were whispered in your ear at a crowded party.

Studies have found that native speakers of languages with gendered nouns are quicker at identifying objects with different-gender names than the same-gender names. For example, if a Spanish speaker was presented with a picture of a ball (la pelota) and a shoe (el zapato), then she would react faster to the phrase “Encuentra la pelota” (find the ball), compared to when the ball was paired with a cookie (la galeta). “La” immediately distinguishes a pelota from a zapato but not a galeta.


Casey Lew-Williams and Anne Fernald wanted to know when this difference begins to develop in children. So they located 26 three-year-olds, all recent Mexican immigrants to the U.S., native Spanish speakers who were exposed to Spanish at least 85 percent of the time. The children sat on their parents’ laps in front of two computer monitors, each of which displayed a picture of one of eight objects. Half of the objects were masculine (zapato, carro, pájaro, caballo), and half were feminine (pelota, galleta, vaca, rana). A recorded voice asked the child (in Spanish) to point to one of the two objects. Half the time the objects were same gender (masculine/masculine or feminine/feminine), and half the time they were different genders. The parent was blindfolded and wearing sound-masking headphones while their child participated. Then the kids were taken to a play area while the parents completed the same task. Here are the results:

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The graph shows the portion of time the study participants spent looking at each object, for each moment following the point where article el or la was spoken. The black dots are for different-gender words, and the white dots are for same-gender words. As you can see, when different-gender words were displayed, both adults and children responded significantly faster than when same-gender words were displayed.

So even three-year-olds, with working vocabularies of only 500 words or so, appear to use the gender of a word to help recognize the word faster.

Interestingly, similar studies have been done on fluent second-language speakers, and the effect is not found. The advantage of gendered nouns seems to be limited to native speakers of a language — and this study suggests that advantage is acquired quite early in life.

Lew-Williams, C., & Fernald, A. (2007). Young Children Learning Spanish Make Rapid Use of Grammatical Gender in Spoken Word Recognition Psychological Science, 18 (3), 193-198 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01871.x

Comments

  1. #1 Jared Grubb
    August 27, 2009

    Is it because the article+noun becomes a larger sound entity? I mean, in English you cant perform the above experiment, but you could as whether native English speakers have a similar effect when words begin with the same sounds (“circus” vs “circle” as opposed to “circus” vs “panda”).

  2. #2 Alex Besogonov
    August 27, 2009

    “Is it because the article+noun becomes a larger sound entity”

    No, words of different genders are inflected differently, even though word stems are close. So there’s less chances for ambiguity.

    Another advantage, there’s no problem with pronouns:
    “A user should press button A, then he/she(?) should press button B”. Should you pick “he” or “she”?

    In Russian and French (both languages with grammar genders) there’s no problem here. In Russian you’ll use ‘he’ (sine the word ‘user’ is masculine and its gender controls the gender of the pronoun). Same for the French.

  3. #3 Paper Hand
    August 27, 2009

    I don’t think that’s a plausible explanation for gender. Gendered languages have only a small number of genders, in many cases, such as Spanish, as few as two. Outside of artificial settings like these laboratory experiments, I don’t believe that that would be very useful. How often would one have to identify only one of two objects? And in a language with two genders, only about 50% of the time would the two differ. In languages with larger numbers of genders, moreover, the genders are generally fairly systematic, such that in many contexts where one might be discussing several objects, there’s a high chance that they’d all be in the same gender to begin with.

    When it comes to gender, and similar complications, I suspect the truth is not that it has any advantage in comprehension or cognition (although it certainly isn’t surprising that the brain would take advantage of any opportunities for making cognition easier) but that it’s a primarily CULTURAL issue. Complications such as gender (or irregular inflections, such as the large number of irregular verbs found in English) make it more difficult for second-language learners to acquire a language, they create opportunities for foreigners to make errors. This allows foreigners to be more easily identified, just like other social conventions.

    Language is not just a tool for communication, it is a cultural construct, and as such, has an important us/them function, IMO.

  4. #4 frog
    August 27, 2009

    Are ya telling us that redundancy decreases error rates?

    What a break-through!

    And the redundancy doesn’t just happen with the article — there’s matching with adjectives that clarifies the linking between words over and above word order. In Latin, it was much stronger (thereby allowing greater word flexibility), since Latin had three genders plus numerous cases that were redundant to sequencing.

    In Bantu type languages, there are 8+ “genders” that must be matched between a noun, a verb prefix and the case.

    Really — this seems silly as a psychological observation. A general set of studies on degrees of redundancy across languages might be interesting — but just finding that “redundancy” can be used, and is most useful to early learners is, well, trivial.

    As well, such studies would be interesting in terms of studying creolization — how/why languages lose certain classes of redundancies when they act primarily as secondary languages or are developed as “new” languages. Why is English so “poor” in comparison to Navajo? Why is Chinese analytic, and modern European languages are much more analytical than their ancestral languages?

  5. #5 hat_eater
    August 27, 2009

    I also don’t think that the above example proves that usefulness explains the phenomenon of gendered words – if only because in many languages you don’t get to discern the gender until you hear the whole word. Starting with sanskrit.

  6. #6 Alex Besogonov
    August 27, 2009

    Paper Hand:

    I can’t speak for French (I barely know it), but in Russian (which has 3 genders) there are gendered variants for words for a lot of animals. For example, a she-bear is “medveditsa” and bear is “medved'”, and these words are usually formed according to semi-regular rules (which were much richer in the Old Russian).

    So utility of genders might have been greater earlier.

    My personal opinion, is that languages with rich inflection (Russian, German, Latin) have more redundancy which allows more faithful spoken reproduction. You can infer a lot of meaning from wordforms.

    There are two well-known examples of that in Russian:
    http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%93%D0%BB%D0%BE%D0%BA%D0%B0%D1%8F_%D0%BA%D1%83%D0%B7%D0%B4%D1%80%D0%B0 (here’s an attempt to translate this phrase http://arno1251.livejournal.com/301421.html )
    and a non-worksafe example where you can say: “Why had you loaded so much stuff, we’ll have to unload it now” using only one non-printable word in various inflections.

    However, with the advent of writing such redundancy became less necessary. So languages typically become simpler (Russian has lost dualis, aorist and some grammar cases which were present in Old Russian).

  7. #7 Nameless Cynic
    August 27, 2009

    When I learned German, I had to ask one question: why did the Germans, the people who produced Sigmund Freud, decide that the sausage (“die Wurst”) should be feminine?

    I never got a good answer to that one.

  8. #8 Rob W
    August 27, 2009

    The genders do more than that; they interact with cultural ideas of human gender, and fix many of these ideas permanently in the language.

    There have been studies investigating adjectives people in various gendered languages would use to describe an imagined bridge, boat, etc… words with DIFFERENT masculine or feminine genders in those languages. The genders pretty clearly affected the adjectives people chose.. these tended to line up with cultural stereotypes of male/female characteristics.

    I speak French, more or less, so that’s what I use for an example — but I’ve also gotten the feeling that the genders chosen often seem random… but I think there’s a tendency to give nasty & low things feminine gender.
    Words for slime, spider, slug… though NOT words for hole, tunnel, or even vagina (yup, masculine). The word “vase” if masculine is a (flower) vase; if feminine: “slime”.

    The gendering is most weird when talking about something like a baby, which is masculine — even when dressed in pink. But you only masculinize the adjectives when referencing the word bébé; otherwise you can talk about “her” with feminine adjectives… so you keep flipping….

  9. #9 Alex Besogonov
    August 27, 2009

    Rob W:

    Belladonna, n. In Italian a beautiful lady; in English a deadly poison. A striking example of the essential identity of the two tongues.
    —Ambrose Bierce, American journalist and writer, The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911

    :)

  10. #10 Treppenwitz
    August 27, 2009

    Reaction times for speakers of languages without gender might have been useful as a control. Native English speakers reacting about as quickly as the Spanish speakers in the study would seem to undercut this explanation of noun gender.

  11. #11 Nancy Reyes
    August 27, 2009

    is the problem the words are gendered, or because those who invented grammar put the label “masculine” or “feminine” to adjectives that differentiate the words?

    The findings suggest the “gender” is actually to help differentiate the words, not a sexist thing.

    This would explain why “Madchen” (German for girl) is neutral…

    using prefixes to help differentiate words is common in lanugages that don’t use “gender”. For example, Bantu dialects like Shona, have half a dozen noun prefixes,
    So “MU’ means human but “chi” means thing.. yet as a doctor, I’m a “chiremba” (for the headress worn by traditional healers)
    And English words are often prefixed with “MA’ to show pleural (example MaTwin) when “MA is used to show pleural of words without prefixes…

  12. #12 Janne
    August 27, 2009

    Swedish has four genders. However, you don’t get a clue beforehand, like in these examples, which gender is coming up. There is a preposition with two forms (“en” and “ett”), true, but which form is used does not in general depend on the gender (and in any case you have only two forms for four genders). You have to learn the form on a word-by-word basis.

    So whatever the benefit of genders in grammar, this does not seem to be the main one.

  13. #13 Federico Kereki
    August 27, 2009

    Please substitute “gaLLeta” for “gaLeta”.

  14. #14 Cássio
    August 27, 2009

    Maybe there is too much discussion about what a gender is or is not, and sometimes we forget that Language is essencially the spoken, alive language spoken by everyone, everyday. Genders, in languages that use them, are not associated necessarialy with good or bad things per se. This kind of moral judgement is quite variable, depending on who speaks and on who listens much more than the means (or media, if you like so). Saussure divided these language aspects some forty years ago, and this is quite well-estabilished knowledge. There is also the word’s origins. Like some of you say here, vagina is the Latin word for the sheath of a sword. In Portuguese, vagina is a feminine word, by the way.

    Like some others here pointed earlier, gender recognition does not start with the article. For example, in French, many times the article, or the preposition + article, is fused with the following word and there is no more than the letter L to remind you that there is an article there. L’équipe, the team, feminine; l’arc, the arch, masculin; volée d’oiseau, bird flight, feminin and masculin respectively, and so on. In Russian – just because so many here are speaking about that – there are no articles at all, but the endings are quite regular in defining the gender, or am I wrong. There are the so-called logical exceptions, like uncle, which is a masculin word but declines as feminine because of the ending. Well, German is just a mess, there are some general rules about defining genders, but there are so many exceptions that the non-native speakers go crazy trying to figure out the right gender of a word and how to declense it.

  15. #15 Vince Whirlwind
    August 27, 2009

    I guess it was only a matter of time before somebody jumped in with the ridiculous sociologists’ confusion between gender and sex.

    Une limace, huh? – *Un escargot*. Ooops, I guess that evil patriarchal conspiracy missed one.
    Un ver. Un asticot.
    Blimey, that patriarchy really hasn’t got its **** together, has it?

    Or…just perhaps….Occam and all that….feminist dogma as a load of old cobblers…? Germaine Greer is living proof it’s not a path to happiness at any rate…

  16. #16 Rebecca
    August 28, 2009

    “This would explain why “Madchen” (German for girl) is neutral…”

    What explains that is the grammatical rule that everything ending in -chen gets the neutral gender in German.

  17. #17 Marcia Dream
    August 28, 2009

    “Is it because the article+noun becomes a larger sound entity”

    No, words of different genders are inflected differently, even though word stems are close. So there’s less chances for ambiguity.

    When I studied Spanish, I was taught article+noun as one unit.

    “La pluma” means “the pen” or “una pluma” means “a pen”.

    Never “pluma” means “pen”.

    I would imagine small children learning to speak would hear “la pluma” and only later learn that the phrase consists of two separate words.

    I grew up in a home where Yiddish was spoken, and some of the “words” that I learned as a child are actually multiple-words phrases.

  18. #18 nick gogerty
    August 28, 2009

    Gender typically is a broader concept and has to do with a classification. Steven Pinker has a good discussion about this in his book, The Language Instinct. It is a worthwhile read.

  19. #19 speedwell
    August 28, 2009

    I’m forgetting all the examples my dad taught me, but in Hungarian there is no gender. It does have something called “harmony” between internal vowels. Too briefly, in a word that contains the vowel “e”, a prefix or suffix or article is likely to be a form that uses the same-valued vowel sounds (vowel sounds are separated into “back” and “front” values). Finnish has back, front, and neutral values.

    It would be instructive to compare the results from this study with a similar study done on languages with vowel harmony.

  20. #20 lylebot
    August 28, 2009

    Calling this an “advantage” is attributing it with some positive quality that it doesn’t necessarily demonstrate, IMO. I would call it a “feature”, one that other languages may not have, but that doesn’t necessarily improve communication. It seems likely that a language that has this feature is probably lacking some other features that other languages have, so the more interesting questions (to me) are: what are those features, and how do they trade off against each other in terms of ability to communicate?

  21. #21 A.S.
    August 28, 2009

    Hebrew has gendered nouns, but unlike the Romance languages, the article is the same for both masculine and feminine nouns (“Ha-“). Differences in gender show up in the adjectives and verbs (which follow the noun). So, gender does not have a “flagging effect” in Hebrew. The “flagging effect” exists in languages with nouns that use gendered articles, not for all gendered languages.

  22. #22 Dan Lufkin
    August 30, 2009

    Re Janne #12 — This post is misleading. Swedish has two grammatical genders, neuter and common (or non-neuter). The words en and ett are articles, not prepositions, and depend entirely on the grammatical gender. There are also masculine and feminine words, but these are generally common-sense and parallel to where you’d use he or she in English. There a few words where the old -a or -e noun endings make you use a feminine or masculine construction (Klockan, hon är tio [The clock, she is ten] = It’s ten o’clock), but these are rare and are stylistic rather than grammatical, the way some English speakers call the sun or a tree “he.”

  23. #23 JakeR
    September 1, 2009

    Mandarin and other Chinese languages have no gender and no true inflection (changes in the word stem or ending such as German Sein, Seine, Sein). They and Japanese both use particles to indicate what part of speech or temporal relationship exists; e.g., in Japanese the particle “no” indicates the genitive: “Shina no Yoru” (an old popular-song title) is understood as “China Night” or “Night in/of China” grammatically. A Chinese sentence goes from statement to question by adding the neutral-tone particle “ma” at the end.

    Native Chinese ESL speakers commonly have difficulty with English words that imply gender, often using “she” or “he” consistently for any person or living thing, regardless of a person’s sex (biology) or gender (sexual identification). Do these characteristics make the Chinese languages poorer than, say, French? Some Chinese characters have been dated to 8000 years bp. I’d call that at least moderately successful.

  24. #24 Sean Rasmussen
    January 2, 2010

    If you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, I can suggest an inexpensive app
    that I’ve recently made; it helps you ‘internalize’ the ‘rules’ of identifying the gender of 95% of french nouns.

    http://www.reflexarium.com

    Regards,
    Sean

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