French Teenagers Cannot Agree on the Gender of Nouns

Language Log details the results of this fascinating experiment. The researcher was looking at second language acquisition, and in order to have a control she tested the native-speakers on the gender of particular words in French.

The assumption would be the native-speakers would all agree on the gender of the words, but she found that among the native-speaking teenagers native speakers -- and to a greater degree among teenagers -- there was widespread disagreement:

Ayoun was investigating second-language learning of grammatical gender in French -- a major difficulty for learners from non-gender languages like English. She had constructed a couple of tasks: grammaticality judgments of sentences where there was a gender agreement mismatch, and a gender-assignment task, where subjects were given a noun and had to choose among "masculine", "feminine", "both", or "I don't know".

In both tasks, to her great surprise, she found a great deal of disagreement among her native-speaker controls! In these tasks, there is always a normatively 'correct' answer -- French dictionaries and textbooks all agree on what the genders of nouns are, and how gender agreement in sentences should turn out -- in the same way they agree on how to form relative clauses, and how to form passives, and where to put clitic pronouns, and so on. Native speakers would be expected to perform close to ceiling on this grammatical task, as on others. But, surprisingly, they don't.

There's an even more interesting twist in Ayoun's native-speaker results. Her native speakers fell into two groups: 14 adult speakers and 42 teenage speakers. On most grammatical tasks, for all intents and purposes, teenagers' native-language abilities are identical to adults' abilities. But when she broke down the gender-assignment task results by age, she found that teenagers showed considerably more variation than the adults. On the 50 feminine nouns, for example, the 14 adults all agreed on 21 of them, while the 42 teenagers agreed on only one: cible, 'target'. Of the 93 masculine nouns, the adults agreed on 51 of them, while all adults and teenagers agreed on only 17 (of 93!!) (Emphasis mine.)

Language Log discusses some caveats, but I -- like them -- am astonished by that result. Particularly, I am astonished by the age disparity in the effect.

I doubt that it could be because of poor education in the teenager group; native speakers should be picking up the gender of words when they learn the language at home, not in school. Could this result be indicative a relaxation of grammar in the French language? Maybe over the next 25 years either usage will be acceptable.

Fascinating stuff.

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This reminds me of a friend of mine who was learning Spanish, and had trouble figuring out the gender of nouns. He'd come to me and say "I've figured it out! The rule is such-and-such", and I'd reply that, no, sorry, there was really no rule for things (maybe for some abstract nouns). And he just did not believe that it was possible to have no rule!

Speaking as one who has taken 5 years of French, I can see some grounds for legitimate confusion. Nouns beginning with a vowel take the definite article l' which does not indicate gender.

In the examples cited at Language Log, there's also some confusion based on traditional roles and/or most common usage of the words. The feminine noun sentinelle has a feminine appearance, but means "sentry," which is usually seen as a male role. The words équivoque and superbe are most seen as adjective/adverbs for "equivocal" and "superb" and thus would not be expected to have gender. Primeur is most commonly used in the plural primeurs meaning "early fruits and vegetables" and thus also would not be expected to reflect gender.

Based on this, I'd like to see the full list of words that were tested before judging the validity of this experiment.

Nouns beginning with a vowel take the definite article l' which does not indicate gender.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't adjectival endings in French change according to gender/number in French? They do in the gendered languages I have studied (Spanish and German).

I'm going to throw out a different WAG for what's happening: French students today are generally more exposed to other languages in school than their elders, and as Maria points out the rules for grammatical gender are in general quite arbitrary. So the French students who are studying German will encounter many cases where a word has a different gender in the two languages (two quick examples: the word for sun is masculine in French and feminine in German; the reverse is true for the word for moon). The students who are studying English encounter a language with no artificial grammatical gender.

Whether there is anything to this guess I have no idea, but historically this was one of the reasons why English lost grammatical gender: Many words had different genders in Anglo-Saxon and Old French, so it became easier to simply do away with artificial distinctions between masculine and feminine nouns.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 28 Feb 2008 #permalink

@chezjake: bear in mind that she was not testing these French speakers for anything. They were the control group for measuring proficiency in learners. Dr Ayoun commented at HeiDeas:

all of the teenagers lived in France while most, but not all of the adults lived in the US. They were asked to indicate whether individually presented nouns on a written questionnaire were masculine, feminine, both or if they didn't know. They were also asked to indicate how often they used 5 possible processes to arrive at their decision when they were unsure. Some of the words were less common but others were very common. Again, the study was a second language study investigating English native speakers acquiring French in a foreign language setting. The native speakers acted as controls, they were not the main focus of the study that was not designed specifically for them. Three different elicitation tasks were administered, only one is reported in the blog here. I would encourage you to read the full paper (reference cited in the original posting). I also have data from native speakers of Quebecois French but I haven't had time to go over it yet.

Also, please note that it wasn't just the teenagers:

On the 50 feminine nouns, for example, the 14 adults all agreed on 21 of them. Of the 93 masculine nouns, the adults agreed on 51 of them.

"On the 50 feminine nouns, for example, the 14 adults all agreed on 21 of them, while the 42 teenagers agreed on only one: cible, 'target'."

This is a really bad comparison. It's way harder to have 42 people agree on something than it is to have 14 people agree on the same thing.

If 95% of the french population would agree on the gender of a word, then you would have about a 50% chance of getting a random group of 14 people to all agree on the gender of that word. You would have about a 10% chance of getting 42 random people to all agree on that gender of that word.

Even given that, it seems like the claim that teenagers agree less is backed up, but it's a horrible way to present the data. It would be better to compare a random group of 14 teenagers to the adults, or just compare the percentage of agreement.

By Funkotron (not verified) on 28 Feb 2008 #permalink

My pet theory is that French is so bad, not even the native speakers can figure it out. This is why I am glad to be German. If you can cough, you can speak German.

In French, the slang term for penis is "la bit" (note the feminine article). The slang term for vagina is "le chien" (note the masculine article).