How to learn the gender of Spanish nouns

Since English rarely classifies nouns as masculine or feminine, it can be hard to train your brain to pay attention to this important difference in Spanish. Here are some tips to help out.

Why is gender hard to learn? Although most nouns ending in -o are masculine and most nouns ending in -a are feminine, exceptions abound. El sistema, la mano. And the ending -e can go either way: puente, bridge, is masculine, but fuente, fountain, the source, is feminine. In addition, many masculine/feminine pairs exist with a difference in meaning: Un banco, a stool. Una banca, park bench. You many find that new words get stored in your mental lexicon without their ending. So you’ll know that abdomen de lavader- means washboard abs but you won’t know whether lavader- ends in -o or -a. (It’s lavadero.)

Housing projects, Iztacalco, Mexico City

Housing projects, Iztacalco, Mexico City

To overcome this problem, some people recommend associating words with images. For example, an old man standing on a bridge (el puente) or a fountain (la fuente) with a statue of a woman. Unfortunately such associations are rarely useful when speaking because it’s difficult to retrieve the images quickly enough to intepret them and adjust your upcoming speech accordingly.

Short Expressions that Show Gender

I recommend finding or creating short, memorable phrases which include not only the noun in question but also an adjective. They can be fixed expressions or can simply use vocabulary that you are already comfortable with. For example:

  • Un puente caído. A collapsed bridge.
  • Yo lo sé de una muy buena fuente. I know it (the gossip) from a very reliable source.

Note that the adjective you choose must show the noun’s gender. Un puente peatonal doesn’t help much, since peatonal doesn’t inflect for gender.

You don’t need to memorize such expressions per se but you should review them from time to time until your brain gets the idea. You may not consciously recall them when speaking but the versions with gendered adjectives should seep in, convincing your brain of the correct gender of the noun.

Now consider a noun with identical masculine and feminine versions: Una corte, a court, and un corte, a cut. Just learn that the Supreme Court is La Suprema Corte.

More Input

You can avoid many vocabulary problems by exposing yourself to a lot of input. Watch television, movies, videos. Read. Listen for content but also for detail. Notice the forms you have problems with and focus on them when they come up in the input. This takes time but pays off in the long run. Once you’ve heard la fuente enough times, your brain will accept that it’s feminine.