French gender cues

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This is the main page for Presson and MacWhinnney's studies teaching students to use cues in French to determine the grammatical gender of words.

The goal of this project is to improve the ability of students of Elementary French to determine the gender of French nouns. This improvement is attained through large amounts of practice, and is measured in terms of ability to generalize to novel nouns. Like other studies conducted by MacWhinney and Pavlik (Optimizing the practice schedule), this work emphasizes the role of scheduling in attaining mastery.


Research question

This research is designed to discover the best method of producing robust learning of French nominal gender, as well as the factors that make this learning more difficult.

Experimental Design

The gender categorization task originated as an M/F response on the keyboard to a bare French noun, presented with English translation (as in Explicitness and Category Breadth).

Recently, this has changed. The later version of the task (used in Influence of Time Pressure on Explicitness Effects) removes the English translation as task-irrelevant cognitive load, and also changes the question type, presenting the noun twice with masculine and feminine articles (e.g., le fromage, *la fromage) and asks participants to choose M or F to select which alternative is correct. See Image:Gender pretest.jpg for an illustration of this response type.

Background and significance

Tucker, Lambert and Rigault (1977) evaluated the L1 (first language) learning of cues to gender in French. More recently, Holmes and Dejean de la Batie (1999) produced the first study of the acquisition of grammatical gender by L2 learners. Holmes and Segui (2004) have extended the detail of these analyses, but so far only with native speakers. Carroll (1999) and Lyster (2006) have explored the role of cue validity and availability in predicting usage by learners. All of these studies underscore the importance of high validity cues for the general vocabulary. However, these cues are only marginally useful for the highest frequency forms, whose gender must be learned more or less by rote. These analyses are in very close accord with the claims of the Competition Model (MacWhinney 1978, 2006).

In the Competition Model, each cue has a strength that is based on its reliability in signaling information (as in, for example, the use of spelling to predict grammatical gender). Some cues are more reliable than others: for instance, in the case of nouns that refer to people, semantic cues (the gender of a person) are more reliable than spelling cues. Over time, a learner picks up on these reliabilities, first acquiring the most clearly reliable cues, then later pulling apart conflicting but frequently co-occurring ones. Cue conflicts are then resolved through a process of competition. A full discussion of cue conflict is found in MacDonald and MacWhinney (1991).

Our goal here is to use these findings to guide effective instruction. One way of doing so is to aim for mastery of some grammatical structure in an L2, in this case grammatical gender, to show that with efficient and optimized practice, the learning gains can be large. We do this using an optimized schedule designed by Pavlik (2005) in the FaCT System and inspired by the memory schedules of Pimsleur (1967). We expect that, with a sufficient amount of practice under the right conditions, grammatical gender assignment can become proceduralized. Although grammatical gender is a relatively simple grammatical structure, and (for English L1 speakers) should show little interference from structures in the native language, this is an important first step toward optimizing grammar learning overall as well as toward learning more about the available mechanisms to learn an L2.


Completed Experiments


  • Anderson, J. R., & Fincham, J. M. (1994). Acquisition of procedural skills from examples. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 20(6), 1322-1340.
  • Carroll, S. (1999). Input and SLA: Adults' sensitivity to different sorts of cues to French gender. Language Learning, 49, 37-92.
  • DeKeyser, R. M. (2005). What Makes Learning Second-Language Grammar Difficult? A Review of Issues. Language Learning, 55(Suppl1), 1-25.
  • Holmes, V. M., & Dejean de la Batie, B. (1999). Assignment of grammatical gender by native speakers and foreign learners of French. Applied Psycholinguistics, 20, 479-506.
  • Holmes, V. M., & Segui, J. (2004). Sublexical and lexical influences on gender assignment in French. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 33, 425-457.
  • Lyster, R. (2006). Predictability in French gender attribution: A corpus analysis. French Language Studies, 16, 69-92.
  • MacDonald, J. L., & MacWhinney, B. (1991). Levels of learning: A microdevelopmental study of concept formation. Journal of Memory and Language, 30, 407-430.
  • MacWhinney, B. (2006). A unified model. In N. Ellis & P. Robinson (Eds.), Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Press.
  • Pavlik Jr., P. (2005). Modeling order effects in the learning of information.
  • Pavlik Jr., P., & Anderson, J. R. (2005). Practice and forgetting effects on vocabulary memory: An activation-based model of the spacing effect. Cognitive Science, 29(4), 559-586.
  • Pimsleur, P. (1967). A memory schedule. The Modern Language Journal, 51(2), 73-75.
  • Robinson, P. (1997). Generalizability and automaticity of second language learning under implicit, incidental, enhanced, and instructed conditions. Studies in Second Language Aquisition, 19(2), 223-247.
  • Ullman, M. T. (2001). The neural basis of lexicon and grammar in first and second language: the declarative/procedural model. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 4(1), 105-122.