How to “der, die, das”

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Are you learning German? Then I have a question for you: what do you struggle with most? Is it verb conjugation? Cases and prepositions? Irregular verbs? Or is it “der, die, das”? Over the last ten years of teaching German I’ve seen that grammatical gender is the biggest annoyance for German language learners. I constantly hear: How to learn der, die das? Do you think about it, before you say something? The moon is masculine? What?! It makes no sense!

I feel your pain. Especially in the beginning it’s so confusing and seemingly arbitrary. And it’s everywhere – whether you want to order a coffee or talk about your work, it’s exhausting. That’s why some German learners develop the following strategies:
1) ignore these three possibilities entirely;

2) don’t care, if they use the wrong one; 3) pronounce all three at the same time.

If this is you, you need some new strategies.

The start

One of my students used once the word “Problem” with the feminine article. First, I thought it was just a slip of the tongue. Five minutes later, he said it again. Two times in one sentence. I was curious:
– Sam, did you say “die Problem”?
– Yes,
in English I say “the problem” … “the” and “die” sound similar to me.
Sam’s brain refers to his mother tongue while speaking German – a typical case of linguistic interference, even if “the” shows no grammatical gender.

Where’s the problem?

– Sam, the German word “Problem” is neuter, “das”Problem”.
Oh I see, “das Problem”, alles klar!
Then he continued his speech, which ended with:
– Das war die Problem!

Well, the real problem was:
Sam’s brain got the right information, but he used the wrong pattern while speaking. How could I help him? If you google “how to learn der, die das” you’ll see the overview of the rules ( e.g.: words with “-schaft are always feminine, like “Freundschaft or “Leidenschaft). Something like this is a great help, if you’re making an exercise. I observe my students looking at these nouns tables saying “Argggg … I knew it! Words with “-ung” are always feminine. But why did I write “mein Wohnung” instead of “meine“?”

My answer is: “To know how to do something doesn’t mean to be able to do it.”

“Wissen” ist nicht gleich “können”

If I say a sentence “Meine Wohnung ist schön” my brain doesn’t work like:
“Wohnung”-ung feminine “meine Wohnung”
but rather like this:
“Wohnung” → “meine Wohnung”
This is also what we call to speak fluently, without extra “thinking steps”.
How to get there?

Strategy Nr.1 – a group of nouns

Build a group of nouns with the same gender considering the following:

  • only 3 nouns
  • only 1 “new” noun
  • nouns from your daily usage with an emotional connection
das Haus – das Kind – das Problem

This is an example of how I’d anchor the german word “das Problem” in my brain.
I take two words with the neuter grammatical gender I already know, and embed my “problem”-word in this group. Since I have a child das Kind (1) and work a lot from home das Haus (2), I cannot write my article “How to “der, die, das” on time, and this is a real problem das Problem (3).

What is your association with das Problem ?
Is it das Auto and das Wetter ? Or maybe das Bad and das Wasser ?
Just take an actual situation and build your own group of nouns!

Strategy Nr.2 – phrases

Don’t learn words – learn phrases!

I wish you a good day!

I bet one of your first sentences in German was “Guten Tag!”.
You probably didn’t think about such things as masculine grammatical gender, the accusative or declension of adjectives. You just heard this phrase thousands times and started to imitate it. Otherwise your brain would go:
1)The noun “Tag” is masculine 2)“der Tag” 3)The adjective “gut” + the noun “Tag” 4) “guter Tag” 5)“guter Tag” in the accusative 6)“guten Tag” 7) Now I can say “hello” in German!

What a long way, isn’t it? I found this Blog article from FluentU very helpful if you want to learn more german phrases. Also, try to filter the phrases you hear in the supermarket or in a Netflix movie. Train your ears and start to imitate. Which brings me to:

Strategy Nr.3 – say it!

Imagine you are at the coffee shop. The aroma of freshly ground coffee beans makes you feel happy and motivated. Finally it’s your turn. You follow your impulse saying loud: Ich hätte gern ….. but then you experience something that I call a speechless moment:

  • you stop breathing
  • your eyes get big
  • your are “frozen”

“How was it again? Der Kaffee or das Kaffee or even die? And wasn’t it something with the accusative or whatever they call it? If only I could see this table with the nouns again!”

Learning by doing

I assume, your first thought would be to switch back to English, right? In the short term it’s a good strategy to get your hot drink. But this won’t bring you closer to your real goal, which is to speak German. My advice: don’t run away from the real language experience! Maybe you’ll feel silly and wish everyone around would disappear. But this is a big learning moment! First of all, take a breath and shake yourself out, your speechless moment will pass. Then:

1) Take a guess or
2) Ask for help

In our situation in the coffee shop you could take a guess like:
1) Ich hätte gern ein Kaffee, bitte / Ich hätte gern einen Kaffee, bitte / Ich hätte gern eine Kaffee bitte

Or ask for help, saying:
2) Entschuldigung, ist das “der, das oder die Kaffee”?

I promise, you’ll get a reaction in both cases, and will never forget the right phrase again! Why? Because you are in the ideal learning situation: in a physical place (coffee shop), with a special need (you want to drink coffee), and an emotional connection (e.g. drinking coffee makes you happy).

At the end

Use these three strategies together. Just try it for the next two or three weeks. You’ll develop a new habit, which helps you to learn German (or any other language), and more importantly: to speak it! Here I could continue with the Broca’s Area or Muscle Memory , but I hope you get my point. In all three cases we need to be active, curious and brave. This is where I always say: language is a part of our life, and not a table with the rules.

How do you deal with der, die, das? What works well for you? Do you have another strategy? Write it in the comments !

Do you remember?

Do you want to learn more about me and practice your German reading? Then go to this article!
Do you have other challenges while learning German or just speaking?
Write me a message and get your answers!

Julia Romanova – Voice and Language Coach

Ich bin professionelle Schauspielerin, Stimm- und Präsenztrainerin

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