Just recently, I was listening to a German language CD and heard the word die Schüssel – “the bowl.” That’s the word that was said anyway, what I heard was der Schlüssel – “the key.” Keen observers will notice right away that like Dorothy and her ruby slippers, I had the key to unlocking this misunderstanding with me all along: “bowl” is a die word and “key” is a der word. But as David Bergmann so elegantly and succinctly captures in the title of his book about wrestling with the German tongue – Der, Die, Was? (or in his own English translation “Take Me to Your Umlauts”) – we don’t have grammatical genders in English (although see my thoughts on at least one occasion where we do have intuitions about gender) and thus this useful key to correct word recognition is one we fail to take advantage of all too often!
Those of you who know about some of my past experiences will know that the main impact I had on the world of experimental psychology was to show that the earlier you learn something, the easier that something is to retrieve from memory and in many cases the more likely you are to continue to be able to retrieve it following a stroke or other event that compromises your cognitive abilities. This suggests that the later you learn about grammatical gender, the slower you will be retrieve it. Thus, the downside of not having learned about grammatical gender early in life is that even when I do know a word’s gender (as I feel do with der Schlüssel), it is relatively hard to retrieve and thus it can be hard to make use of this information to help me understand what I am reading or hearing. The upside is that unlike a speaker of French, or many other languages, I don’t need to displace the le from chat when I learn die Katze – “the cat” – as I don’t have any competing gender designations to distract me. An additional implication of the earliest things being easiest to retrieve is that early learned words within a language can compete with each other. As I learned der Schlüssel quite a long time ago (when I was first learning German in 1989), it competes very effectively with die Schüssel which I only learned the other day. In the struggle to make any meaning from what I read and hear, the early learned words simply come into mind unbidden with a minimum amount of evidence to support their presence.
And don’t get me started on the competition that arises in my head between different meanings for the same word, for example das Schloss (“the palace” and “the lock”), or I may have to be locked away!