I am interested in what knowledge we have regarding the process by which a young child acquiring French as a first language learns to choose correctly between the masculine and feminine forms of adjectives when describing themselves. If, for instance, a young girl grows up in a French-speaking household where everyone else is male, is her learning to describe herself using feminine forms delayed for lack of examples of female self-descriptive speech to copy and learn from?

Some subsidiary questions that come under the same umbrella:

Do children learn to make this m/f distinction sooner or later if the masculine and feminine forms sound very different (e.g. "beau" and "belle") compared to more similar sounding forms such as "blond" and "blonde"?

How and when do children learn that m/f forms that sound very different from each other (again taking the example of beau/belle) are forms of the same adjective?

Is how and when children learn to make this distinction to describe themselves closely related - or unrelated - to how and when they learn to use the appropriate masculine or feminine forms of articles, adjectives and so on when speaking about common nouns? Are grammatical gender and natural gender often confused with each other by children as they learn to speak French as a first language?

How and when is learning to use the correct forms of adjectives to describe themselves related to the process by which children learn to use the appropriate masculine or feminine pronoun to refer to themselves?

Or, indeed, the process by which children learn to identify themselves as male or female?

How do other languages with distinct female and male forms of speech compare to French in this regard? (While I am aware that English comes into this category for some pronouns and other words, I am primarily interested in languages that make as much or more use of gender-specific forms as French does.)

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    Why? If you've got a daughter, you would definitely tell her that she's "blonde" and "belle". And when you walk out, point her to someone's son, and say that he's "beau garçon". Naturally, she would remember. Sorry for an informal comment, but can there be another answer? May 1, 2016 at 17:51
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    I ask because I do not know the actual answer, but there certainly could be other answers. For a girl without close female relatives, the number of times when she heard examples of the two forms might not be enough for her to learn the paradigm. She might not connect the word "beau" with the word "belle". Or maybe, as you say, it just isn't a problem - children do have remarkable powers of learning and maybe they pick up the pattern even with only a very small number of hearings. I'd be interested to see if anyone has researched the question. May 1, 2016 at 18:46
  • In the big picture there is hardly a difference in use of gender between English and French if we consider both gender and number across all languages. And in some cases French is less specific, eg the French reflexive pronoun se. May 1, 2016 at 19:05
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    Wouldn't it be a girl without close male relatives that would only hear one form and would not know when to use the pronoun il? I'm sure we could construct such a situation, but, again, it is hardly specific to French. May 1, 2016 at 19:09
  • @A.M.Bittlingmayer, you're right, that scenario or its all-male equivalent would better illustrate my question. I do realise that this whole thing is not specific to French. I picked French because it is the example most familiar to me and most likely to be familiar to readers here. May 2, 2016 at 16:02

1 Answer 1


Learning the correct gender (and number) for referring to oneself is a very minute and relatively easy part of learning genders or noun classes (and number) generally.

As such, it follows the same process, for French, English and every other language with genders or noun classes.

Why easy? Generally the first and second person are among the nouns referenced most in daily spoken language. That's part of why we have pronouns for them.

The question then becomes: how do children learn noun classes?

(A trickier question: how did people teach their children to refer to them (the parents) with vous, even though the parents referred to the children and each other with tu? It was common in the old days. I assume that was done with some explicit conditioning.)

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    Regarding the parallel question about "vous", I am interested in the answer to that, too, and had thought about asking it first One difference between the two questions might be how they can be answered. I would guess (though I do not know) that many adult French speakers can simply remember how they learned to use "vous" - whether they were told or learned by observation. At least I would imagine that learning to use formal and informal forms comes later in childhood than learning to use masculine and feminine, past the age when memories "stick". But I am open to correction. May 2, 2016 at 16:13
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    Pardon, I meant in cases where people referred to their own parents with vous, not just to strangers. In either case I don't think people usually remember how they learnt it. If I can offer another analogy to English, when do the English learn to say Sir or Mister to their first teacher? The children never even know the teacher's given name, they never unlearn anything. May 3, 2016 at 8:41

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