Many people born in the United States enjoy traveling to other countries, especially in Europe. On occasion, they will even attempt to express an idea or thought in the language of the country where they’re traveling. Most meet with little success. Even though they may have taken a year or two of French or Spanish in school, they never became proficient in using the foreign language. Some even try to brush up on a language before departing on their trip.
Probably one of the first problems they encountered in studying the foreign language in school was how to say the correctly. After all, in English it’s that one, simple word by itself–the. It’s both singular and plural. It’s interchangeable. Any time they need to write or say it, it’s always the same. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with either Italian, German, Spanish, or French.
One of the first things a native English speaker has to learn is that words have genders in those languages. Further, while in the Romance languages–Italian, French, and Spanish–students have to worry about only feminine and masculine designations, a third–neuter–exists in German. Further complicating the situation, the form of the gender designation changes according to the number of the thing being discussed. That’s where singular and plural come into play. In English, it’s always the, no matter the quantity of the thing being talked about. For example, the house, the houses.
Using that example, look at what takes place in Italian (where house is feminine). The word for house is casa. The form of the (feminine singular) is la. In the plural, that la becomes le. (And, the a at the end of casa becomes an e, too.) As for a masculine noun, such as book, the masculine singular form for the is il. So, the book is il libro. In the plural, however, il becomes i. Accordingly, il libro (the book) and i libri (the books).
While Italian’s vowel endings at the end of most words help somewhat in learning and remembering genders, the same cannot be said of Spanish or French. Unlike Italian, most words in those languages do not end in vowels. Consequently, students have to memorize the gender designations of nouns as they learn them. On top of that, they have to recall whether or not the form of the noun itself changes endings when it’s in the plural.
As for German, it confounds students right off the bat by declaring that the word girl (Maedchen) is neuter. As a result, the form of the is das for girl in that language. Coming to grips with those types of grammatical elements more often than not frustrate native English speakers no end in their efforts to become fluent in a foreign language.