Do not Color German Articles

Often at times I have come across students that used three different colors to mark the different genders of German. What colors they used does not really matter. While colors are excellent to show and clarify certain structures of any language, and also provenly has the potential to enhance your memory retention in certain contexts (read this overview here), I do not consider them helpful for learning the German gender. Here is why I think you shouldn’t color German articles:

Colors are abstract

All by themselves colors are not much easier to remember than the article itself. As they only have to serve as temporary help, that might not be too problematic. Yet, how exactly do you remember that the horse was yellow and not red after a day or a week? If you only had a few words to learn, that might still be possible but as you have to study ~25 words per day or 125 words per week (weekends are off), of these 1/3 or 40 words might be nouns. I know there are learners and teachers out there who would swear on this technique and sure some have a better memory for colors than others. Some even smell colors. But those are rather the exception.

But don’t take my word for granted. Proove me wrong and I’ll update this article with your results: take a list of forty nouns and learn their gender by applying red for masculine, blue for feminine and yellow for neuter or any other color or order you like. Then review them after a seven days and let us know how many you still remember.

Please note: The research mentioned in the beginning focusses on the use of colors as an overall cognitive enhancement of learning tasks and not on the very specific task of individually associating isolated words with colors. That’s why I say that colors are great to show certain structures of any language.

Learning German articles with colors
der Buntstift – the colored pencil / Image via Pixabay

Better means Good, right?

Well, it is still better than if I learned them without any technique right? Well, yes & no. Just because one bad technique is slightly better than another bad technique that does not mean that it is a good technique, right?

The problem I see here is that by applying the color technique you might miss out another one that is far more efficient than this one. The substitution technique which you might have come across before. This is the technique where you replace the masculine gender with the image of a lion e.g. You can find that technique explained in detail in my A1-B1 video course.

It’s highly impractical

…if you actually try to colorize your nouns. Those students -and even teachers- I have come across that were using this technique actually colored the articles and/or nouns with different crayons. That means that each time they wanted to write a masculine noun they picked up the red crayon and wrote that word in red. And when the next noun was feminine they picked up a blue one. That is a colossal waste of time and very likely causes a loss of concentration. Some students had those fancy ball pens with different colors all in one, still…

The cost-benefit ratio of such a technique would let any economist shiver. If colors are your thing and you’ve got to do it then do it on the go, meaning, color German articles in your mind, not on paper. That would be way more reasonable.

If all good things are three…

bad things might be as well, too. The research shows that the benefit from using colors might be due to the fact that learners simply focus their attention onto the colored information. That undistracted attention is highly beneficial for learning anything seems indisputable to me. Yet if your attention is attracted by a different color every seventh word in a text or word you learn which also has no other information than the gender of a German noun, then no, I do not think that you are making good use of colors as it takes your focus away from the overall meaning of the information that you are trying to remember. And that is actually worse than if you were not using any color.

Do you think that I am overcritical and that as long as learners are d’accord with their doing, I should let them work any way they want? Hell, no. Wrong learning techniques are wrong, no matter if learners like them or not. Of course I would not take their crayons away or consistently nag them for working like this. In the end it is the learners’ choice if they prefer to learn German efficiently or rather colorfully.

Now go out and study some beautifully grey but efficient German.
Viel Erfolg

11 responses to “Do not Color German Articles”

  1. I think it depends on the person. I am an extremely visual learner. Always have been and colourising nouns is the best way *FOR ME* to learn. It just looks right in the correct colour after learning it that way. And that is coming from someone who already speaks and understands all German and is at about C1 with grammar and nouns.
    And yes, even thousands of words.
    I think it’s silly to say a method is wrong. For you it’s the wrong one, but each person is different. Most important is learning things in a way that matches your own learning methods and preferances.
    If what works for you is yodeling the words while standing on one leg, then that’s how you do it. I think it’s just important finding your best method that works for you. Regardless of anything else.

  2. Honestly, I feel stupider having just read this article.

    The reality is, if every learning resource (books, classes, teachers, dictionaries, etc) associated uniform colors to the 3 genders and always present new vocabulary by color, genders of German nouns wouldn’t be such a cluster*&*(.

    But no, this doesn’t happen, and to the contrary almost every resource plays a stupid “caught you” game with vocabulary & gender, mixing genders and plurality amongst lists of words… so the very first association a learner gets is more probable than not to be the wrong gender. Now, they have to invest substantial time correcting that first [most likely wrong] association, and until they do, almost every time they come across that word they will second guess themselves.

    From the best I can tell, learning German under most of the approved “best methods” is all about busy work and “caught you”. Gender of the noun is the bedrock for everything that follows it; articles, adjectives, cases, pronouns, etc. One can’t even make a simple sentence correctly without being 100% certain on the gender of its noun, while first associations with it have a 75% chance of being wrong.

    So how much time is wasted and train of thought is lost picking up a different colored pencil at first associations? I’m going to say, far, far, far less (by orders of magnitude) than that lost down the road at every “gender” guessing game to build even one simple sentence, let alone throwing in an akkusative noun or gosh forbid a dative noun too!

    How much time could be saved in classes, to put towards more nuanced or complicated parts of the German language, if gender identification was standardized? I’m going to guess it would add up to a lot of time and a lot of people’s money too.

    • I have huge amounts of sympathy with HansHyde. Unlearning takes a huge amount of concentration and effort. As he says, learning the gender is the bedrock on which everything else is built. Even putting aside colour coding or visual pictures, there are multiple lists or occasions where teaching platforms don’t give the gender of a noun when it could easily do so. This is a big hindrance to learners.

  3. I think you’re wrong. You can do associations, I can tell you all what I have learned in 2 days using colors and associations:

    Most drinkings are masculine but beer is green, green is related to Ireland festival and good luck, so das Jahr, in 31st there is fire that’s green because it represents prosperity and luck. That’s what we need during the year

    So, das Bier, das Jahr.
    Das Wasser, imagine from now you have to drink green water because of contamination. But der Regen is still blue as mountains are blue der Berg because der Schnee.

    We’re in the red sea ,die See, where die Boeing and die Titanic are having an accident, there are different types of flowers and trees that are red because we’re near to the red sea.

    So, from Spanish is easier to learn German, simply learning the words that changes gender.

    You need more creativity instead of just coloring articles, and do associations.

    • Always a nice introduction to claim someone is “wrong”. I write “proof” me wrong not “call” me wrong 😉 You mean you have a different experience? I feel you haven’t fully read or understood the article. Give it another try please. There is one mistake in your example: “tree” is (m) but that’s a mere concentration issue. And I agree that associations are the way to go which is why I have based my German Articles Buster app on associations 😉

      • This article is terrible… the reasons you provide for your argument are extremely weak. Many of us can also visualise very clearly the colour in which they read the word – we can bring it up in our minds in a vivid, tangible way and therefore one does not even need to conjure mnemonics such as the stories above (with the Red Sea etc.). However, I do think such stories can be very helpful too.

  4. Denkmuskel,

    vielen, vielen Dank fuer die rasche Antwort! Auch schon gut zu wissen, dass ich nicht auf dem Holzweg bin:-)

    Bin immer noch darauf neugierig, deine Lernvideos mal anzuschauen, woraufhin ich dir mein Feedback geben koennte.

    Bis dahin!
    Michael N.

  5. Soweit ich den Text ueber Farben verstehen konnte (hilfreicher fuer mich waere die deutsche Version, wenn’s eine gibt:-)), geht’s deiner Meinung nach um die Zeitverschwendung, jedes Nomen separat einzufaerben, was da keinen Zweck bringen sollte. Stimmt das?

    Oft erfragen Studenten von mir Informationen ueber kleine Merksaetze, leichte Eselsbruecken, sowohl das Nomengenus als auch die Mehrzahlbildung des Nomens verinnerlichen zu koennen, und ebensooft bin ich halt ueberfragt, trotz langer Erfahrung in der Branche.

    Als ich vor einigen Jahren meine Farben”technik” entwickelt hatte, sah ich aber schon Erfolg bei Anfaengern, den Begriff “Geschlechtsartikel” ueberhaupt zu verstehen, weil die meisten davon keine Fremdsprachenvorkenntnisse besassen, bevor sie Grundstufe Deutsch mal studierten!

    • Ja, das hast Du richtig verstanden. Das Problem ist nicht, dass es nicht wirkt, aber dass es schlicht unpraktisch ist und einfach der Zeit- und Konzentrationsverlust den Zeitgewinn mehr als auffrisst. Was Merktechniken angeht, bist Du schon auf der richtigen Seite. Meine Materialien sind aber alle auf englischsprachige Lerner und Lehrer ausgerichtet. Du wirst aber sicher mit der Suche nach “Eselsbrücken Deutsch als Fremdsprache” auch auf Deutsch fündig werden. Eine Deutsche Version meiner Artikel wird es in der Regel nicht geben, da mein Ansatz ein durch und durch zweisprachiger ist und die englischsprachige Zielgruppe einfach bedeutend (!) größer ist, so dass ich mich aufgrund meiner knappen Zeit auf diese fokussiere. Ich hoffe, Du kannst das nachvollziehen. Es gibt viele gute Dinge da draußen, aber die zu finden hat mich 20 Jahre gekostet. Meine Videos und Handouts dazu sind die Essenz dieser langen Suche.

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