My wife is a native English speaker, which means we often have debates of the “is it le or la?” variety when in France, or when translating into French. Questions like “How can a table be female?” are often asked. For English speakers, where all inanimate objects are gender – neutral, it can be hard to remember which it is. (I do often remark: “Huh! What about German, where it could be feminine, masculine or neutral?!”).
How I learned “le” or “la”
It’s a challenge to answer. Like most people whose first language has genders for nouns, I don’t remember being rote-taught the rules. I never chanted at school: “La table, le jardin, la pomme, le stylo”. It feels like I just absorbed it through my skin…
Don’t split the words
We did spend some time discussing this issue as native speakers of French and English respectively. Finally, we concluded that when foreigners learn French, they kind of separate out the article from the noun, eg “table (f)” or “stylo (m)”. But I never learned my vocabulary this way as a child. I learned the words as if the article was part of the word: “lestylo”, “latable” etc. So, because the article and the noun were never separated, it was easy to remember which gender it was. It became instinctive and automatic – as language should be.
I have tested this language theory on speakers of Spanish and Italian and it seems to be similar for them.
English doesn’t have genders
English learners usually just memorise the noun, as the article is always the same : “the”. This is why learning different genders is more of a challenge when you aren’t used to it.
So there’s the answer if you are learning French. Embed the vocabulary in your brain with the article as if it is part of the same word. Hope it helps!