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In English when defining a noun, it is typical to use indefinite article. For example an apple or a bicycle. Because we're talking about apples and bicycles in general, not meaning any in particular. In fact it would not make any sense if I see noun definition accompanied with definite article.

But in French I see more often noun definitions starting with le/la. In the book Oxford take off in French in particular, every new noun is introduced with definite article which doesn't make any sense to me.

Conclusion
Thank you all for your answers! You helped me to solve my doubts. Below, I will outline the most important answers that I completely agree with.

  1. @Dave said:

    My best guess would be that it make it a lot easier to actually hear the gender: "un" and "une" sound frighteningly close, especially if you have a non-French accent and tend to pronounce the 'n' at the end of words...

  2. @Argalatyr said:

    Going from le / la to les is smoother than going from un / une to des. The latter requires knowledge of the usage of de, and to a novice that would be a leap.

  3. And rephrasing @subtenante (however it doesn't directly answers the question):

    Indefinite article is better since it doesn't cause the elision when followed by a word that begins with a vowel or silent 'h'.

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Thinking about it, I realize that I use un/une myself when correcting others; and I wonder too why people would prefer to use le/la. –  Joubarc Sep 20 '11 at 17:00
    
Dictionnaries don't use an article to specify the gender. –  Un francophone Sep 20 '11 at 20:24
    
Actually, I didn't mention dictionaries. I mean in general, in most of the books. I even specified particular one. –  jFrenetic Sep 20 '11 at 20:48
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Although there might be a trend, I think it's a very weak one. As @Joubarc points out, when correcting someone, I'd naturally tend to use "un/une" (for the reason you mention in your own question)... As for why "le/la" is preferred in general, my best guess would be that it make it a lot easier to actually hear the gender: "un" and "une" sound frighteningly close, especially if you have a non-French accent and tend to pronounce the 'n' at the end of words... –  Dave Sep 21 '11 at 0:47
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2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Instructional vocabularies routinely include plural forms, and it is simpler to list those using the definite article. Going from le / la to les is smoother than going from un / une to des. The latter requires knowledge of the usage of de, and to a novice that would be a leap.

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I highly doubt that using "le/la" is a common practice, and am sure that is it not a good practice, only by the fact that a lot of names begin with a vowel (or a silent h), and thus have the same article for masculine and feminine.

As a few examples, guess if these names are masculine or feminine...

L'armoire, l'histoire, l'entonnoir, etc.

Un/une is better because the elision is not done with une :

Une armoire, une histoire, un entonnoir, etc.

I wonder how the Oxford take off in French book deals with these names.

Anyway, "serious" dictionaries do not use a repetition of the name with an article, but use a specific notation instead, for example [n.f] for feminine nouns and [n.m] for masculine nouns.

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