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It is "une" because the noun "orange" is feminine. A lot of figuring it out is pure memorization, but there are some rules to help you figure it out. This website has some good indicators: http://www.french-linguistics.co.uk/grammar/le_or_la_in_french.shtml or you can grab a set of Bescherelles to really get a handle on French grammar.
A noun is a word that represents a person, place, or thing, whether concrete (e.g., chair, dog) or abstract (idea, happiness). In French, all nouns have a gender - they are either masculine or feminine. The gender of some nouns makes sense (homme [man] is masculine, femme [woman] is feminine) but others don't: the words personne [person] and victime [victim] are always feminine, even when the person or victim is a man.
It is very important to learn a noun's gender along with the noun itself because articles, adjectives, some pronouns, and some verbs have to agree with nouns; that is, they change depending on the gender of the noun they modify.
There is no easy way to determine the gender of every noun, and you have to remember the gender with each word. But a number of patterns in suffixes and word endings are helpful: some tend to indicate masculine or feminine nouns (be careful with the exceptions).
Please have a look at this comment on noun genders in French:
I would think it important that starting off in a new language that lessons in conjugation would be important at the very beginning. Too much is being left to 'guessing'. Would you happen to know why Duolingo doesn't take us through verbs/nouns/gender/conjugation? (Btw, thank you ever so much for your 'explanations', really appreciate some of the history you throw in there too - i.e. derivation of words from Latin, for example!)
The French have at least three past tenses that I can think of. The most common, used for the general past is passé composé, which would translate as "la femme a mangé une orange".
This sentence was written in present tense - this is the simplest conjugation, and is used for things happening now - I eat and orange "je mange une orange", as well as things that are constant. For example, if I eat and orange every morning I might say: every morning, I eat an orange "chaque matin, je mange une orange".
There are conjugation forms for each verb. When you want to know how to conjugate a verb, hover your mouse over it: click on the "conjugate " option, and you'll get a conjugation table.
Please also have a look at this comment on verb conjugations in French:
definite articles "le" and "la" are elided (vowel replaced by an apostrophe to ease pronounciation) in front of a vowel or non aspirate H: la pomme (fem), l'orange (fem), l'huile (fem) - le pain (masc), l'ananas (pineapple / masc), l'homme (masc).
when it comes to verbs, they are conjugated, ie their ending change according to the subject:
je mange, tu manges, il/elle/on mange, nous mangeons, vous mangez (polite singular and plural), ils/elles mangent.