English speakers are often put off by the smooth pronunciation and fast pace of the French language. It’s considered to be one of the most beautiful languages in the world, with many people wanting to learn it, so why do English speakers think that it’s so difficult? We’re going to look at all aspects of the language to get to the bottom of the question: is French hard to learn?
Who will find French hard to learn?
French is a Romance language. This means it evolved from Latin, just like Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian. If your native language is a Romance language, it should be easy to learn any other Latin language thanks to their shared syntax and grammar, such as sentence structure.
If your native language is English, on the other hand, you may encounter a little more difficulty. This is because English is a Germanic language, just like German, Dutch and Nordic languages. These are derived from the language that was spoken in Iron Age Scandinavia, called Proto-Germanic. However, don’t let that put you off learning French…
Despite the two languages having different origins, you will notice that many English words come from French. This is because Old French became the language of the English government and aristocracy after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. It was at this time that a huge amount of French vocabulary made its way into the English language. Nowadays, French-derived words are said to make up between a third and two thirds of English vocabulary.
As a result, French vocabulary is actually surprisingly easy to learn. Here are a few examples of French words that you’re undoubtedly already familiar with:
These words are all spelled the same way and mean the same thing in both French and English. As well as the perfectly transparent words, there are also many words that are written and pronounced slightly differently but are still easily recognizable:
Gender of nouns
Grammatical gender in languages is where nouns are assigned a specific gender, masculine or feminine, such as une chaise and un lit. Gender classification doesn’t necessarily relate to male or female things. Instead, it organizes and categorizes words, and helps them fit together in sentences, making the language work and sound better.
Knowing whether to use the masculine determinant “le” or the feminine “la” is one of the hardest parts of learning French. Sometimes there are rules to follow which indicate whether a word is masculine or feminine: words ending in -tion and -ité are usually feminine, for example, while those ending in -eur, -isme, -ment and -ou, among others, are generally masculine. Unfortunately, oftentimes there is no rule to follow, and you just have to learn the gender of words by heart.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of masculine and feminine nouns in French:
|Un bureau – a desk
|Une chaise – a chair
|Un trou – a hole
|Une maison – a house
|Un arbre – a tree
|Une profession – a profession
|Un classeur – a binder
|Une boisson – a drink
|Un accord – an agreement
|Une réalité – a reality
As well as knowing the gender of nouns, French has the complexity of adjective agreement. This is where we add an -e, -s or -es to the end of adjectives depending on whether they’re describing something feminine, plural or both feminine and plural.
- Je suis blond – I am blond (male speaker)
- Je suis blonde – I am blond (female speaker)
- Ils sont contents – They are happy (males)
- Elles sont contentes – They are happy (females)
We could spend hours debating the difficulty of French and English grammar, because learning each language comes with its own set of challenges.
French has more complex verb conjugations, with different endings depending on the subject. Here’s just one example with the verb “parler” (to speak) in the present tense:
- Je parle – I speak
- Tu parles – You speak
- Il/elle/on parle – He/she/it speaks
- Nous parlons – We speak
- Vous parlez – You speak (plural)
- Ils/elles parlent – They speak
In English, the conjugation is the same for each person except the third-person singular, where we must add an -s. This differs from French, where each subject has its own ending. To make matters worse, these endings change depending on the tense, and different verb groups follow different patterns. And let’s not forget the list of irregular verbs which don’t follow any of the usual rules!
This may seem like a lot to learn, but once you know the verb endings and how to form each tense, then you will be able to use practically any French verb in any tense, meaning it will come naturally to you.
When answering the question, how hard is French to learn for English speakers? We immediately look at all the elements that make French a difficult language to learn, but what if we talked about the ways in which French is easy to learn?
- French only has one present tense: it doesn’t matter if you’re doing something right now or if you’re stating a general fact, there is only one tense to learn.
- There are no continuous tenses: The English language has BE + ing tenses called the continuous or progressive tenses that are used when an action is in the process of happening. In French, they keep it simple with no progressive tenses.
- English has a lot of homographs, or words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently, such as a tear that you cry and to tear a piece of paper, or to lead the horse toward the lead bucket. French doesn’t have anywhere near as many homographs, therefore, most words can only be said one way.
One of the challenges of the French language is the pronunciation, from the guttural R to nasal vowels, and everything in between. While it may sound poetic to the ear, it can be tricky training your brain to pronounce words in a different way to the phonetics you already know in English. That said, perfect pronunciation isn’t vital; even with a strong accent it’s possible to communicate in French, and it’s something that can be worked on over time.
We have already touched on the fact that French is a Romance language. This means that if you speak any other Romance language, either as a native language, second language, or simple as a beginner, you already have a head start. The similarities between Latin languages make them pretty easy for Spanish speakers to learn.
Idioms, accents and dialects
When learning a foreign language, you will come across various idioms and French sayings that cannot be translated literally. They are quite difficult to learn, especially when there is no equivalent expression in English. One example is “avoir le cafard”, which literally translates to “to have the cockroach”, but it actually means “to feel depressed”.
In addition to the difficult expressions, you will come across a variety of French dialects and accents. There is a strong difference between the northern and southern accents, not to mention Brittany where they have their own distinct language. The French language also has old variations called “patois” which vary from region to region. Add to that the outside influence of neighboring countries along the French borders, and you will discover that French can be a real mixed bag of words and dialects. Let’s not forget the variations in other French-speaking countries such as Canada, Belgium, Congo, and many more.
The question is, do these factors make French a hard language to learn? The answer is no, not any more so than other languages. Each and every language across the world has its own dialects, expressions and accents. That’s why you shouldn’t let these things put you off learning the beautiful French language.
If you do think that French is a hard language to learn, then you should try different techniques to find the way that works for you. In fact, the difficulty you’re having may simply stem from the learning strategy you have chosen.
Not everybody has the same learning style, some are visual learners, some are auditory, while others are kinesthetic learners and need to do hands-on activities to help them learn. Finally, there are those who learn by reading and writing. Try to determine which way you learn the best, and adapt your learning methods accordingly.
For example, you can play French learning apps and games on your phone if you’re a doer, or you can watch movies and listen to music if you’re a visual or auditory learner. You could even take private lessons to receive personalized tuition. Tailoring your learning strategies to suit individual preferences is vital for quick and efficient language learning.
If you’re looking for the best tips and strategies for learning French, check out our article on the best way to learn French at any level.
Some languages start off relatively easy, and then get gradually more difficult as time goes on. Fortunately, this isn’t the case with French. Once you’ve learned the basic vocabulary, which can differ quite vastly from English, (for example, car and voiture), then the rest seems simple in comparison. You can guess many words simply by saying them in a French accent, or find alternative ways to express yourself using more basic terms.
As we saw earlier, French tenses and verb conjugations are pretty complex, but once you know the rules, you can apply them to every verb. For example, you know that in the future tense, the stem of a verb must end in the letter “r”, and then you add the same future endings, no matter the verb.
This means that you can take any verb, such as “prendre”, make it end in an -r by removing the “e”, and add the ending that matches your subject:
- Je prendrai le train pour aller à paris – I’ll take the train to go to Paris
Setting realistic goals is key to overcoming the difficulties of learning French. Do not expect to become fluent overnight, and avoid setting general goals such as “speak more French.” Setting specific goals, such as listening to 10 minutes of a French podcast, reading one news article or memorizing the different forms of a specific verb, for example, the dire conjugation in French, can all pave the way to learning French fluently.
In conclusion, the difficulty of learning French varies for each individual based on previous language knowledge and experiences, their motivation, and learning methods. While French has its challenges, including both grammar and pronunciation, dedicated learners can overcome these hurdles with consistent practice, the right tools, and immersive experiences.
The numerous language-learning tools available today make learning French possible for most people, not to mention extremely rewarding. So, is French hard to learn? To answer the question once and for all: no, not if you are perseverant, patient and have a genuine passion for the language.