Is French hard to learn?
t’s never easy to learn a new language, but French isn’t as hard as it seems… although its grammar can be very confusing.
If we are to believe the U.S. Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI) School of Language Studies (and why shouldn’t we?), French, like many Romance languages, is a language “more similar to English” than others. They FSI states that French typically requires 30 weeks (750 classroom hours) of study to achieve professional working proficiency (B2 on the CEFR scale), “though the actual time can vary based on a number of factors, including the language learner’s natural ability, prior linguistic experience, and time spent in the classroom”.
The FSI scale ranks French as a “category I language”, considered “more similar to English” compared to categories III and IV “hard” or “super-hard languages”. According to the FSI, French is one of the easiest languages to learn for a native English speaker. Yet with an average of 30 weeks to achieve proficiency (instead of 24), it’s still hard to master the language. All in all, it’s a long journey from learning how to say hello in French to achieving a professional working proficiency.
We now have a rough idea of how long it takes to learn French, but in the estimates provided by the FSI, learners are typically American diplomats that dedicate 25 hours per week to studying in a specialized institute… in other words, not everyone.
You’ll be delighted to know that learning French is not out of your reach. It’s actually considered a fairly easy language to learn for English speakers.
Why is French considered easy to learn?
French and English share the same alphabet: the only difference is that you’ll find accents on vowels and le c cédille (ç). Other than that, all 26 letters remain the same.
While English is originally a Germanic language, the language has evolved throughout the centuries under the influences of other Germanic languages, including Latin and French. Old English started developing during the Middle ages following William the Conqueror’s conquest of England in 1066, and the language has evolved ever since.
The French lexicon has significantly contributed to English. It is estimated that one to two-thirds of modern English vocabulary has French roots. There are many similarities between both languages, although some words have changed spellings and pronunciation (girafe, bœuf, protocole, etc.).
The opposite is also true, as English has become the most spoken language in the world: many French words are of English origin (une place de parking, un gentleman, un hamburger, un job…).
As a native English speaker, these words are significant assets to expand your vocabulary. Beware of false friends – some words look identical in both languages, but their meanings are very different!
Bear in mind too that some English words are very similar to French, and can help you along your journey towards French fluency.
While you’ll soon realize that learning French in a day is quite impossible, you can improve your French drastically depending on the material you use to learn the language. At the end of the day, it’s not about how fast you learn French but about how you learn French.
Frantastique makes learning French online easy, but read on to learn what challenges still await.
Why is French hard to learn?
Many find French hard to learn because of the complex grammar and linguistic nuances that don’t exist in English, especially for those who have never studied another European language specifically Romance languages like Spanish or Portuguese.
Spoken French can also be challenging! Some sounds, such as the nasal sounds , the “R” or some frequently silent letters are particularly difficult for English speakers.
Here are some of the language’s notorious difficulties:
False friends are words that look identical or similar but have different meanings, which can make a sentence misleading and tricky for beginner learners of the French language! Some examples below:
- Actuellement means now, currently, not “actually”
- Hasard means chance, coincidence, random not “hazard”
- Pain means bread, not actual physical “pain” (Both are turn-ons. Don’t judge us).
[Je suis actuellement à la boulangerie, je vais prendre un pain au hasard.]
doesn’t translate as [I am actually at the bakery, I’m going to take a hazardous pain.]
but instead [I am currently at the bakery, I’m going to choose a loaf of bread randomly.]
There are many more false friends: discover more of these backstabbing words in our list of confusable terms.
Did you know? “False friends” were named because French linguists originally coined them as “false friend of translators” due to their misleading nature.
There are many forms and tenses in French – you won’t need them all on a daily basis, but they are nevertheless good to know in case you need to describe the subjunctive, conditional nature of life. The sequence of tenses is more complex due to the sheer number present in the French language.
There are around 200 common irregular verbs in English, and regular verbs always conjugate in the same way. French has many more irregular verbs, and conjugation can be very difficult to memorize.
With this in mind, you don’t have to worry about the intricate gears of French conjugation, because many of these forms and tenses are exclusively used in literature, and in order to speak conversational French, you’ll only need a few.
You can always get some help with an online conjugator – you’ll soon find French conjugation isn’t that hard!
Differences in the use of gender between French and English
In English, “he” and “she” are generally used to denote gender for people, while in French all nouns are gendered. The neutral “it” is used for any inanimate objects, ideas or concepts in English, while “they” and “them” can be used when someone’s gender is unknown or not explicit.
In French, there is no neutral “they” or “it” – the pronoun “on” may be wrongly introduced as an equivalent to “it”, but it is actually an impersonal pronoun which can be used as an informal replacement for “we”, “you”, “they”, “someone”, or “people in general”.
Gender for living beings
The differentiation of genders (masculine or feminine) is generally quite straightforward in English: a man / a woman, a male gorilla / a female gorilla…
All living beings have a grammatical gender in French, and in many cases, it’s a simple rule of doubling the final consonant and adding an “e” at the end:
- un chien / une chienne (a dog)
- un chat / une chatte (a cat)
- un lion / une lionne (a lion)
Sometimes, the grammatical gender is specified as an adjective but the noun remains the same:
- un gorille mâle / une gorille femelle (a gorilla)
- une girafe mâle / une girafe femelle (a giraffe)
- une hirondelle mâle / une hirondelle femelle (a swallow)
Finally, some words are spelled differently depending on the gender:
- un homme (a man) / une femme (a woman)
- un cheval (a horse) / une jument (a mare)
- un cerf (a deer) / une biche (a doe)
Trees are generally masculine (un sapin, un chêne, un pommier, un olivier…)with some exceptions, whereas fruits and flowers tend to be feminine (une rose, une tulipe, une pomme, une olive…)unless considered exotic (un ananas, un avocat, un durian…) but with exceptions as usual (un citron, un kiwi, un tournesol, un pissenlit…).
However, the genders for inanimate objects, concepts and ideas is often arbitrary:
Une baguette, un pain au chocolat, une table, un tabouret, une idée, un projet, une chanson, un film, un avion, une voiture…
Unfortunately, gendered nouns might be the hardest thing to fully master. Learning the grammatical gender of every single word is probably going to take a while: even native speakers can sometimes get confused with the gender of a word.
Plurals and Subject – Verb agreement
In English, the rule is easy: adding -s or -es works most of the time, with some rare irregular nouns (men, knives, teeth, mice) or some nouns which don’t have a plural form.
As for collective nouns, it’s rarely a guessing game: a school of fish, a murder of crows, a pride of lions, a convocation of eagles, a pack of dogs, a regiment of flamingos…
The general rule of thumb in French is to add -s at the end of a word to make it plural, however, there are a few exceptions — many of them are covered in our lessons, especially the plural form.
In American English, collective nouns tend to be singular, whereas in British English they tend to be plural. Some exceptions do exist for specific nouns: a family can be singular or plural depending on the context, however une famille will always be singular in French.
- Her family is the most famous in the world. || Sa famille est la plus célèbre au monde.
- Her family are all French. || Sa famille est entièrement française.
Other regular French collective nouns (plupart, ensemble, une majorité, une minorité, etc.) can be either singular or plural depending on the context, much like their English counterparts.
Adjectives don’t have plural forms and gender differentiation in English. Generally speaking, verbs end with an -s when conjugated in the third-person singular form, or are irregular at most.
French words connect with each other, and therefore drastically change the way some words are spelled. Articles, adjectives and verbs change according to the noun they come with, and if that wasn’t difficult enough, the language has its own share of irregular verbs (verbes du troisième groupe); Also, some adjectives don’t have any gender differentiation.
That’s only the tip of the iceberg – there are more rules dictating how a verb should be conjugated depending on the structure of the sentence (syntax)!
- A small man. A small woman. || Un petit homme. Une petite femme.
- My mum and my sister went to the theater. || Ma maman et ma soeur sont allées au cinéma.
- They have come to help us. || Ils sont venus nous aider.
French pronunciation plays on a fairer ground in French and all French-speaking countries. The rules tend to be quite clear and it’s actually much easier than it seems, even with all the silent consonants and the very similar sounds such as “é”, “è” and “ê”.
Many nouns, particularly proper nouns and place names are difficult to pronounce for English native speakers (Montpellier, montrachet, Bourg-la-Reine, examen) and some other exceptions where the rules don’t necessarily apply (OIgnon, MONsieur, seCond, tAON).
Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, bough, cough, hough, sough, tough??
Hiccough has the sound of sup…
My advice is: GIVE IT UP!
– Gerard Nolst Trenité, The Chaos (1922)
Although it may appear tough, through some thorough thoughts, you will realize the English language has its own set of odd pronunciation. If you’ve managed to get over the fact that “ough” can be pronounced in eleven different ways, you ought to do great in French too!
With this said, both English and French use various kinds of stress and inflections for certain terms, though rarely in French is the same word pronounced differently based on its meaning! For example: “Content” (material) and “content” (happy), are said differently based on whether we’re using the noun or adjective.
Much like pronunciation, spelling in French can be scary because of the many silent consonants, but then again, English also has its fair share of difficult words to spell. Remember “ough”?
So… is it hard to learn French?
While it’s true that French is a hard language to master (even for native speakers), the good news is that you don’t necessarily need to master a language to be able to use it in conversational or professional contexts. Also, bear in mind that if you only need to learn some basic French for traveling, you don’t need to be fluent!
Languages are never easy to learn, but some can be easier than others, and French is among the easier languages to learn for native English speakers.
Practice is key to learning a language faster and better, and you shouldn’t be scared of speaking broken French. Many French speakers will actually find the mistakes you make – and your accent – charming!
So what are you waiting for? Begin your journey towards French fluency by reading a few French books for beginners!
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Is French Hard to Learn? 4 Reasons French Is Easier Than You Think
Is French hard to learn? You might have heard it is, or tried it out and got discouraged. But I know by experience it is easier than you might think.
Speaking French can transform your life and open you up to a whole new culture, and many wonderful friendships. So I can completely understand why you’d want to learn how to speak French.
However, I’ve heard from a lot of readers who are struggling with learning French. Shouldn’t they just give up completely or turn their attention to one that seems far easier?
Don’t be silly! Why learn a language that seems more useful, when in a matter of weeks you could be having your first conversation in a language that will open you up to over 75 million speakers in over 50 countries?
French is not hard to learn, especially when compared to English! And especially when you go about it the right way.
Learning French isn’t going to be as difficult as you think. In fact, it’s a language that is much easier to achieve fluency in than you would have ever expected.
Don’t believe me? Well, at least give me a chance to explain myself! Read on to find out why.
1. You Will Understand More Quickly Than You’ve Been Told: You’re Not Learning French From Scratch
English and French share a common alphabet and a large portion of vocabulary. In fact, English has more in common lexically with French than any other Romance language (which include the likes of Spanish, Portuguese and Italian).
The Romance languages belong to the Indo-European family, as does English. However, we largely have William the Conqueror, the first Norman King of England, to thank for the abundance of French words within the English language.
William led the successful Norman invasion of England in 1066 AD. He spoke no English when he ascended the throne. And although he tried to learn Old English, he failed to master this foreign tongue.
French was instead spoken within England’s courts for centuries after, which completely transformed the language to what we know it as today.
French rapidly became fashionable to learn amongst the social classes. It was spoken in schools and universities and within the court of law. Modern English words in the fields of medicine, economics, law and politics, which have a strong basis in Latin, bear a similarity to French.
English is a Germanic language that had previously had much resemblance to other Nordic languages, German and Dutch. It began to take on words of Anglo-Norman and Anglo-French origin, which influenced the vocabulary permanently.
You would be surprised at some of the words you probably use in everyday language that in fact had French origins, such as pork, blue and administration.
So, if you’re fluent in English, you’ll already have a head start in French vocabulary. You’ll be familiar with the spelling, pronunciation and meanings of words such as café, debut, encore and petite, amongst many others.
This makes French one of the easiest languages for native English speakers to begin speaking from day one.
2. You Will Speak Earlier Than You Think: French Is Simpler to Pronounce than English
If tomb in English is pronounced toom and womb is pronounced woom, then shouldn’t bomb be pronounced boom?
I’ve got another one for you.
Enough, rough, tough and then… slough!
How about those homographs! These are words that are spelt the same but have a different meaning. Examples include:
“I lead the dog to the water bowl that is made out of lead.”
“She wound the bandage around the wound.”
English is not consistent when it comes to pronunciation. If you’re like me and you grew up speaking this language, rules like this will come naturally to you. You learnt them over time, through trial and error.
However, this can be extremely confusing for new learners. All languages have many rules. The problem is, English has about as many exceptions as there are rules themselves!
French pronunciation can seem difficult at first. Like English, there are a lot of silent letters. Nouns can be pronounced differently depending on whether they are masculine or feminine.
Similarly, there are several rules for French pronunciation that can drive English speakers mad. Indeed, it may seem that French at first glance, is as tricky, complicated and inconsistent as English.
I do, however, have a point to argue against this case.
You Somehow Already Know What You Will Be Facing
French is a language that English speakers come into contact with on a regular basis. It is deeply ingrained in our culture!
France is hop, skip and a jump away from the United Kingdom and Ireland. A decent chunk of Canada is French speaking. It’s a popular option in Australia, where it’s mandatory to spend one year at school studying a second language.
And I know if you were to ask many Americans what their dream destination was, Paris would be at the top of many people’s lists.
When you start learning French, you’ll already know what you’re going to have difficulties with.
You’ll be aware that you’ll have issues pronouncing that guttural ‘r’ at first. Or that many words end on silent letters, such as in the case of comment ça va? You’ll be mindful of the fact that contractions are mandatory in the French language, such as in the case of “j’adore”.
This is knowledge that you’ll have been subconsciously building upon your entire life, will no doubt come in handy as you begin to wrap your head around the French language.
3. You Can Manage the Grammar With a Few Rules: Gendered Words aren’t as Confusing as They Seem
While gendered nouns are prevalent in many European languages, they can be a source of continual frustration for English native speakers.
English nouns do have gender – but the gender is tied directly to the biological sex of the noun, with inanimate objects remaining neutral.
As a result, gender rules can seem confusing and pointless to English speakers. We are left scratching our heads as to how on earth it was decided that the sun (le Soleil) is masculine while a car (une voiture) is feminine.
However, there is no discounting the fact that the knowledge of genders in French is important. Gender has influence on pronouns, endings of adjectives and verbs and the article placed before the noun. (Le, la, un, une and so on, so forth)
Some Rules For Gender Use in French
Luckily, there are several rules you can follow to determine the gender of an object in French. Here are some to consider:
- Certain nouns referring to animals that can only be male of the species will be masculine, such as le taureau (“bull”). This is the same for feminine nouns, such as la jument (“mare / female horse”).
- There are generic terms, which can refer to either a male or female of a species. Le mouton for example, can be a sheep of either gender.
- Place names not ending in -e are masculine (Paris). If they do end in -e, they’re feminine (L’Irlande).
- You can pretty much guess the gender of a word based on the ending. Words ending in –ment, -er, -eau and –ou tend to be masculine. On the flip side, -tion, -sion, -son and -ée are feminine.
Once you’ve learned the rules, you’ll generally be able to predict the gender of a word.
Knowledge of genders is a requisite in learning many languages. Spanish, Italian and Portuguese all use two genders, while German and Russian use three.
If you are already fluent or have some knowledge of any other of the number of languages that use gendered nouns, you’ll find yourself at an advantage in learning to speak French. For example, a Portuguese speaker would have less trouble learning French in this regard, than they would in English.
If your goal is to learn more languages and you’re starting with French as a native English speaker, breathe easy! The more you learn, the more genders will make sense to you and the easier it will be when you move onto your next language.
4. You Will Get Help: French People are Happy to Help You Learn French
I hate stereotypes!
Although I found it extraordinarily difficult to get along with Parisians when I first lived in Paris, during the second time around, I was determined to remain open minded. I managed to leave with a more positive impression of the French overall after only a few hours there.
Here is the thing: I couldn’t just expect things in Paris to be exactly as they were in Ireland, or any other country I had previously lived in. I forced myself to be more understanding and as a consequence, I got what I had always hoped would happen – someone told me I spoke French très bien.
A Parisian said I spoke good French! Dreams do come true!
There are complaints that the French can be incredibly negative. If you can’t speak their language, they judge you. If you are learning their language and make a mistake, they’ll look down their noses at you with an air of disdain.
Either way, you can’t win!
Upon genuinely understanding the culture more, I didn’t find these to be true at all. Most people I’ve met have been happy to help me when I’ve been stuck – you just have to ask for it.
In fact, I’ve found it is English speakers that are more likely to ignore you when you make mistakes, out of fear of hurting anyone’s feelings! We’re a sensitive lot, that’s for sure.
If you’re struggling to understand spoken French, there’s no harm in politely asking whomever you’re talking to if they can slow down. I’m sure they’d be more than happy to oblige.
I find listening to be one of the more challenging aspects of learning a language, but fortunately there are many free resources for French available online.
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