Similarities and differences between French and Spanish: vocabulary, core grammar, pronunciation, geographic spread, and a discussion of whether you should learn French or Spanish.
There’s a lot to consider when deciding whether to learn French vs Spanish (or whether to learn one after learning the other). Many are interested in learning how they compare, how knowing one might help you learn the other, which language is most “useful”, and which is easiest to learn.
Consider this a high-level guide in plain language by a speaker and former students of both. I learned French and Spanish myself through self-study and got them to a point where I use them professionally as a consultant and manager in modern international companies. (Note: not as a translator, document editor or person expected to produce massive documents — I use the languages in a much more day-to-day fashion.)
In this guide…
- A high-level overview of similarities and differences in the languages
- French vs Spanish grammar (in common usage)
- The vocabulary of French and Spanish compared
- Pronunciation of French and Spanish, including which is easier for English speakers
- The geographic spread of French and Spanish compared
- Should you learn French or Spanish?
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A Five-Minute Overview of “French vs Spanish”: Which Should You Learn?
Even though French and Spanish are among the easiest languages to learn for an English speaker as a first foreign language, they’re definitely not easy languages to learn.
There’s a lot about either French or Spanish grammar that will trip up a first-time language learner. For people who only speak English, concepts like conjugation of verbs, the grammatical gender of nouns and adjectives, and alien ideas like the subjunctive* bedevil many a language student. There are definitely easier languages out there (though I’ll always argue there are no “easy” languages unless you’re just moving to an adjacent dialect).
Generally, anyone learning Spanish or French has to spend a long time doing verb drills, learning all the ways you conjugate the some 500+ verbs you need in daily use, including all the frighteningly common exceptions.
And that’s before we even talk about the pronunciation of French and Spanish. Pronouncing the letter r in either French or Spanish is something that many learners struggle with years after they’ve mastered every other bit of the language.
Between the two, French and Spanish share many features and have a lot of overlapping vocabulary… but they’re more like cousins than siblings.
For example, if you speak only Spanish and you go to a French-speaking country, you’ll be totally lost in verbal conversation. If you see printed signs or newspapers, you might guess some words (“oh, la carte must be la carta!”), but be lost with others (“what is the toilette? I’m looking for the baño, is this it?”).
Similarly, French uses a number of shortcuts in grammar, like prepositions for time and belonging (y and en), or preferring the perfect tense to the past tense in general use, that Spanish doesn’t have. Plus, French is a lot slangier in daily use.
Finally, a word on how much time it’ll take to learn either French or Spanish. How long it takes to learn your first one depends a lot on you — your time commitment, how efficient you are with language learning, and even just your attitude. But in my experience, it’ll take you about half the time to learn the second language, if you know either French or Spanish already.
* English has the subjunctive, but people don’t really know what it is, and few people use it well.
French vs Spanish Grammar
If you’ve studied a Roman-derived language at all, you’ll be familiar with the grammar in general.
Overall, French grammar is slightly easier than Spanish grammar for two reasons:
- A few common grammar concepts are simplified in French, like the past (“preterite”) tense (French just uses the perfect tense), and the past subjunctive (French usually uses the imperfect past tense)
- French pronunciation makes a lot of conjugations sound the same, so you can make mistakes and nobody will notice.
But here’s a quick guide to what both Spanish and French grammar have in common:
Grammatical gender in French and Spanish
Both French and Spanish classify nouns as being either male or female, and adjectives have to match them. This is roughly the same between each language.
For example “table” becomes la mesa in Spanish, and la table in French (ok, that one was conveniently the same word in French and English… but it sounds different!).
There are a few rules that are the same in both French and Spanish and that mean that a lot of words have the same gender in both languages.
For example, words ending in ion are generally female in gender in both Spanish and French. Like “revolution” (revolution in French, revolución in Spanish) is female in both. Hence, the expressions Vive la revolution! and ¡Viva la revolución! look pretty similar.
Similarly, words that end in -dad in Spanish (e.g. la cantidad for “the quantity”, or una eternidad for “an eternity”), are female, just like corresponding words ending in -té in French are female (la quantité, une éternité).
And of course, things/people that are obviously gendered (like a boy, or a female animal) are given the respective gender pronoun.
However, there are many exceptions, and they’re very common. The word for “sea” is similar in both languages, but female in French (la mer), and male in Spanish (el mar). And words that sound different for the same object might be the same (“a window” is una ventana in Spanish and la fenêtre in French), or different (“the car” is el coche/carro in Spanish but la voiture in French).
So basically, in both languages you can a degree of overlap in genders, but by no means assume it.
Pronouns in French and Spanish
If you learn either, you generally have to learn 5-6 persons for each gender: I, you, he/she, we, you (plural), they. Again, this is roughly similar in difficulty between French and Spanish — some pronoun rules are harder in French, and some in Spanish.
There’s a bit of difference between what you have to learn for each language — and where (like, in which country).
For example, Spanish has a formal “you”, usted, which is conjugated the same as he/she. French has no direct equivalent.
On the other hand, French has a formal “you” which is identical to the “you plural”, vous. So I would address one person formally with “Would you like water?” in the same way I’d address a group of people with the same question — whether I was being formal or informal!
And Spanish has a formal “you plural” that’s only used in Spain: vosotros/as. Oh yes, it has a gender. So if I’m talking to a group of women and want to invite them to join me in the pool, I would say ¿A vosotras les gustaría acompañárme en la piscina?
I give this ludicrous example because it’s so rare to address just a group of women. In fact, I’ve never done it. Just one man in the room means it changes to masculine form, vosotros (a topic that vexes people).
In Latin America, people don’t even use vosotros/as. They just use ustedes, so any group becomes a formal situation.
Finally, the decision on when to use the formal tone is quite different between Spanish-speaking and French-speaking cultures. Most Spanish-speaking cultures default to the informal tone, tu, and French-speaking ones tend to start with the formal tone, vous.
Conjugation in French and Spanish
Another thing that is mostly common between French and Spanish is conjugation. In conjugation, I find French to be easier than Spanish — maybe 25% easier. Still hard overall!
In either French or Spanish, you have to learn a number of conjugations just for everyday use:
- Infinitive (“To eat, or not to eat”)
- Present (“I eat, therefore I am”)
- Present continuous (“I am still eating even though I am not hungry”) (used differently)
- Perfect (“I have eaten”)
- Past (“It was delicious!”) (rare in French — see below)
- Future (“I will eat more later”)
- Conditional (“I’d eat more, but I’d explode”)
- Subjunctive (“But do you want me to eat more?”)
- Past subjunctive (“If I knew you were cooking, I wouldn’t have eaten a burger five minutes ago”) (also rare in French)
There are also combinations of the above, like future perfect (“I will have come”).
In literary French and Spanish there are a couple of extra tenses, like the future subjunctive. But in everyday social/business use, or even listening to the news or movies, I have NEVER heard the future subjunctive. I’m curious where it’s used.
But there are some significant differences in how the conjugations are used in each language. In general, I believe this makes French grammatically easier, for two reasons.
- Firstly, some conjugations (like past subjunctive and past preterite) are never used.
- Secondly, in French, so many of the conjugations are pronounced the same, so you can get them wrong in spoken French and nobody will notice (and in written French, you have grammar checkers these days!).
So some of the above conjugations are simplified in French. Spanish tends to use the whole lot. Here’s a table of the above sentences, with brief explanations of how each tense is used in French and Spanish in everyday life.
|Tense||English||Spanish||French (common usage)|
|Infinitive||To eat or not to eat||Comer o no comer||Manger ou pas manger|
|Simple present||I eat, therefore I am||Como, luego existo||Je mange, donc je suis|
|Present continuous (I)||I am still eating even though I am not hungry||Todavía estoy comiendo aunque no tengo hambre. (uses continuous tense)||Je mange encore même si je n’ai pas faim. (uses simple present tense)|
|Present continuous (II)||I don’t watch television while eating.||No miro la televisión mientras como. (uses simple present tense)||Je ne regarde pas la télévision en mangeant. (uses continuous tense)|
|Perfect||I have eaten||He comido||J’ai mangé|
|Past (imperfect)||It was delicious!||¡Estaba delicioso!||C’était délicieux!|
|Past (a certain point, a.k.a. “preterite”)||I came here yesterday.||Vine aquí ayer.||Je suis venu ici hier. (used the perfect tense; this tense isn’t common in spoken French)|
|Future||I will eat more later.||Comeré más más tarde.||Je mangerai encore plus tard.|
|Conditional||I’d eat more, but I’d explode.||Comería más, pero explotaría.||Je mangerais plus, mais j’exploserais.|
|Subjunctive||But do you want me to eat more?||¿Pero quieres que coma más?||Mais tu veux que je mange encore?|
|Past subjunctive||If I knew you were cooking, I wouldn’t have eaten a burger five minutes ago||Si supiera que ibas a cocinar, no habría comido una hamburguesa hace cinco minutos||Si je savais que tu allais cuisiner, je n’aurais pas mangé un hamburger il y a cinq minutes (uses the imperfect past tense)|
The above table is a simple summary — you can argue with bits of it. For example, in novels, you might see the past tense in French more often. But in most everyday cases, people use the perfect tense the same way.
The Vocabulary of French and Spanish compared
Both French and Spanish are Latin-derived languages, along with Italian, Portuguese and Romanian, alongside regional languages like Napolitano, Sicilian, Catalan, Galician, and Ladino (spoken by the Sephardic Jews — see our article on the evolution of Hebrew).
If you speak English as your first language, you’ll find the vocabulary of either French or Spanish similarly difficult/easy to pick up. Some words will seem familiar, and many not.
Most everyday words are different to English. But advanced professional words, like “politics” and “economics” will look the same as in English (but pronounced differently of course).
Things get interesting if you already speak French or Spanish and want to learn the other language.
You may expect words in French and Spanish to be the same as both languages came from Latin. But it’s not that simple.
There are more common words between Spanish and French than between either language and English (which itself has a ton of borrowed words), but it’s far from 1:1.
In daily conversation, I’d describe the vocabulary differences/similarities between Spanish and French to be like:
- Everyday nouns (fruits, household objects, things you’d see in the city): 25% similar
- Everyday adjectives (big, small, wide, fat): 25% similar
- Everyday verbs in the “first 100” (to go, to eat, to sleep etc.): 30% similar
- Advanced vocabulary (e.g. government, politics, philosophy): 90% similar/reminiscent
Comparing Nouns/Adjectives between Spanish and French
Everyday nouns and adjectives are quite different between Spanish and French. Very few are identical, and around one in four are reminiscent (as in easier to remember, without being the same).
In the below table of common nouns and adjectives, I’ve boldfaced the words that are reminiscent between Spanish and French.
|apple, banana, fruit, celery, pumpkin, spinach, beef, milk, eggs, cheese||pomme, banane, fruit, céleri, citrouille, épinard, boeuf, lait, oeufs, fromage||manzana, plátano, fruta, apio, calabaza, espinacas, carne de res, leche, huevos, queso|
|shop, street, car, light, sun, moon, house, bicycle, hospital, newspaper||magasin, rue, voiture, lumière, soleil, lune, maison, vélo, hôpital, journal||tienda, calle, coche, luz, sol, luna, casa, bicicleta, hospital, periódico|
|sofa, fridge, chair, pen, desk, paper, computer, wall, door||canapé, réfrigérateur/frigo, chaise, stylo, bureau, papier, ordinateur, mur, porte||sofá, refrigerador/heladera, silla, bolígrafo, escritorio, papel, ordenador/computadora, pared, puerta|
|person, child, boy, girl, man, woman, father, mother, uncle, aunt||personne, enfant, garçon, fille, homme, femme, père, mère, oncle, tante||persona, niño, chico/muchacho, chica/muchacha, hombre, mujer, padre, madre, tío, tía|
|money, business, wallet, cash, work/job, vacation/holiday||argent, affaires, portefeuille, espèces, travail, vacances||dinero, negocio, cartera, efectivo, trabajo, vacaciones|
|tree, sky, plant, grass, rock, glass, plastic, thing||arbre, ciel, plante, herbe, rocher, verre, plastique, chose||árboles, cielo, planta, hierba, roca, vidrio, plástico, cosa|
|day, week, month, year, hour, minute, second, today, tomorrow, yesterday, later, earlier||jour, semaine, mois, année, heure, minute, seconde, aujourd’hui, demain, hier, plus tard, plus tôt||día, semana, mes, año, hora, minuto, segundo, hoy, mañana, ayer, más tarde, más temprano|
|big, small, wide, thin, narrow, cold, hot, empty, full, good, bad||grand, petit, grand, mince, étroit, froid, chaud, vide, plein, bon, mauvais||grande, pequeño, ancho, delgado, estrecho, frío, caloroso, vacío, lleno, bueno, malo|
|rich, poor, near, far, happy, sad, kind, malicious, hard, soft, easy, difficult||riche, pauvre, proche, loin, heureux, triste, gentil, méchant, dur, doux, facile, difficile||rico, pobre, cerca, lejos, feliz, triste, amable, malicioso, duro, blando, fácil, difícil|
|less, more, as well, already, occasionally, later, earlier, few, many, some, often||moins, plus, ainsi, déjà, de temps en temps, peu, beaucoup, certains, souvent||menos, más, así, ya, de vez en cuando, pocos, muchos, algunos, a menudo|
Comparing Verbs in Spanish and French
Verbs in Spanish and French are totally different to English. If you just speak English, you’ll find verbs to be totally alien in both, and roughly equal in difficulty. Get to work!
When comparing verbs between French and Spanish, you can’t just look at the infinitive of the verb. Sometimes those look totally different, but the everyday conjugation looks more similar.
For example, the verb “to be” is être in French and ser in Spanish. They look very different, especially considering how differently the r is pronounced.
But in present tense they’re more reminiscent:
- English: I am, you are, he/she is, we are, you (pl) are, they are
- French: je suis, tu es, il/elle est, nous sommes, vous êtes, ils sont
- Spanish: yo soy, tu eres, el/ella es, nosotros/as somos, vosotros/as sois, ellos son
In many cases, again, a verb in French/Spanish might be reminiscent of a verb in the other language. But conjugation is often quite different and has to be learned independently.
This all changes when you get to advanced vocabulary — see the next section.
|to be||être||ser||Different, but somewhat similar in conjugated usage, e.g. je suis/yo soy|
|to have||avoir||haber||Somewhat similar (silent h) in usage, e.g. j’ai/he|
|to be able/can||pouvoir||poder||Somewhat, but quite different when conjugated, e.g. je peux / yo puedo|
|to put||mettre||poner||Not at all, but Spanish has a less frequently used similar verb meter|
|to say||dire||decir||Somewhat, especially in conjugation, e.g. “tell me” is dis-moi or dime|
|to do||faire||hacer||Somewhat (h is silent in Spanish), but conjugation is quite different|
|to eat||manger||comer||Not at all|
|to have to, must||devoir||deber||Somewhat|
|to take||prendre||coger/tomar (regional)||Not at all|
|to give||donner||dar||Somewhat (in usage, e.g. je donne = yo doy)|
|to go||aller||ir||Somewhat (in usage, e.g. je vais = yo voy)|
|to want||vouloir||querer||Not at all|
|to have to||devoir||deber||Somewhat|
|to ask, request||preguntar||demander||Not at all (but similar to other differently-used used verbs, like domandar in Spanish)|
|to find||trouver||encontrar||Not at all (but similar to other differently-used used verbs, like rencontrer in French)|
|to return/give pack||rendre||volver||Not at all (but similar to other differently-used used verbs, like rendirse in Spanish)|
|to come||venir||venir||Same! (but conjugated differently, e.g. je viens, yo vengo)|
|to pass, to go past||passer||passar||Very similar|
|to understand||comprendre||entender||Similar (but false friends, comprender is a less-often Spanish way of saying “understand”, and entendre means “to listen/hear” in French)|
Advanced vocabulary between Spanish and French
The good news is that once you’re past the first 500-1,000 everyday words, there’s a lot more in common in advanced vocabulary, both between Spanish/French and English, and between each other.
Words like “politics”, “economics”, and so on are mostly predictable and comparable.
- English: politics, economics, nation, average, random, index, rate, legal, war, history, unemployment.
- Spanish: política, economía, nación, promedio, aleatorio, índice, tasa, legal, guerra, historia, desempleo.
- French: politique, économie, nation, moyenne, aléatoire, index, taux, juridique, guerre, histoire, chômage.
Mostly predictable, like I said. I boldfaced the ones that are not.
But nonetheless, if you know one of the two languages, once you’ve covered the basics of the other language you can pick up a textbook or a newspaper and get through it without too much difficulty.
Pronunciation of French and Spanish
French and Spanish have quite different pronunciation systems. Spanish is easier to spell, whereas French is easier to pronounce.
In general, I’d describe them like this: Spanish is crisp and clear, but unforgiving, and French is blurry and difficult to parse, but easy to get right for the learner.
Spanish has crisp, clear pronunciation, where nearly every letter is clearly pronounced. You can almost go 1:1 between spelling and pronunciation.
There are some exceptions to this rule. For example in Latin America, c when followed by an e or an i is pronounced the same as s. So you will see people misspelling words like hacer as haser for example (not that, because it’s so common, but things like that).
And the letters v and b are pronounced the same, and people often mix them up in spelling words.
French has far less crisp pronunciation. There are lots of unnecessary letters, so that for example eau, beaux, taux, and Haribo all rhyme.
Similarly, manger, mangé and mangeais all rhyme. So people will mix those conjugations of the same word up in print, saying for example Tu as manger? when it should be Tu as mangé?.
Many other examples exist of silent letters, and obscure spelling/pronunciation rules.
To make things more complicated, spoken French is riddled with simplifications and “liaison” linking words. In Spanish, if someone says “I don’t know” you’ll hear them clearly say No sé. In French, Je ne sais pas is so abbreviated it just comes down to Chais pas, skipping entire words and blurring the rest together.
Even though this blurriness can be really tough for the French learner, it actually makes it harder to make a mistake. So many conjugations sound the same when spoken out loud that you can make a mistake and nobody will notice! It’s only when you come to write things down that you really have to pay attention.
Where French and Spanish are spoken — Geographic Spread (and populations)
Spanish is more widely spoken than French, but there’s a nuance to this.
Spanish is spoken as a first language by some ~460 million people, and ~75M as a second language. It’s spoken primarily in Spain and nearly all of Latin America other than Brazil and a couple of other small countries.
French is spoken as a first language by ~75M speakers, and around 275M as a second language. It’s primarily spoken in France, in the French-speaking parts of Belgium and Switzerland, in Quebec, in the French Overseas Territories (e.g. New Caledonia and French Polynesia), and in former French colonies in West and North Africa.
The way each language is spoken is also important. In most Spanish-speaking countries, Spanish is the first language. If you go to Bolivia, Argentina, Colombia or Nicaragua, you’ll find that everyone you’ll meet will speak the language and expect you to speak it to communicate.
In French-speaking countries in Africa, on the other hand, there are many other local languages that might be dominant. In Tunisia and Morocco, most educated people speak French, but the native language is nearly always the local Arabic dialect (Darija) — which they might liberally intersperse with French words. As another example, in Madagascar, the educated speak French, but the local language Malagasy is more widespread and used colloquially.
Summary: Which should you learn, French or Spanish?
Whether you decide to learn French or Spanish depends on how you weight all of the above.
People make language choices for a number of different reasons, and none of them are more right than the other. You might weight being able to travel in Africa more heavily than being able to travel in Latin America, or vice versa. You might be really good at pronouncing French words authentically, and struggle with Spanish ones, or the other way around.
If either French or Spanish is your first language, I think they’re roughly as hard as each other to get to an equivalent level of mastery, and this is something generally agreed by the language learning community.
Whichever way you go… you’ve got work ahead of you. But if you decide to learn both languages, I promise the second one will be easier!
Got more questions? Leave a comment below and we’ll try to address them.