This is a discussion of how hard (and easy) French can be to learn for English speakers, answering the questions people often ask me: “How Hard is French for English speakers? And is Spanish easier than French as a first language?”
French is one of the easiest languages to learn if you’re a native English speaker (and even easier if you’re a native speaker of or former student of another language of the same family).
We learned French years ago. I learned it as my fourth language. My initial rationale was that I wanted to go to West Africa. But to date, I have only been to New Caledonia (a French Territory), Mauritius (where it’s widely spoken), Belgium, and of course France.
I think French is really easy and fun to speak (particularly its informal register – French has so much fun slang!). But this doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Here’s a quick guide to how easy (or hard) French can be for English speakers.
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In a nutshell… how hard is French to learn?
In summary — even though French is one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn, it’s not “easy”. It’ll take time — particularly working on grammar.
In more detail:
- French spelling (and orthography) is pretty easy. You get the Latin alphabet. Even though some letters sound different, once you learn those rules, you can at least read it. Writing is a bit harder. But it’s nothing compared to learning a new alphabet, writing right-to-left (like Arabic or Hebrew), or learning Chinese characters of course.
- French vocabulary isn’t bad. You have to memorise everyday vocabulary, but once you’ve learned 500 words or so, it steadily gets easier with “advanced” words. So many French words remind you of English words in some way, so you get plenty of mnemonics. And the advanced vocabulary for news and so on is often the same.
- French grammar, on the other hand, is hard. There’s grammatical gender, lots of conjugation, exceptions to rules, and the sentence structure can really do your head in as a first-time language learner. You may master spelling and vocab, but grammar will be a lifelong pursuit as you’ll always be encountering new and unusual verbs.
Good luck! More below.
French Alphabet and Orthography — Fairly easy
The easiest part of French is that it shares mostly the same alphabet as English (of course, it’s pronounced a bit differently).
Reading French is quite easy. Once you learn the pronunciation rules, you can read French without even knowing what it means.
There are very few exceptions, and it’s usually a 1:1 phonetic equivalent. (The only one I can think of is des oeufs, for “eggs”, which is pronounced as if it were written des oeu).
Writing French is harder because it demands that you know the grammar. Because lots of letter groupings sound the same, it’s easy to write the wrong one.
For example to say “I want”, you write je veux, and to write “he wants”, you write il veut. The words veux and veut sound the same, but only one is correct in each case.
Or as another example, the verb “to eat” is written manger. The past participle meaning “eaten” is mangé. These two are pronounced the same, as well. So to say “I have eaten”, you’re at risk of writing j’ai manger (incorrect, no meaning) instead of j’ai mangé (correct).
People will get what you mean, but the temptation to correct you will get in the way of fluent communication.
French Vocabulary — Fairly easy
In French, a lot of advanced vocabulary is the same. This means once you get over the initial hurdle of everyday vocabulary and grammar, it’s easy to move on to really advanced concepts.
For example, if you want to say “liberal economic theory” in French, you say “théorie économique libérale”. So easy!
A lot of day to day vocabulary is very different but looks familiar. There are so many related words in English. For example
- Man = homme, which may remind you of homo sapiens.
- Child = enfant, like “infant”
- Blue = bleu, just slightly re-arranged
- Orange = orange, not even re-arranged, just pronounced differently.
- Table = table, ditto
- Olive oil = huile d’olive, which isn’t so different
- Chair = chaise, which looks reminiscent (but watch out for the French word chair, which means “flesh”)
- House = maison. Totally different, but you’d know the word maison from wine labels.
In fact, so many words look similar that French (and other Romance languages) have a concept of “false friends” with English — words which, despite looking the same, have a totally different meaning.
For example, if you tell a French person you want to embrasser them, they’ll expect a kiss, not a warm embrace!
French Pronunciation — A bit hard
There are a few sounds hard to pronounce for English speakers (depending on your local accent):
- The “nasal” consonants of en, ein, on, and an/and: they’re all different and they’re all tough to master at first.
- The vowel sounds of eau (like in de l’eau), u (like in tu or vue), and eu (like in bleu or veux) — all tough, and only doable if you force yourself to think “I need to sound super French when I say this”. (The difficulty of each of these can depend on where you’re from.)
- The consonants r and soft g (when followed by a vowel, like in rouge): The r is really hard to get. I still think I sound foreign, although that’s OK with the number of immigrants in France today.
Stringing French together involves a cheat called liaison, which basically means skipping letters and sometimes whole consonants. The most extreme version of this is how a four-consonant phrase je ne sais pas is brought down (also by eliminating the ne, something done in colloquial casual French) to simply chais pas.
In general, anyone learning to speak French should spend a lot of time listening and repeating. Do this until you sound natural. You can do this with anything, but it’s something that Glossika is particularly good for.
The blessing of French pronunciation is that it’s quite slurred together. Particularly in casual spoken French, French is way less clearly pronounced than say Italian or Spanish. It’s easy to make mistakes and get away with it. Nobody will notice many of them!
French Grammar — Hard!
This is what you’ve been waiting for — a discussion of French grammar. It’s hard! Though there are other languages with harder grammar…
In a nutshell, French grammar is hard for English speakers because of
- Grammatical gender (everything is male and female)
- Weird particles like de, y and en
- Different phrasing for questions
- Conjugation, including the devil of the subjunctive
The first bit that messes people up is the concept of grammatical gender. If you’ve never seen this before in a language, it can be confusing that a table or a door can be female, whereas a shower or a bicycle can be male.
It makes no sense, really. It’s just something you have to learn. Gender informs what pronouns you use and how you modify adjectives.
Yes, you can get grammatical gender wrong. It’s OK. People will totally understand you. It just hurts how fluently you communicate.
It’s a bit like someone saying to you in English “Those animal is angry and want to eat me!” (sic). The grammar is wrong but you can sense the urgency and help them.
There are lots of rules you can pick up along the way, of course, to make understanding French grammatical gender easier:
- Words ending in e are often female, e.g. table (table), or porte (door)
- Words ending in -ion are almost always female, e.g. nation (nation), inflammation (inflammation)
- Words ending in eau are often male, e.c. cerveau (brain), tableau (table, like in a spreadsheet)
And there are other rules — a good textbook will take you through them.
But in general — learn the rules of gender, and then apply them. Don’t shortcut this.
The second part of difficult French grammar is strange particles.
French don’t say “cheese”, they say du cheese (or actually du fromage). Do you want wine? I mean, do you want “du” vin? The “de” particle (also used as (du, de la, and des) doesn’t have a literal translation. It does have some rules for when to use it, but I’d suggest you you have to just develop a feeling for when to use it and when not.
Similarly, there are two particles en and y that loosely mean “of the” and “at the”.
For example, I can either say “I want some bananas”, je veux des bananes, or if it is clear I’m referring to bananas, I can say j’en vex quelques-unes. The en particle refers to something where you would normally use de, where you don’t mention the thing.
The y particle is similarly unintuitive for English speakers. I remember once someone told me for “you should go there” il faut que tu y ailles. That tiny y particle was all that she used to refer to an entire ice cream shop. The y replaces a sentence where you’d normally have an à.
They’re not hard to understand, but they’re hard to use.
Questions in French – these are a little tricky, but you can learn them quickly. In brief, the word order for a sentence changes a lot, and you have to get used to it. And this only happens in somewhat formal French, so you have to know when you should use this structure and when not.
Conjugation in French — this is what kills a lot of English speakers.
Firstly, words change for person and number.
- I want = je veux
- You want = tu veux
- You (formal) want = vous voulez
- We want = nous voulons
- One would want/we want (informal) = on veut
- You (plural) want = vouz voulez (yes, same as “you formal”)
- They want = ils veulent
You also have to change this for simple past tense, continuous past tense (preterite), future tense, conditional, and the subjunctive.
The subjunctive is very difficult for English speakers. Most foreigners living in French countries actually never really get it, they just work around it.
In a nutshell, the subjunctive is used when the person of a sentence changes, or when expressing a doubt. Like for example
- It is imperative that you go: il faut que tu y ailles (ailles is the subjunctive conjugation for tu vas)
- I want you to make me coffee: je veux que tu me fasses du café (fasses is the subjunctive for tu fais)
- She doubts he wants to come. Elle doute qu’il veuille venir.
The subjunctive used in a few other situations too.
The only positive to this is that there are languages with harder grammar — e.g. any with cases as well as all the above features, like Russian. But still, that doesn’t make French easy.
This was a quick overview of what I think makes French easy and hard for English speakers.
Overall, despite how hard grammar is, it’s still one of the easiest languages to learn. And I highly recommend it as a starting point!