If you’re interested in learning French, or if you’ve just gotten started and are wondering how far there is to go, then you’re probably wondering the same things many new French learners are wondering: How hard is French for English speakers?
French is often touted as a good first second language for English speakers. It has a lot of vocabulary in common, there are tons of resources, and the grammar isn’t overwhelmingly difficult.
But that’s a very high-level picture. The reality is that there are no easy languages. Some aspects of French are easy, but it can get tough very quickly.
You might be thinking:
- How hard is French for English speakers?
- How hard are the different components of French — vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and reading/writing?
- How hard is French if I know another romance language like Spanish or Italian?
- Is Spanish easier than French as a first second language?
I’ll go into much more detail below. Enjoy!
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.
We learned French years ago. I learned it as my fourth language. Since then it has opened up many opportunities for me for travel, meeting people, and even for work (I did some projects in France where some people I worked with didn’t speak much English).
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.
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 relatively 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.
You might also like…
- Our list of recommended resources to learn French
- Our guide to essential French slang
- Differences between Spanish and French
Why Learn French? A Few Unorthodox Reasons
There are lots of standard reasons why people learn French — travel, to connect to family members, or simply as an educational pastime to keep the brain active.
But I have another reason: French is really fun.
Before learning French, people have this stereotypical view of the language. It’s seen as romantic, flowery, and soft. My experience is that it can be this, of course, but that it has dynamic range that reflects the breadth of French-speaking society.
Some unexpected things I learned after starting to learn French is that
- French is the second most widely-used language for hip hop, and there was a huge scene in the 90s / 2000s
- There’s stacks of film other than Amélie
- French, as you learn it in a textbook, makes you sound like a Parisien — and there are tons of variations on accents, even within France, and especially outside the country
In short my horizons broadened dramatically after learning French, and it gave me a much richer view into a culture I only barely understood beforehand.
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 common exception 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 many 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. Writing — without a spell checker — can be tricky.
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 can 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.
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 la 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: 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), 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, but a desk or a fridge 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 wanting 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 try to just develop a feeling for when to use it.
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 veux 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.
The particles in French are 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
- He/she wants = il/elle veut (same conjugation, different pronoun)
- One would want/we want (informal) = on veut
- We want = nous voulons
- 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.
Learning French If You Know Spanish or Italian
If you know Spanish or Italian — you have a huge head start with French. Particularly Italian, because there’s more in common with that language.
Of course, French pronunciation is quite different from both Italian and Spanish. But from either language at least you would learn the concepts of
- Grammatical gender — though words may change gender (e.g. el mar in Spanish or il mare in Italian, but la mer in French)
- Conjugation (getting used to changing verbs because of person) — the rules of conjugation are very similar
- Particles — particularly with Italian (as en in French is similar to ne in Italian, and y in French is similar to ci in Italian — no parallels exist in Spanish)
- False friends — learning to not assume that a word that looks the same means the same thing (and vice versa)
I think the best head-start that any other language gives you is a psychological one. You know that languages are hard and they all take work, and you also have a rough idea of the size of the challenge. If you have learned another language of similar complexity, then you know what you’re in for.
I learned French after learning Spanish, and it was like going on a long and hard hike the second time round, which made it seem easier, despite being the same amount of work.
If this is irrelevant as you don’t know another language, well, then you can expect it to be relevant when it becomes time to tack on another one.
This was a quick overview of what I think makes French easy and hard for English speakers.
Overall, despite how hard French grammar is, I still think it’s still one of the easiest languages to learn. And I highly recommend it as a starting point!