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Italian vs French — A Complete Comparison for Learners

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Italian vs French — all the similarities and differences in grammar, vocabulary, writing, and pronunciation.

If you’re considering learning Italian or French, you’re probably wondering how similar or different Italian and French are.

Or, if you already know either Italian or French, you might be wondering “How similar is French to Italian?” or “How similar is Italian to French?”. I definitely wondered the same things, before learning both.

In the same spirit of some of our other articles comparing languages, I decided to put together this “Italian vs French” comparison to help you figure out what they have in common and what’s unique.

Italian vs French cover image with espresso and a croissant

Overview of Italian vs French — The Core Similarities and Differences

If I had to explain Italian vs French in one sentence it’d be this:

Italian and French have similar grammar at a conceptual level but have different enough grammar in practice that combined with the different pronunciation and vocabulary, they’re quite distinct languages — but close enough that a speaker of one could learn the other more easily than someone who didn’t speak either.

In a bit more detail…

Italian vs French grammar is conceptually similar. They are both subject-verb-object languages, and conjugate verbs in similar ways. Italian and French grammar share concepts like “adverbial pronouns” that other romance languages like Spanish don’t have. They also both tend to use the past perfect more than the simple past tense. But in practice, the rules are quite different for conjugation, so you have to just learn the rules again.

Subject-verb-object languages - both italian and french (and English) are
Italian and French are both subject-verb-object

Vocabulary in Italian and French overlaps but is again, quite different. A lot of verbs, nouns, and adjectives are reminiscent, like manger and mangiare (“to eat” in French and italian respectively), port and porta (“door”), and grand and grande (“large”). But there are many more common words that are quite different.

Pronunciation in Italian and French is quite different and follows different rules. Italian is staccato (as appropriate a word as there ever was, as it’s an staccato is an Italian loan word!)

Finally, the written alphabet in Italian and French is basically the same, but each language has its own pronunciation rules (and a few unique special characters).

Read on for more detail.

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Italian vs French Grammar

Italian and French grammar share quite a lot!

They’re both Romance languages, from the same family of languages that derive from Latin, so a lot of the core concepts are the same.

Sentence order is the same — Subject-verb-object. A few examples are below.

EnglishItalianFrench
I want to eat an appleVoglio mangiare (verb) una mela (noun)Je veux manger une pomme
I love anchovies so much I want to cryAmo così tanto le acciughe che voglio piangereJ’aime tellement les anchois que je veux pleurer
My hovercraft is full of eels!Il mio hovercraft è pieno di anguille!Mon aéroglisseur est plein d’anguilles!

French vs Italian conjugation

In conjugation, Italian and French use conjugation in a similar way, with a few important differences.

  • Italian and French both use the “I” (io and je) and “We” (noi and nous) conjugation the same way.
  • Italian and French have an informal singular “you”, which is tu in both languages
  • Italian and French both have a separate “he/she” (lui/lei and il/elle), and they (ils/elles and essi/esse)
  • For the formal “you” (singular), French and Italian are slightly different:
    • French uses the vous conjugation, basically pretending the person you’re speaking to is a group of people
    • Italian uses the Lei conjugation, which works the same was as lui/lei (he/she).

Formality in French and Italian is quite similar. If you’re speaking to someone older or a person you just met who’s your age or older, you generally use the formal conjugation.

Subject pronounces in Italian vs French

One difference in conjugation grammar in Italian and French, which is related to pronunciation, is that in French people usually say the subject pronoun, whereas in Italian people only use it for emphasis.

For example, asking someone “Do you want to have a coffee?” in Italian and French is:

  • Vuoi prendere un caffè?
  • Est-ce que tu veux prendre un café?

In Italian, you’d only use the subject pronoun for emphasis.

  • Ma Lei preferisce ci andare subito, non? (using Lei to distinguish from someone else’s preference, e.g. the speaker’s)

Another difference in Italian vs French grammar, which you’ll note in the above example, is that French has a different sentence order for questions.

In French, you can use question markers (est-ce que?), or reverse the order of words (Voulez vous?). You don’t do this in Italian.

Adverbial Pronouns in Italian and French

One thing common to Italian and French grammar, but not seen in Spanish grammar, is the use of adverbial pronouns.

“What the devil are adverbial pronouns?” you cry. Sorry. I don’t normally use grammar terms. In fact, I don’t know many! I just am putting it in there in case someone’s googling it.

In Italian and French, “adverbial pronouns” are shortcuts for whole other bits of a sentence.

The French en is equivalent to the Italian ne, and means “some of it”, roughly (it doesn’t really translate).

The French y is equivalent to the Italian ci and means “a place”.

Let’s use some examples to explain adverbial pronouns in Italian and French:

English (short sentence)ItalianFrench
You must go there!Devi ci andare!Il faut que tu y ailles!
I think about it a lot.Ci penso molto.J’y pense tout le temps.
Do you want more (of it)?Ne vuoi ancora?Est-ce que vous en voulez encore?
I don’t know anything about it.Non ne so niente!J’en sais rien! (colloquial)
Using adverbial pronouns in Italian and French

It’s amazing that similar phrases exist in Italian and French — and even Catalan — but not in Spanish. Come on guys, you’re all neighbours!

French vs Italian Vocabulary — Some overlap

There are lots of words in Italian and French that look similar and are clearly related.

But because of the difference in pronuncaition, you can’t say they’re the “same” word. At best, one is a mnemonic for the other.

French and Italian verbs

Let’s start with some verbs — there are many common verbs that are similar, but some different.

EnglishItalianFrenchComment
to goandareallerDifferent
to wantvolerevouloirSimilar
to eatmangiaremangerSimilar
to sleepdormiredormirSimilar
to needavere bisognoavoir besoinSimilar
to changecambiarechangerDifferent
to speakparlareparlerSimilar
to thinkpensarepenserSimilar
to laughridererireKinda similar…
to comevenirevenirSimilar

The verbs are often similar enough that it’s easy to remember the infinitive of the verb. But you still have to learn the conjugations, especially as a) the pronunciation is different, and b) the conjugation of common verbs is usually irregular.

For example “I want to eat an ice cream” (using the verbs to want and to eat):

  • Italian: Voglio mangiare un gelato.
  • French: Je veux manger une glace.

Or “I have eaten too much ice cream”:

  • Italian: Ho mangiato troppo gelato.
  • French: J’ai mangé trop de glace.

French and Italian Nouns

When you get to the advanced levels — like, talking about economics or politics — you’ll find that French and Italian use roughly the same words. So reading a newspaper isn’t too hard.

But everyday French and Italian nouns and adjectives can be quite different.

Let’s look at these various words in categories to examine the differences. I’ve boldfaced the ones that pass a resemblance (i.e. would be easy to remember).

EnglishItalianFrench
apple, banana, fruit, celery, pumpkin, spinach, beef, milk, eggs, cheesemela, banana, sedano, zucca, spinaci, manzo, latte, uova, formaggiopomme, banane, fruit, céleri, citrouille, épinard, boeuf, lait, oeufs, fromage
shop, street, car, light, sun, moon, house, bicycle, hospital, newspapernegozio, strada, automobile, luce, sole, luna, casa, bicicletta, ospedale, giornalemagasin, rue, voiture, lumière, soleil, lune, maison, vélo, hôpital, journal
sofa, fridge, chair, pen, desk, paper, computer, wall, doordivano, frigo, sedia, penna, scrivania, carta, computer, muro, portacanapé, réfrigérateur/frigo, chaise, stylo, bureau, papier, ordinateur, mur, porte
person, child, boy, girl, man, woman, father, mother, uncle, auntpersona, bambino, ragazzo, ragazza, uomo, donna, padre, madre, zio, ziapersonne, enfant, garçon, fille, homme, femme, père, mère, oncle, tante
money, business, wallet, cash, work/job, vacation/holidaysoldi, affari, portafoglio, contanti, lavoro, vacanzeargent, affaires, portefeuille, espèces, travail, vacances
tree, sky, plant, grass, rock, glass, plastic, thingalbero, cielo, pianta, erba, roccia, vetro, plastica, cosaarbre, ciel, plante, herbe, rocher, verre, plastique, chose
day, week, month, year, hour, minute, second, today, tomorrow, yesterday, later, earliergiorno, settimana, mese, anno, ora, minuto, secondo, oggi, domani, ieri, dopo, primajour, semaine, mois, année, heure, minute, seconde, aujourd’hui, demain, hier, plus tard, plus tôt
big, small, high, low, thin, narrow, cold, hot, empty, full, good, badgrande, piccolo, alto, basso, magro, stretto, freddo, caldo, vuoto, pieno, buono, cattivogrand, petit, haut, bas, mince, étroit, froid, chaud, vide, plein, bon, mauvais
rich, poor, near, far, happy, sad, kind, malicious, hard, soft, easy, difficultricco, povero, vicino, lontano, felice, triste, simpatico, cattivo, duro, morbido, facile, difficileriche, pauvre, proche, loin, heureux, triste, gentil, méchant, dur, doux, facile, difficile
less, more, too (also), already, occasionally, later, earlier, few, many, some, oftendi meno, di più, anche, già, di tanto in tanto, poco, molto, qualche, spessomoins, plus, aussi, déjà, de temps en temps, peu, beaucoup, certains, souvent
Italian and French Nouns – similarities and differences

The above is a list of common words that we tend to learn before others when learning a language.

As you can see from that list, Italian and French have a lot of words that are clearly related — related enough that it would be easy to learn one language if you knew the other.

That said, the words often look different, and in every case are pronounced quite differently. Grammar is the final straw. Français n’est past trop facile, ma neanche Italiano è troppo facile.

Pronunciation and Alphabet in Italian and French — Quite Different

Finally, let’s look at pronunciation rules between French and Italian.

Here’s a quick overview of similarities and differences in French and Italian pronunciation

By and large, French and Italian are very different sounding languages. French is almost soft and blurry in comparison to Italians crisp, staccato pronunciation.

French is far more phonetic than is English, but it’s still not a phonetic language in either direction.

In French, it’s relatively easy to pronounce what’s written down, but it’s much harder to write down what you hear.

To read French, you have to a) know the rules, b) be able to make the sounds (the nasal sounds and the “r” in particular take practise), and c) know the exceptions (like why we pronounce the “ll” in mille but not in fille).

But even if you can read French out loud, writing French when you hear it is much harder.

For example, many everyday conjugations of the same word sound the same! Je mange, tu manges, il mange, ils mangent — apart from the pronoun, these all sound the same.

Here is what is unique about French pronunciation:

  • There are silent letters at the ends of many words — e.g. trop, parfum, froid, poulet, vous, prix, chez
  • Stress is usually on the last syllable.
  • The letter “r” is wildly different and I think unique to French. It’s a glottal fricative. (“What did you call me, you… glottal fricative?”)
  • Different vowel clusters can sound the same — e.g. au and eau (not to mention eaux),
  • There are nasal sounds, e.g. ain/ein/im, en/en, an/and, on, un (and they all sound unique!)
  • There is liaison to prevent sequential consonant sounds, like des oeufs has a silent “s”, but the “s” is pronounced in des verres
  • The letter h is silent at the beginning of words (and before a vowel, which I think is always the case…), e.g. herbe and huile
  • Both t and th are pronounced the same (tête, thé)
  • The letter “o” changes in pronunciation between different words, e.g. in bon mot, or if it has a hat on it ô
  • The letter group “ll” is usually pronounced like a “y”, but sometimes the letters are pronounced like “l” as nature intended.
  • There are a few special letters and accents, like ê, î, ï, ô, ç, é, è, á, à, u

That’s not even all the rules, nor a guide to French pronunciation. That’s just a hint that things can get hard!

Similarly, in French, things like past participles (mangé) are pronounced the same as infinitives (manger). I often see spelling mistakes (or maybe typos) in the written text even by native French speakers.

Conversely, in Italian, there is a 1:1 written:spoken relationship. If you hear it, you can write it, and vice versa.

You may have to know a few grammar rules (e.g. not to use “y” instead of “i”), but those are trivial.

The clarity and 100% phonetic nature of Italian makes it a lot easier for a beginner to learn how to speak. In fact, it makes spelling less of a challenge in general.

Here are the main features of Italian pronunciation:

  • The r is heavily trilled, especially when there are two (Arrivederci!). This is called an “alveolar tap” (don’t you love these names that tell you nothing?)
  • Accent is usually on the second-to-last syllable
  • Spoiler alert, there’s a lot of sing-songy intonation in Italian!
  • Double letters get extra stress (e.g. elle, essi)
  • A ch is pronounced “k” before a vowel (e.g. anche)
  • The cluster qu is pronounced kw as you’d expect (unlike in Spanish) (questa, quando)
  • There are a few unusual clusters, like gl (gli, “the” in plural form, or him/it), and gh (ghiaccio, “ice”), gn (gnocchi), and sc (conoscere)
  • There is liaison, different to French, but with the same spirit of avoiding awkward pronunciation, like in l’ospedale (contraction of il ospedale)
  • Vowels and consonants are pronounced consistently (roughly the same as in Spanish), except:
  • The o sound changes between an open or closed form

My favourite guidance for mastering pronunciation in either French OR Italian is to a) mimic native speakers and b) exaggerate it! Channel your inner French man or Italian woman and exaggerate everything, making hand gestures as you go. It will sound crazy to you and totally natural to anyone native!

If you’re looking for a good source of sentences in Italian or French to repeat, try Speechling. It’s totally free (they’re an educational non-profit), but you get some stuff like offline content and more tutor reviews if you go paid.

Sign up to Speechling – it’s free!

Sign up to Speechling with the link below. Get access to thousands of sentences, review from a real tutor, and their apps — for free.

Italian and French Alphabet differences

Both French and Italian are Latin languages and use the Latin alphabet. You can mostly read it!

But French and Italian each have some letters unique to them that aren’t present in the other (or in English). Some of these are just accents. Here they are.

Here are most of the common letters and accents unique to French:

LetterPronunciation/usage
ras in rouge. Not a unique letter, but a unique pronunciation makes it almost totally different!
çthe cedille, most often seen in ça, and always pronounced like “s”. Not just ça, though, so don’t feel déçu (disappointed)
épronounced more open than normal “e”. e.g. élève
àpronounced the same as a, but distinguishes it; this one means as in “at”
èshort e sound, same as é sound, like in j’achète
ùno pronunciation difference. fairly unusual other than in the super common
âsimply a spelling feature, as in gâteau – no pronunciation difference
êjust a spelling feature, e.g. forêt, pronounced the same
îjust a spelling feature, e.g. s’il vous plaît, pronounced the same
ôjust a spelling feature, e.g. hôpital, pronounced the same
ûspelling feature, e.g. sûr, pronounced the same
ïemphasis on the i, e.g. maïs, separating out the a and i, and distiguishing it from mais
üemphasis on the u, e.g. aigüe, although I’m not sure if it’s on any other words
œan oe sound, this character is seen in boeuf and soeur, though isn’t necessary
Letters unique to French

There are a few other letters/accents to add to the above list, but that should cover enough. Some are very rarely used.

The important thing to realise is that practically speaking, the use of many diacritical marks isn’t governed by any useful rule. There’s no logical (other than historical) reason why we spell those words , gâteau, or élève. I sometimes forget where the accents are, and so I type it how I remember it being said, and autocorrect fixes it for me. If you’re taking a hand-written exam, you might have some memorisation in front of you.

(Note — you might know of some rules. I’d be interested if there were a rule of general application that’s useful for more than a few words. If so, tell me! Otherwise, I’m happy to just remember how to spell a few words and move on…)

Italian has fewer unique letters. In fact, it doesn’t have any unique letters not found in English or French; just accents that are acute and grave.

When there is an accent (whether acute or grave), emphasis moves to the final syllable.

Also, acute accents are pronounced “open”, whereas grave accents are pronounced closed.

LetterMeaning/used when
è“is” (from the verb “to be”), or caffè
àEmphasis on the last syllable E.g. realtà
ùEmphasis on the last syllable. E.g. virtù
éUsed in question words, like perché
òE.g. però
Letters unique to Italian

And of course Italian has the letter r. It is pronounced differently to French. But so many other languages have a trilled r that I can’t say it’s unique to Italian.

Wrap-up

This has been quite a high-level overview of the differences betweeen French and Italian. An academic would be able to speak to the history of the derivation of both Latin languages, but I’m not that academic!

If you have anything more you’d like to know though (or if you found a typo), feel free to contact us, or leave a comment below.


A bit about me as an Italian and French speaker

French: I speak French at a professional level, meaning I work in the language without any trouble.

I first learned French when I found a book in my apartment that was simply titled Français — Troisième Livre. I read it and did the exercises because I had a boring job that had me sitting at a desk doing not much. I knew decent Spanish at that point, so the fact that it was the “third book” didn’t seem to matter.

Later, I went to New Caledonia for a few months to do “volunteer work” for my then (now ex-) religious community (Baha’is). It was basically me just hanging out with people speaking French in paradise for two months. Great for my French, but I really have no idea what help I was being.

And finally, I really bedded in my French on a year of exchange in France at INSA-Lyon, where I even did my Engineering thesis in French.

Italian: I speak Italian at a professional level, but never studied it formally. But I did study it!

Actually, I learned Italian on a plane on the way to Italy, reading a book (Teach Yourself Italian) and cramming the rules as I went.

Well, kinda. That’s not the whole story. Before that, I had

  • Learned French fluently, and studied for a year in France a few years back
  • Learned Spanish fluently, and lived/worked in Spain for five months, and
  • Listened to the Italian news radio casually on the way to university, trying to make sense of it, and getting used to the flow of the language along the way.

I had previously refused to learn Italian because it wasn’t “useful” for me. But then I got the chance to go to Italy (and only Italy, no other options) on exchange for half a year. I grabbed it. Time to finally learn the language! So I bought that book, and read the language rules on the plane. Knowing French and Spanish, it was easy to roughly take the average and figure out Italian.

When I arrived in Italy, I stayed with a family for a week while letting my conversational Italian slowly bed in. They didn’t speak with me in English at all! After that, I used Italian in day to day life during my semester-long exchange to listen to the news, negotiate with landlords, buy food, and make a few friends in the local community (it was a small town).

Since then, I’ve mostly kept it up. I’m not going to teach Italian to anyone but I enjoy speaking it to someone new every now and then.

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