Italian vs French — A Complete Comparison for Learners
This is an overview of Italian vs French from the perspective of a language learner — 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.
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 Italian and French 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: The 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.
Vocabulary in Italian and French overlaps. But the vocabulary 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.
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.
|I want to eat an apple||Voglio mangiare (verb) una mela (noun)||Je veux manger une pomme|
|I love anchovies so much I want to cry||Amo così tanto le acciughe che voglio piangere||J’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 Pronouns 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.
I don’t normally use grammatical terms, but in brief, 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)||Italian||French|
|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)|
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!
Past Participle Agreement in French and Italian
One interesting feature of both Italian and French is that the past participle agrees with direct object pronouns when the verb comes after them. This is interesting because neither language shares this with Spanish.
For example, take the sentence “Your keys? No, I haven’t seen them.” In Italian, French, and Spanish, the word “key” is feminine.
- Italian: “Le tue chiavi? No, non le ho viste.” (Agreement)
- French: “Tes clés ? Non, je ne les ai pas vues.” (Agreement)
- Spanish: “¿Tus llaves? No, no las he visto.” (No agreement)
Italian and French also share the fact that they can form the past participle with either essere/être (“to be”) or avere/avoir (“to have”), with similar rules about agreement.
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 pronunciation, 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.
|to need||avere bisogno||avoir besoin||Similar|
|to laugh||ridere||rire||Kinda similar…|
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).
|apple, banana, fruit, celery, pumpkin, spinach, beef, milk, eggs, cheese||mela, banana, sedano, zucca, spinaci, manzo, latte, uova, formaggio||pomme, banane, fruit, céleri, citrouille, épinard, boeuf, lait, oeufs, fromage|
|shop, street, car, light, sun, moon, house, bicycle, hospital, newspaper||negozio, strada, automobile, luce, sole, luna, casa, bicicletta, ospedale, giornale||magasin, rue, voiture, lumière, soleil, lune, maison, vélo, hôpital, journal|
|sofa, fridge, chair, pen, desk, paper, computer, wall, door||divano, frigo, sedia, penna, scrivania, carta, computer, muro, porta||canapé, réfrigérateur/frigo, chaise, stylo, bureau, papier, ordinateur, mur, porte|
|person, child, boy, girl, man, woman, father, mother, uncle, aunt||persona, bambino, ragazzo, ragazza, uomo, donna, padre, madre, zio, zia||personne, enfant, garçon, fille, homme, femme, père, mère, oncle, tante|
|money, business, wallet, cash, work/job, vacation/holiday||soldi, affari, portafoglio, contanti, lavoro, vacanze||argent, affaires, portefeuille, espèces, travail, vacances|
|tree, sky, plant, grass, rock, glass, plastic, thing||albero, cielo, pianta, erba, roccia, vetro, plastica, cosa||arbre, ciel, plante, herbe, rocher, verre, plastique, chose|
|day, week, month, year, hour, minute, second, today, tomorrow, yesterday, later, earlier||giorno, settimana, mese, anno, ora, minuto, secondo, oggi, domani, ieri, dopo, prima||jour, 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, bad||grande, piccolo, alto, basso, magro, stretto, freddo, caldo, vuoto, pieno, buono, cattivo||grand, petit, haut, bas, mince, étroit, froid, chaud, vide, plein, bon, mauvais|
|rich, poor, near, far, happy, sad, kind, malicious, hard, soft, easy, difficult||ricco, povero, vicino, lontano, felice, triste, simpatico, cattivo, duro, morbido, facile, difficile||riche, pauvre, proche, loin, heureux, triste, gentil, méchant, dur, doux, facile, difficile|
|less, more, too (also), already, occasionally, later, earlier, few, many, some, often||di meno, di più, anche, già, di tanto in tanto, poco, molto, qualche, spesso||moins, plus, aussi, déjà, de temps en temps, peu, beaucoup, certains, souvent|
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.
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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:
|r||as in rouge. Not a unique letter, but a unique pronunciation makes it almost totally different!|
|ç||the cedille, most often seen in ça, and always pronounced like “s”. Not just ça, though, so don’t feel déçu (disappointed)|
|é||pronounced more open than normal “e”. e.g. élève|
|à||pronounced the same as a, but distinguishes it; this one means “at”|
|è||short e sound, same as é sound, like in j’achète|
|ù||no pronunciation difference. fairly unusual other than in the super common où|
|â||simply a spelling feature, as in gâteau – no pronunciation difference|
|ê||just a spelling feature, e.g. forêt, pronounced the same|
|î||just a spelling feature, e.g. s’il vous plaît, pronounced the same|
|ô||just a spelling feature, e.g. hôpital, pronounced the same|
|û||spelling feature, e.g. sûr, pronounced the same|
|ï||emphasis on the i, e.g. maïs, separating out the a and i, and distinguishing it from mais|
|ü||emphasis on the u, e.g. aigüe, although I’m not sure if it’s on any other words|
|œ||an oe sound, this character is seen in boeuf and soeur, though isn’t necessary|
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 où, 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.
|è||“is” (from the verb “to be”), or caffè|
|à||Emphasis on the last syllable E.g. realtà|
|ù||Emphasis on the last syllable. E.g. virtù|
|é||Used in question words, like perché|
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.
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 further 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, kind of. 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.