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How Hard is it to Learn French (Really)?

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Is French hard to learn, or is it easy? Which parts are harder for foreign learners, and which are easier?  

Whether you’re just contemplating the idea of learning French, or are struggling with something and looking for comfort, you’ve come to the right place.

With 230 million speakers, French is the official language of twenty-eight countries. It’s also a very prominent language in the international business and cultural scenes, making it a must-learn language for anybody interested in foreign cultures.

Overall, French is generally considered to be mildly challenging, but to be honest, it greatly depends on your native language. Students from English-speaking countries will enjoy a big headstart for many reasons that we’ll explain shortly. And if you’re a native speaker of a Romance language (Spanish, Italian, etc.), it’s not even a head start—it’s an unfair advantage!

In this article, I’ll do my best to give the language a fair trial and examine what makes French difficult and what things are easy about it. This knowledge will allow you to assess how hard it truly is to learn French!

Log in to Download Your Free Cheat Sheet - Learning French Table of Contents
  1. The Easy Parts of Learning French
  2. Challenging Parts of Learning French
  3. What are the Best Ways to Get Started?
  4. Why is FrenchPod101 Great for Learning French?
  5. Le Mot De La Fin

1. The Easy Parts of Learning French

A Trio of College Students Having Fun While Learning

It’s easier to learn when you’re having fun!

Is French really that hard to learn? Not according to the FSI (Foreign Service Institute) or the ELC (European Language Center). French consistently scores as “Easy” in these two rankings of the most accessible languages for native English-speakers.

In their language difficulty ranking, the Foreign Service Institute puts French in the top ten easiest languages to learn for English-speakers, alongside notoriously easy languages such as Spanish and Italian. The FSI determines that it should take around twenty-four weeks (~600 hours) for an average student to reach a general professional proficiency (speaking and reading).

Why is that? Let’s go through the main reasons why French is much easier than you might think.

1 – French is a Romance Language

If you’re reading this article, chances are your understanding of English is quite solid already. Good news: this gives you a huge headstart on many things that are typically difficult to learn, such as the Latin alphabet or the core grammatical structures.

And if you’re a native speaker of another Romance language such as Spanish, Portuguese, or Romanian (the list goes on), your luck keeps on coming! For example, the French language is so similar to Spanish that before I ever learned any of it, I was able to read some simple Spanish text and understand a good half of it.

Knowing a Romance language before beginning your French studies also allows you to show off your understanding of complicated technical terms you’d normally have no business knowing—just because these terms are almost identical across Romance languages.

As an English-speaker, if you try to learn an Asian language, such as Mandarin, you’ll be thrown into uncharted waters with nothing to hold on to. Believe me, I tried. The alphabet is different, there are no familiar words or sounds, and the grammar seems completely alien. Sentences can sometimes omit a verb or subject, and it takes a lot of persistence to assimilate the grammar logic. But when learning French, you’ll be on familiar ground.

2 – Lots of Words are Identical in English and French

Many linguists are still arguing about the exact origins of the English language, but you may have noticed how many French words can be found there. It’s all over the place! It’s believed that nearly thirty percent of English words have a French origin.

Any of these words look familiar?

  • Un lion
  • Un dragon
  • Un capitaine
  • La justice
  • Le commerce
  • La musique
  • Une terrasse
  • Une carotte

As you learn French, you’ll truly appreciate this wealth of free vocabulary that you don’t really have to learn. And believe me, there’s a hefty list. English vocabulary has more in common with French than with any other Romance language.

A bit of history?

To be honest, many of these words are technical terms that you’re not likely to use every day. This is because English began as a Germanic language, and as a result, many of English’s core elements are of German roots. These elements include its grammatical structures and the most crucial words (prepositions, auxiliaries, pronouns, and more).

Then, later on, during the reign of William the Conqueror, the first Norman King of England, French began being spoken in court and quickly became fashionable for the upper class to learn. It was spoken in schools and universities, which explains why many of the borrowed French words are scientific and technical terms.

Image of French Nobility with Wigs

Inexplicable vintage French fashion

3 – Grammar Structures are Similar

At first, you might find French grammar confusing, and this is mainly because the word order can differ. However, the basic structures are very similar in English and French!

The French language has subjects, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, and all that good stuff. I used to take it for granted before I started studying languages from different roots (Asian, Slavic, etc.), and now, I really appreciate little things like having a subject and a verb in my sentences!

Just look at simple sentences like:

  • Je marche doucement.
    “I walk slowly.”
  • Elle a une grande maison.
    “She has a big house.”
  • Nous avons perdu un peu de poids.
    “We have lost a bit of weight.”

It’s no coincidence if you can translate these sentences word-for-word.

And as you can see, whether we’re looking at adjectives or adverbs, they behave in very similar ways. Only the word order will differ in some cases.

4 – Conjugation is Much Easier Than it Seems

Has your first contact with French conjugation been a shock? Did you get anxious looking at all the specific endings, as well as the plethora of convoluted tenses? I get it, it’s intimidating. But don’t let it scare you away!

Sure, the verb endings will be challenging at first, until you realize that a vast majority of them behave in the exact same way. 

Like in any other language, the most common verbs are also the most irregular (just think about “to be” or “to go” in English…it’s quite a mess). You’ll have to learn these irregular conjugations before you get to the easy ones, but at least you know there’s a nice and cozy plateau at the top of this hill. 🙂

And what about all the tenses? What if I told you that out of the seventeen French tenses, you only need five to deal with any situation on a daily basis (and even less in spoken French)! Almost all of the complicated stuff is for literary purposes.

So, what do you think? Is French hard for English-speakers to learn, after all?

2. Challenging Parts of Learning French

Now, let’s have an honest look at the more complex aspects of the French language and how you can soften the blow with some quick and dirty tricks.

1 – False Friends are Worse than Open Enemies

Remember those thirty percent of English words with a French origin? Well, it turns out that it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s great to have this free vocabulary. But on the other hand, many similar—or even identical—words have different meanings! 

We call them faux-amis (“false friends”).

For example: J’aime le pain et le poisson. 

This doesn’t mean: “I love pain and poison.” It means: “I love bread and fish.”

Similarly, you should not confuse “Preservative” (Conservateur) with Préservatif (“Condom”) or you might make embarrassing mistakes at a fancy Sunday dinner.

Here are some of the worst offenders:

You should not confuse…With…
Une librairie (“A bookshop”)“A library” (Une bibliothèque)
Une fabrique (“A factory”)“Fabric” (Le tissu)
Sensible (“Sensitive”)“Sensible” (Raisonnable; Sensé)
Actuellement (“Currently”)“Actually” (En fait; Effectivement)
Attendre (“To wait”)“To attend” (Assister à)
Prétendre (“To claim”)“To pretend” (Faire semblant)

    → Do you want to know more? Here’s an extensive list of the French-English false friends.
Fish

“Hi, I’d like three pounds of poison, please!”

2 – Everything Has a Gender

If your native language has gendered nouns, like the majority of European languages, this aspect of French should not particularly frustrate you. However, this is something English-speakers often find confusing.

I mean, why is le soleil (“the sun”) masculine and la lune (“the moon”) feminine? What about une voiture (“a car”) being feminine while un vélo (“a bicycle”) is masculine? 

If you were to take a deep linguistic dive into the language’s history and its roots, you’d probably find a lot of good reasons for all of this. But for now, let’s just say it’s arbitrary.

Oh, and that’s not it. Gender has an influence on many parts of the language, such as the ending of verbs and adjectives, pronouns, or articles. For example:

  • Ma voiture est verte. (“My car is green.”)
  • Mon vélo est vert. (“My bicycle is green.”)

Look how the possessive pronouns ma and mon agree in gender with the noun. For the same reason, the adjective verte ends with an extra “e” in its feminine form.

3 – Pronunciation is Tough

Now, things are getting officially hairy. French pronunciation is tough, and there’s no way to sugarcoat it. One thing that might make you feel better about it is that it’s much easier than English pronunciation.

Yes, things like silent letters, the infamous guttural R, and there being around twelve ways to spell any given sound can make words in French hard to pronounce—but at least it’s consistent. For example, there are specific letter combinations that almost always create the same sound. Once you get used to the rules, you can start to rely on them.

  • Un chateau / Un bateau / Un blaireau / De l’eau
    All of these words end with the same letters AND the same [o] sound.

Sure, if you dig deep enough, you’ll always find some exceptions here and there, but nothing remotely close to the level of inconsistency found in English pronunciation. Just think about how many different sounds are produced using the letter combination “ough.” The answer is eleven.

  • “Cough” / “Though” / “Through” / “Plough”
    And the list goes on.

Check out this video if you’re not convinced yet.

Back to French, there are a few common pronunciation mistakes and pitfalls to avoid. It will take some practice and getting used to, but nothing you can’t handle. 🙂

  • The French guttural [R]
  • Our three infamous nasal sounds
  • The two “ay” sounds, each with countless possible spellings
  • The many traps and snares of silent letters
    → Don’t miss our complete French Pronunciation Guide to learn about these common mistakes, the thirty-six sounds of the French language, and how to produce them all, with lots of examples and study material.
A Woman Getting Her Mouth Checked by a Doctor

Careful not to hurt your tongue speaking French!

4 – Weird Spelling and Twisted Accents

As I mentioned earlier, the French way of spelling words is not exactly straightforward. Each sound can be spelled in several different ways, and we use a set of special characters that don’t exist in English, such as ç, é, ê, and à, just to name a few.

Here’s a list of all the special French characters:

  • Accent aigu: é
  • Accent grave: à, è, ù
  • Accent circonflexe: â, ê, î, ô, û
  • Tréma: ë, ï, ü
  • Cédille: ç

The good news is that out of the twelve possible combinations of accentuated characters (and this is already not an overwhelming number), only a few are commonly used, while the rest are rather marginal. 

On a regular basis, you’ll deal mostly with é, è, ê, and à, and that’s it!

    → If you’re not afraid of the more complex aspects of the language, jump right into our list of the most common mistakes you make while learning French!

3. What are the Best Ways to Get Started?

Have you decided it may not be that hard to learn French, after all? Are you ready to start your language-learning journey, but don’t know where to begin? 

Here’s a brief overview of where you can start and how to make your learning endeavors successful! 

1 – Where to Start?

When learning a new language, your priority should be to learn a tight package of useful words and structures that you can use in as many sentences and situations as possible. 

Quickly learning the core features of the language—such as pronouns, auxiliary verbs, and the most common adjectives—will help you get started with practical tools you can use in almost every sentence. Learning these things early on will also allow you to recognize some important keywords while listening.

For starters, you could check our Top 100 articles and make yourself some flashcards with your personal top twenty verbs, nouns, and adjectives. This will provide you with a solid foundation to play with.

2 – Practice Makes Perfect

There’s no need to stuff yourself with vocabulary if you don’t create the opportunities to use it. I would recommend that you start making sentences from day one, using whatever basic words you’ve learned.

You can start small, with a modest Subject + Verb + Object structure, and then keep building upon it. Simple sentences will serve as a base for countless more complex statements.

For example:

  • Elle aime. (“She loves.”)
  • Elle aime les chats. (“She loves cats.”)
  • Elle aime beaucoup les chats. (“She loves cats a lot.”)
  • Elle aime beaucoup les gros chats. (“She loves fat cats a lot.”)

Every new word is an opportunity to practice your sentence-building skills! Not only will building sentences this way help you remember the word by putting it into context, but you’ll also be practicing French grammar and conjugation at the same time.

Image of a Man Walking a Trail with a Backpack and Map

Learning is a journey, not a destination.

3 – Speak From Day 1

You should take every single opportunity to practice, whether you’re living or traveling in France, or learning from home. In case of the latter, we recommend that you find a teacher or tutor whom you can practice with (perhaps using our MyTeacher program!).

You don’t need many words or a thorough understanding of French grammar to communicate. It’s fine to speak dirty French for a few months, as long as you get to talk. You can always refine your French by learning the grammar later on, but you don’t need any of it to get started.

No native speaker ever learned their language using grammar books. First, we learn by imitation, trials, and errors. Only later can we truly learn about the rules and how they apply to what we already empirically know.

4 – Exposure is Key

Last but not least, I believe exposure is the most important aspect of learning French (or any language, really). Immerse yourself in the language by listening to music or podcasts, watching movies and series, and reading articles or books.

This will help you practice your reading and listening skills, and will also teach you loads of vocabulary. At first, most of this will be passive vocabulary: words you can understand but not use. But as you keep bumping into these words, structures, or expressions, you’ll get to the point where you internalize them and can use them yourself.

If you only learn the language academically, it will always seem cold and abstract. But if you expose yourself to it through thought-provoking articles or entertaining material, it will create emotional connections and help you solidify your knowledge much more effectively than by just repeating exercises.

    → Have a look at our list of the best French series on Netflix, and you’ll find many suggestions for a fun immersion experience into the French culture!

4. Why is FrenchPod101 Great for Learning French?

To summarize, I would say that French is rather easy to learn but hard to master, which makes it fun and interesting in the long run, yet not too frustrating for students. And whether you want to learn the basics or refine your advanced knowledge of the language, FrenchPod101 has a lot to offer.

1 – An Integrated Approach

First of all, we offer an integrated approach. Instead of artificially splitting lessons between reading practice and listening practice, and so on, we blend several skills into every lesson. 

This makes learning French more natural and more effective. You’ll practice your listening skills with podcasts and recordings while reading text materials and completing writing exercises—all in one conveniently tight package.

2 – A Massive Offering of Free Content

Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced learner, FrenchPod101 offers a huge depth and breadth of content for all levels. From vocabulary lists to customizable flashcards, you’ll find a variety of free tools that can be tailored to your needs. Some of these resources can even be downloaded and used offline.

After you complete the assessment test, you’ll be directed to the level that matches your needs. From there, you’ll find a wide variety of pathways to follow, depending on the type of French you’re interested in (for casual encounters, professional interactions, romance, etc.).

3 – Premium Personal Coaching

As you go through the lessons on FrenchPod101.com, you’ll practice your reading, listening, and writing skills. Now, if you spice it up with the Premium MyTeacher service, you can also practice speaking and improve your pronunciation thanks to the feedback from your private tutor.

MyTeacher grants you the services of a French teacher to guide you through your journey of mastering the language of Love. You can send your teacher text or audio, get personalized exercises and assignments, and much more. Together, you’ll focus on the areas you need to work on the most and give your studies a serious boost.

A Woman Weightlifting While Being Spotted by a Coach

Flex these brain muscles with your personal coach on MyTeacher!

5. Le Mot De La Fin

In this guide, you’ve learned about the easiest and most challenging aspects of the French language and why it’s easier than you might think—from a common alphabet to a wealth of shared vocabulary, similar grammar structures, and only a few truly useful tenses.

Did we forget an important aspect of the language you’d like to know about? Do you feel ready to dive right in and start speaking right from the start using whatever few words you know?

Make sure to explore FrenchPod101, as we have plenty of free resources for you to practice your grammar and learn new words. Our vocabulary lists are also a great way to review new words and learn their pronunciation.

Remember that you can also use our premium service, MyTeacher, to get personal one-on-one coaching. Practice speaking French with your private teacher so they can give you personalized feedback and advice, and help you with pronunciation.

About the Author: Born and bred in the rainy north of France, Cyril Danon has been bouncing off various jobs before he left everything behind to wander around the wonders of the World. Now, after quenching his wanderlust for the last few years, he’s eager to share his passion for languages.

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