Is French hard to learn?

It’s never easy to learn a new language, but French isn’t as hard as it seems… although its grammar can be very confusing.

Last updated July 29th, 2022

If we are to believe the U.S. Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI) School of Language Studies (and why shouldn’t we?), French, like many Romance languages, is a language “more similar to English” than others. They FSI states that French typically requires 30 weeks (750 classroom hours) of study to achieve professional working proficiency (B2 on the CEFR scale), “though the actual time can vary based on a number of factors, including the language learner’s natural ability, prior linguistic experience, and time spent in the classroom”.

The FSI scale ranks French as a “category I language”, considered “more similar to English” compared to categories III and IV “hard” or “super-hard languages”. According to the FSI, French is one of the easiest languages to learn for a native English speaker. Yet with an average of 30 weeks to achieve proficiency (instead of 24), it’s still hard to master the language. All in all, it’s a long journey from learning how to say hello in French to achieving a professional working proficiency.

We now have a rough idea of how long it takes to learn French, but in the estimates provided by the FSI, learners are typically American diplomats that dedicate 25 hours per week to studying in a specialized institute… in other words, not everyone.

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You’ll be delighted to know that learning French is not out of your reach. It’s actually considered a fairly easy language to learn for English speakers.

Why is French considered easy to learn?

French and English share the same alphabet: the only difference is that you’ll find accents on vowels and le c cédille (ç). Other than that, all 26 letters remain the same.

While English is originally a Germanic language, the language has evolved throughout the centuries under the influences of other Germanic languages, including Latin and French. Old English started developing during the Middle ages following William the Conqueror’s conquest of England in 1066, and the language has evolved ever since.

The French lexicon has significantly contributed to English. It is estimated that one to two-thirds of modern English vocabulary has French roots. There are many similarities between both languages, although some words have changed spellings and pronunciation (girafe, bœuf, protocole, etc.).

The opposite is also true, as English has become the most spoken language in the world: many French words are of English origin (une place de parking, un gentleman, un hamburger, un job…).

As a native English speaker, these words are significant assets to expand your vocabulary. Beware of false friends – some words look identical in both languages, but their meanings are very different!

Method

Bear in mind too that some English words are very similar to French, and can help you along your journey towards French fluency.

While you’ll soon realize that learning French in a day is quite impossible, you can improve your French drastically depending on the material you use to learn the language. At the end of the day, it’s not about how fast you learn French but about how you learn French.

Frantastique makes learning French online easy, but read on to learn what challenges still await.

Why is French hard to learn?

Many find French hard to learn because of the complex grammar and linguistic nuances that don’t exist in English, especially for those who have never studied another European language specifically Romance languages like Spanish or Portuguese.

Spoken French can also be challenging! Some sounds, such as the nasal sounds , the “R” or some frequently silent letters are particularly difficult for English speakers.

Here are some of the language’s notorious difficulties:

False friends

False friends are words that look identical or similar but have different meanings, which can make a sentence misleading and tricky for beginner learners of the French language! Some examples below:

  • Actuellement means now, currently, not “actually”
  • Hasard means chance, coincidence, random not “hazard”
  • Pain means bread, not actual physical “pain” (Both are turn-ons. Don’t judge us).

[Je suis actuellement à la boulangerie, je vais prendre un pain au hasard.]
doesn’t translate as [I am actually at the bakery, I’m going to take a hazardous pain.]
but instead [I am currently at the bakery, I’m going to choose a loaf of bread randomly.]

There are many more false friends: discover more of these backstabbing words in our list of confusable terms.

Did you know? “False friends” were named because French linguists originally coined them as “false friend of translators” due to their misleading nature.

Conjugation

There are many forms and tenses in French – you won’t need them all on a daily basis, but they are nevertheless good to know in case you need to describe the subjunctive, conditional nature of life. The sequence of tenses is more complex due to the sheer number present in the French language.

There are around 200 common irregular verbs in English, and regular verbs always conjugate in the same way. French has many more irregular verbs, and conjugation can be very difficult to memorize.

With this in mind, you don’t have to worry about the intricate gears of French conjugation, because many of these forms and tenses are exclusively used in literature, and in order to speak conversational French, you’ll only need a few.

You can always get some help with an online conjugator – you’ll soon find French conjugation isn’t that hard!

Gymglish creates short, fun, personalized online language courses. Our goal: your motivation, participation and progress

Differences in the use of gender between French and English

In English, “he” and “she” are generally used to denote gender for people, while in French all nouns are gendered. The neutral “it” is used for any inanimate objects, ideas or concepts in English, while “they” and “them” can be used when someone’s gender is unknown or not explicit.

In French, there is no neutral “they” or “it” – the pronoun “on” may be wrongly introduced as an equivalent to “it”, but it is actually an impersonal pronoun which can be used as an informal replacement for “we”, “you”, “they”, “someone”, or “people in general”.

Gender for living beings

The differentiation of genders (masculine or feminine) is generally quite straightforward in English: a man / a woman, a male gorilla / a female gorilla…

All living beings have a grammatical gender in French, and in many cases, it’s a simple rule of doubling the final consonant and adding an “e” at the end:

  • un chien / une chienne (a dog)
  • un chat / une chatte (a cat)
  • un lion / une lionne (a lion)

Sometimes, the grammatical gender is specified as an adjective but the noun remains the same:

  • un gorille mâle / une gorille femelle (a gorilla)
  • une girafe mâle / une girafe femelle (a giraffe)
  • une hirondelle mâle / une hirondelle femelle (a swallow)

Finally, some words are spelled differently depending on the gender:

  • un homme (a man) / une femme (a woman)
  • un cheval (a horse) / une jument (a mare)
  • un cerf (a deer) / une biche (a doe)

Trees are generally masculine (un sapin, un chêne, un pommier, un olivier…) with some exceptions, whereas fruits and flowers tend to be feminine (une rose, une tulipe, une pomme, une olive…) unless considered exotic (un ananas, un avocat, un durian…) but with exceptions as usual (un citron, un kiwi, un tournesol, un pissenlit…).

However, the genders for inanimate objects, concepts and ideas is often arbitrary:
Une baguette, un pain au chocolat, une table, un tabouret, une idée, un projet, une chanson, un film, un avion, une voiture…

alien crushed grammaire française

Unfortunately, gendered nouns might be the hardest thing to fully master. Learning the grammatical gender of every single word is probably going to take a while: even native speakers can sometimes get confused with the gender of a word.

Plurals and Subject – Verb agreement

In English, the rule is easy: adding -s or -es works most of the time, with some rare irregular nouns (men, knives, teeth, mice) or some nouns which don’t have a plural form.

As for collective nouns, it’s rarely a guessing game: a school of fish, a murder of crows, a pride of lions, a convocation of eagles, a pack of dogs, a regiment of flamingos…

The general rule of thumb in French is to add -s at the end of a word to make it plural, however, there are a few exceptions — many of them are covered in our lessons, especially the plural form.

In American English, collective nouns tend to be singular, whereas in British English they tend to be plural. Some exceptions do exist for specific nouns: a family can be singular or plural depending on the context, however une famille will always be singular in French.

Examples:

  • Her family is the most famous in the world. || Sa famille est la plus célèbre au monde.
  • Her family are all French. || Sa famille est entièrement française.

Other regular French collective nouns (plupart, ensemble, une majorité, une minorité, etc.) can be either singular or plural depending on the context, much like their English counterparts.

Accord (agreement)

Adjectives don’t have plural forms and gender differentiation in English. Generally speaking, verbs end with an -s when conjugated in the third-person singular form, or are irregular at most.

French words connect with each other, and therefore drastically change the way some words are spelled. Articles, adjectives and verbs change according to the noun they come with, and if that wasn’t difficult enough, the language has its own share of irregular verbs (verbes du troisième groupe); Also, some adjectives don’t have any gender differentiation.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg – there are more rules dictating how a verb should be conjugated depending on the structure of the sentence (syntax)!

Examples:

  • A small man. A small woman. || Un petit homme. Une petite femme.
  • My mum and my sister went to the theater. || Ma maman et ma soeur sont allées au cinéma.
  • They have come to help us. || Ils sont venus nous aider.

Pronunciation

French pronunciation plays on a fairer ground in French and all French-speaking countries. The rules tend to be quite clear and it’s actually much easier than it seems, even with all the silent consonants and the very similar sounds such as “é”, “è” and “ê”.

Many nouns, particularly proper nouns and place names are difficult to pronounce for English native speakers (Montpellier, montrachet, Bourg-la-Reine, examen) and some other exceptions where the rules don’t necessarily apply (OIgnon, MONsieur, seCond, tAON).

Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, bough, cough, hough, sough, tough??

Hiccough has the sound of sup…
My advice is: GIVE IT UP!

– Gerard Nolst Trenité, The Chaos (1922)

Although it may appear tough, through some thorough thoughts, you will realize the English language has its own set of odd pronunciation. If you’ve managed to get over the fact that “ough” can be pronounced in eleven different ways, you ought to do great in French too!

With this said, both English and French use various kinds of stress and inflections for certain terms, though rarely in French is the same word pronounced differently based on its meaning! For example: “Content” (material) and “content” (happy), are said differently based on whether we’re using the noun or adjective.

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Spelling

Much like pronunciation, spelling in French can be scary because of the many silent consonants, but then again, English also has its fair share of difficult words to spell. Remember “ough”?

So… is it hard to learn French?

While it’s true that French is a hard language to master (even for native speakers), the good news is that you don’t necessarily need to master a language to be able to use it in conversational or professional contexts. Also, bear in mind that if you only need to learn some basic French for traveling, you don’t need to be fluent!

Languages are never easy to learn, but some can be easier than others, and French is among the easier languages to learn for native English speakers.

Practice is key to learning a language faster and better, and you shouldn’t be scared of speaking broken French. Many French speakers will actually find the mistakes you make – and your accent – charming!

So what are you waiting for? Begin your journey towards French fluency by reading a few French books for beginners!

French made easy with Frantastique

Frantastique delivers short, personalized and fun lessons to learn French.

Our goal: your motivation, participation and progress.

How does it work?

  1. Each day you’ll receive a lesson adapted to your needs, level and goals.
  2. Once it’s completed, you’ll immediately receive personalized corrections and explanations.
  3. Your lessons are customized based on your strengths and weaknesses.
  4. You’ll get a certificate of completion when you finish the course.

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