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 December 12th, 2019
If we believe the U.S. Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI) School of Language Studies (and honestly why wouldn’t we?), French is a language “more similar to English” and would usually require 30 weeks (750 class hours) to achieve professional working proficiency (S-3), “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 as “more similar to English”, as 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. And yet, with an average of 30 weeks to achieve proficiency (instead of 24), it’s also one of the hardest.
We now have a rough idea of how long it takes to learn French, but in the estimates provided by the FSI, learners are U.S. diplomats who dedicate 25 hours per week to studying in a specialised institute… in other words, not everyone.
However, you’ll be delighted to know learning French is not out of your reach. It’s actually considered as 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), but 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, but also Latin and French. Old English started developing during Middle English after William the Conqueror’s conquest of England in 1066, and the language has evolved since then.
The French lexicon has therefore significantly contributed to English. It is estimated that one to two thirds of the modern English vocabulary takes its roots from French. There are actually many similarities between both languages, although some words have changed (une girafe, du bœuf, un protocole, etc.).
The opposite is also true since 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 a significant asset to expand your vocabulary. Beware of false friends – some words look identical or very similar, but their definition might be very different!
Frantastique makes learning French online easy, but if you still want to know why it can get full of bread (see below), carry on.
Why is French hard to learn?
Many may find French hard to learn because of the complex grammar and other linguistic nuances that don’t exist in English, and especially for those who have never learned another European language (or more precisely, Roman language) such as Spanish or Portuguese.
Spoken French can also be challenging some sounds, such as the nasal sounds or the “R” or even some silent letters, don’t exist in English. Silent letters
Here are some of the language’s features which may be difficult to comprehend or may sound “foreign”:
False friends are words that look identical or similar but have different meanings, which can make a sentence misleading. 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 random type of bread.]
There are many more of these false friends: discover more of these backstabbing words in our list of confusable terms.
Did you know? “False friends” were named so because French linguists originally coined them as “false friend of translators” due to their misleading nature.
There are many forms and tenses in French, you won’t need to use them all on a daily basis, but it’s nevertheless confusing. The sequence of tenses is more complex due to the sheer number of French forms and tenses.
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 memorise as it can be confusing — although they can sometimes share some similarities with each other.
With this in mind, you shouldn’t have to worry about the intricate gears of French conjugation, because many of these forms and tenses are mainly used in literature, and in order to speak conversational French, you’ll only need a few.
You can always get some help thanks to an online conjugator.
Differences in the use of gender between French and English
In English, “he” and “she” are used for their respective genders for most cases, and the neutral “it” is used for any inanimate object, idea or concept. “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”.
The actual words define the gender of the subject as these words are gendered.
The differentiation of genders is generally quite straightforward in English: a man / a woman, a male gorilla / a female gorilla…
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 spelt completely 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 usually masculine (un sapin, un chêne, un pommier, un olivier…) with some questionable 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 given grammatical gender 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…
Unfortunately, it might be the hardest concept to grasp. 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.
In English, the rule is easy: adding -s or -es works most of the time, with some rare irregular nouns (men, knives, teeth, mice, cacti) or some other 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.
- 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.
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)… and 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)!
- 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 plays on a fairer ground in French – 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 words 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 realise the English language has a fair share of its own set of nonsensical pronunciations and if you 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 being said, one major difference between English and French in terms of pronunciation is that French doesn’t use any kind of stress or inflections – both the tonality and the rhythm of the spoken language are very plain.
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 on a conversational or a professional basis.
Languages are never easy to learn, but some can be easier than others, and French belongs to 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 gender mistakes you make – and your accent – charming!
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