Many people struggle with French, while others say it’s one of the easiest languages to learn. Why is that? Who is right and who is wrong? Realistically and objectively speaking, is French hard to learn? Which factors come into play?
French is one of the most popular languages worldwide, but despite that, some people are in a love-hate relationship with it. If this is your case or if you’d simply like to know what learning French is like before diving in, then you’ve come to the right place! The truth might surprise you. Allons-y!
Is French Hard to Learn?
You can ask people all over the world the same question, and you will get different answers depending on whom you ask. Spanish speakers will tell you it’s easy, while Chinese speakers will probably tell you otherwise. But why is that? Well, the key factor here is their native language.
It’s true that those who speak Romance languages (Spanish, Italian, Portuguese) natively have an advantage over, let’s say, Chinese or Russian speakers when it comes to learning French. Romance languages share similar vocabulary and grammar rules making French easier to learn.
It’s a different story when non-Romance language speakers try to learn French. Their languages don’t resemble French, so it’s logical that it’s harder for them to learn it.
In the case of English speakers, French is classified by linguists as a Category I language to learn, meaning it’s easy, even though some people don’t agree with that.
How Long Does It Take to Learn French?
Again, the answer here will vary, but for the sake of simplicity, we will focus on English speakers learning French. According to the U.S. FSI (Foreign Service Institute), it takes English speakers between 24 and 30 weeks to learn French, provided they study between 600 and 750 hours. That means the minimum time is around 25 hours per week. Does that sound like a lot?
The difficulty level of French is the same as that of Danish, Dutch, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, and Swedish. If you would like to see the full FSI list, you can check out this link.
As you can see, it largely depends on how much time you dedicate to studying French. Realistically speaking, it takes the average English speaker between six months and one year.
What Is Hard About French?
There’s this joke about French that says it’s hard because half of the letters of every word are not pronounced. Even though French is classified as an easy language for English speakers, there are several things they struggle with when learning it. Some of them include:
- Gender and number agreement.
- False friends.
- Verb conjugations.
- Passé composé.
Let’s explain each one of them in more detail.
For starters, French, unlike English, is a nasal language. Those an/en/in/un sounds don’t exist in English. I would say these sounds are probably the hardest to master.
But that’s not all. H is silent. English speakers tend to pronounce it, but in French, we don’t pronounce it.
The sound of French U doesn’t exist in English. English speakers sometimes forget this and try to pronounce it the way they do in English.
Probably, the most peculiar French sound is that of R. To make this sound, you have to gargle. The problem comes when you want to speak at a faster speed.
Last but not least, pronunciation varies between European French and Canadian French. European French is more standardized, but Canadian French is a different story. Sounds complicated?
French has several accent marks that you have to memorize. They are listed below:
- ç, la cédille
- é, l’accent aigu
- â/ê/î/ô/û, l’accent circonflexe
- à/è/ì/ò/ù, l’accent grave
- ë/ï/ü, l’accent tréma
Do they matter? Yes, they do! Not only do they matter in writing but in spoken French, too. They will determine the way you have to pronounce a word.
Gender and Number Agreement
In French, everything is either masculine or feminine. For example, a man is heureux (happy), but a woman is heureuse (happy). Countries, days of the week, and even things have genders. You have to understand this because spelling varies depending on the gender of the word.
English has the article the, but French has le, la, l’, and les. You have to know the gender of a noun to decide which article you will use before it.
Nouns also have to agree in number. For example, in English, we say the green car/the green cars, but in French, we say la voiture verte/les voitures vertes. Unlike English, French adjectives can be singular or plural.
Gender/number agreement also applies to verbs. Thus, a man would write Je suis allé (I went), but a woman would write Je suis allée. The pronunciation is the same, but the spelling is not.
It is estimated that about 45% of all English words have a French origin. Even though they share a lot of vocabulary, some words can mean different things in each language. These are known as false friends or false cognates.
For example, assister means “to attend”, not “to assist/help”; attendre means “to wait”, not to attend; blesser means “to hurt”, not to bless. The list of false friends goes on and on. You have to be careful with those.
COD and COI
Direct and indirect objects, simply known as COD and COI, are some of the hardest things to learn in French. You have to consider genders, numbers, and tenses when using them. Not only that, but their position in a sentence also varies.
For example, I showed it to him would translate as Je le lui ai montré or Je la lui ai montré depending on whether the thing you showed is masculine or feminine.
Mastering COD and COI takes a lot of practice.
Each grammatical person (I, you, he, etc.) has a different verb conjugation. You have to memorize the endings for each one of them. For example, in English, the conjugations of to eat in the present tense are eat and eats. However, in French, we conjugate manger as je mange (I eat), tu manges (you eat, singular), vous mangez (you eat, plural), il/elle mange (he/she eats), nous mangeons (we eat), and ils/elles mangent (they eat).
The same concept applies to conjugations for past, future, and other tenses. You have to memorize the endings for each grammatical person.
To further complicate things, there are approximately 350 irregular French verbs. These verbs don’t follow the same conjugation patterns that regular verbs do.
Talking about the past in French is not easy. For some verbs, we use the auxiliary verb avoir, while for others we use être. And don’t forget (again!) about the gender/number agreement!
Generally speaking, we use the auxiliary être with verbs of movement. However, some verbs can use either one depending on the context. For example, sortir can either mean “to go out” or “to take out”. Thus you can say Je suis sorti ( I went out), but you can’t say Je suis sorti la poubelle (I took out the trash). In this case, the correct form is J’ai sorti la poubelle.
Overcome the Difficulties
Now that we discussed some of the most common things English speakers struggle with, you must be asking yourself what you can do to overcome the difficulties of learning French. Here are a few tips that will help you:
- Expose yourself to the language as much as possible. Watch videos, listen to podcasts, read books. Make French part of your everyday life. In no time, it will become second nature.
- Practice is key. If you are serious about learning French, you have to practice as much as possible. It doesn’t matter how many mistakes you make. There is no turnaround to that.
- Find a motivation. Why do you want to learn French? Would you like to date a French guy/girl? Would you like to visit France or even move there? If you aren’t motivated, you won’t go far.
- Make a plan. You will be more successful if you have a goal and a plan to reach that goal. A teacher can help you do that.
- Don’t give up. Learning is a journey. Enjoy every single part of it.
So, is French hard to learn? The answer to this question is subjective and will depend on each person’s background.
Even though English and French share a lot of things, some things about French are hard for English speakers. However, through practice and a detailed plan, you can make it happen.
French may not be as hard as Chinese or Russian, but it can be challenging for English speakers. Don’t let others tell you it’s not hard. We all speak from experience.
If you struggle with French, there are several things you can do. It may be hard but not impossible to learn.
What do you think? Is French hard for you? Let me know in the comments below. Au revoir, les amis!
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