So, What’s the Deal with French? Is it Easy to Learn?
The floor is open for inquiries.
Today, we’re taking questions from prospective French learners.
Regardless of how they ask, new language learners always want to know one thing: Is this going to be hard?
There are as many answers to this question as there are language students, and you need to consider many aspects of the language when answering it.
And of course, how you decide to learn a language has a big impact on the outcome. Starting on your French learning adventure by immersing yourself in a variety of awesome resources, such as YouTube videos and subtitled movies, will give you a big advantage.
But how easy is French to learn, really?
How easy is it for English speakers when compared to other languages?
How easy is it once you’ve moved beyond travel phrases and into more complex territory?
And the million-dollar question: Is it easier or harder than Spanish?
If you’ve never studied another language, I think French is a great beginner language!
But don’t just take my word for it.
Read on to find out why.
What makes a language easy or hard?
When judging the difficulty of a language, important criteria include language family, script and cultural origin. Take English. It’s an Indo-European language, born in Western culture, that uses the Latin alphabet. Say I was deciding between learning French and Japanese. If I didn’t know anything else, I’d guess French was easier because the alphabet is the same, French-speaking culture has a shared history with English-speaking culture and the structure is similar to English.
Romance languages are often considered “easier” than non-Romance languages for English speakers
The Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State uses the above criteria with its language difficulty ranking. Notice that French, along with the other Romance languages, is placed in category I: 23-24 weeks. That means 23-24 weeks for the average learner to become functionally proficient.
So if you started a class in January, and you work hard, you could hold a conversation by July. Compared to other languages, this is certainly a manageable commitment! Obviously this is just an estimate, and every French learner becomes conversational at different times.
How easy is French once you move past the basics?
The 23-24 weeks cited above will get you through the basics. But how hard is French at the advanced level? How hard are the tenses? The subjunctive mood?
I’ve personally also studied Spanish, and I found that Spanish, although it started off easier than French, became more difficult at the advanced level.
For example, Spanish has two verbs that mean “to be,” and knowing when to use which can be challenging. A similar problem arises with the two translations of the word “for.” Furthermore, Spanish makes heavier use of the dreaded subjunctive. French, on the other hand, had a steeper learning curve initially for me but became more manageable later on. For example, French has fewer verb tenses to learn.
The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) as implemented in French through the Diplôme d’Études en Langue Française (“Diploma of Study in the French Language,” DELF/DALF) provides a good estimate of the time required to move from one level to the next.
According to the guide presented here, reaching the intermediate level should take 310 class hours, or about a year of classes, and the advanced level could be attained after 690 hours, or about 2.5 years. So advanced French doesn’t take much more time to learn if you have the basics down.
What exactly is easy about learning French?
French has a lot going for it if you want a language that will let you start using it fast. Here are a few things that made it easy for me.
The vocab is very similar to English
After the Norman invasion of 1066, French vocab infiltrated English so much that a lot of the words we use are of French origin. This makes actually learning the vocabulary relatively easy. In fact, check this sentence out:
La situation est grave, mais pas désespérée.
(The situation is grave, but not desperate.)
Even if you’ve never studied French, you’ve seen these words before!
Much of French grammar follows recognizable rules
English speakers recognize familiar structures in French: nouns, verbs, adverbs, conjunctions, subjects, direct objects, prepositions. This isn’t always the case for languages farther removed from English. So with French, you’re already starting on familiar ground. People who have just started learning French might talk about verb conjugations, for example, as if they’ve never seen them before. But we conjugate in English, too. For example:
- Je suis (I am)
- Tu es (you are)
We just may never give it a name in our native language, because it’s instinctive.
French is relatively easy to read
Like in the sentence above, reading French is mostly straightforward. Even if you don’t know every word, getting the gist of it isn’t hard. This is mostly because of the similar vocabulary and identical alphabet. Try that with Russian! In fact, I was able to read French much earlier than I could actually speak or understand spoken French.
What might take more time to learn in French?
Like any language, some aspects will take more time. Here are some things that I personally found harder.
Knowing which past or future tense to use
To say “I will have,” you say, in the futur simple (“simple future”): “J’aurai.”
Or in the futur proche (“near future”): “Je vais avoir,” or “I am going to have.”
The first usually implies some possible but distant future event, and the second a more immediate event. However, both future tenses can be used in most contexts. Not too confusing, right?
Past tenses, however, took me more time. You have the passé composé (“compound past”), the imparfait (imperfect) and the passé simple (“simple past”). Usually, the imparfait refers to past events that happened consistently, and passé composé describes events that happened once. So when describing an event, imparfait sets the scene, and passé composé tells the flow of events.
What’s fortunate is that the passé simple is usually only used in narration, so you don’t have to worry about it right away. You can first focus on knowing when to use the imparfait or passé composé.
Figuring out the whole deal with the subjunctive
The subjunctive can be a sticking point for French learners. Basically, the subjunctive mood is used when uncertainty is expressed. This uncertainty can include desire, emotion, doubt or possibility. In these cases, verbs are conjugated differently.
However, this gets simpler if you can remember that some expressions just always take the subjunctive:
- Il faut que (it’s necessary that)
- Pourvu que (provided that)
- Pour que (in order that)
- Jusqu’à ce que (until)
Pronouncing and understanding spoken French
If French is somewhat easy to read, given pronunciations can be spelled many different ways. Take a look at the following words:
eau, eaux, au, aux, os, ot, ô, ault
All of these vowel sounds can have the same pronunciation! Similarly, the guttural “r” in très (very), or triomphe (triumph) can be tricky for English speakers. Either they’ll over-pronounce it or not pronounce it at all.
Still, this is definitely an obstacle you can overcome. Daily listening will help your pronunciation enormously.
Taking into account genders, accents, hyphens and apostrophes in spelling
Every noun has a gender, and though there are some patterns that words follow, like those shown here, there are many exceptions to these rules. Other words take accents, such as:
- évêque (bishop)
- créé (created)
To complicate matters, the accent circonflexe (circumflex) on î, ê and â doesn’t even affect the pronunciation!
Then there are phrases include a combination of hyphens, apostrophes and/or accents:
- Qu’y a-t-il (what’s wrong)?
- Qu’est-ce qu’il y a (what’s wrong)?
- Qu’est-ce que c’est que ça (what is this/that)?
- aujourd’hui (today)
What you have to remember here is that, fortunately, these are set phrases that mean simple things. Don’t worry about literal translations. All you need to do is memorize them! Plus, you’ll find they’re easy to pronounce, so you can feel cool about being able to rattle them off with only a small amount of effort.
If you’re looking for an “easy” language, is French a good one to go with?
So what’s my verdict? Should you go with French? Here are some signs that point to “yes.”
As a Romance language, French is approachable
Anglophones can’t go wrong by starting out with Romance languages. They share with English a writing script and common origins for many words. So in this respect, French definitely falls into the “easy” camp.
Many great learning resources are available for French
French is the second most popular foreign language after English. Accordingly, the net is awash with great resources for learners, and surely your local college offers French classes.
French learners have an advantage when it comes to immersion
With French being the official language of around 30 countries, you’ll have no shortage of destinations to visit for French practice. Are you on the East Coast in the U.S.? You could be practicing your French in a few hours!
French will prepare you to learn other languages later
As a member of the Romance language family, learning French might make learning other Romance languages, like Spanish, easier. At least that was the case for me. Once you understand the concept of conjugation or the subjunctive mood in French, you don’t need to re-learn that concept for other languages that work in the same way.
How can you make learning French easier?
Everybody has different experiences, but I think the attitude you take into studying a language determines how easily you learn it.
You have to love the language you’re learning. Think about the storied French history, the timeless French literature or the world-famous culture. If you go in with the attitude that you can’t wait to start speaking your new language, you’re bound to make progress!
Practice every day
Someone once said it takes 10,000 hours to master a subject. I don’t know about that, but truly mastering something takes time. If you work at French a little bit each day, one day you’ll listen to something in French and say to yourself: “Wow, I understood that!”
Keep a vocab list
Whenever you cross a new word, write it down somewhere. Even if you never look at it again, it’ll help you with memorization. Similarly to how French is taught in beginner textbooks, it’s a good idea to start with some simple vocab and practice exercises. This way you can organize a core list and add to it later.
You can do it!
In the end, learning a language is as easy as you make it.
With French, you can become functionally conversant in a reasonable amount of time.
Millions of English speakers have learned French to fluency, and you can, too!