French is a language of over 70 million native speakers worldwide. Over 200 million people speak French as a second language. It’s a hugely important and influential language in today’s world. But is it hard to learn?
French, like any language, demands a lot of effort. You need to put in the time, be consistent and keep at it. But you don’t need any special talent to learn French. It’s entirely possible. You can learn French too!
Here’s an article I wrote about learning French through reading.
- 1 Learning the French language: A dream come true?
- 2 Linguists say French is easy
- 3 Why people will tell you French is difficult
- 4 How many English words come from French?
- 5 What about French pronunciation?
- 6 Written French is inconsistent and weird
- 7 French grammar – not that bad!
- 8 Is French difficult then? No, but..
Learning the French language: A dream come true?
If you had to pick a foreign language to learn, which one would it be?
Try asking your friends this question. Or people in the street. Chances are that a majority of people will answer the same thing:
French is widely considered a beautiful language. Spoken French, in many people’s ears, is like poetry! French is the language of romance. It’s a language in which swearing is its own art-form. And there are so many more cliches.
Many people dream of learning French for one reason or another, yet so few people end up doing it.
They don’t have the time, a talent for languages or whatever. And French is just too difficult. Or that’s what they think.
But is French really that difficult to learn?
Linguists say French is easy
The relative difficulty of French actually might not be a good excuse. FSI, or the Foreign Service Institute has divided all the languages that they teach in to three categories.
The hard category includes languages like Arabic, Mandarin and Korean. These are languages very far from English in terms of grammar, structure and vocabulary.
FSI estimates that these difficult languages require about 2200 hours of class room studies! (Or something like 88 weeks).
Medium languages include Thai, Russian and Greek. These are also tough nuts to crack. But even though they’re quite different from English, there are aspects of these languages that make them easy.
Russian and Greek are Indo European languages like English, so they’re related although very slightly. As for Thai, the grammar is much more approachable than many other Asian languages. The medium category requires 1100 hours of classroom study, or 44 weeks. Still a significant commitment, but only half as much as the hard ones!
FSI’s easy category are languages likes Spanish, Danish and – yes, French.
According to FSI, languages like French can me learned in as little as 575 hours.
Now, FSI have their own way of teaching. They use specific material, and you’re expected to also study in your free time when you enroll in their program.
So 575 hours might not be the number of hours that you need to learn French.
But it’s a good indicator!
In other words – French isn’t hard. Not when compared to other languages in any case.
Why people will tell you French is difficult
So we just established that French is one of the easier languages you could learn. Yet you hear all around that it’s a difficult language.
Why is that?
It might have to do with pride.
I grew up speaking Danish. I remember hearing fellow Danes speak of the Danish language as one of the most difficult in the world. “The pronunciation is just so complex.”
The same goes for most cultures. People just assume that the language that they speak must be extremely difficult to learn. And it makes us a little proud to have mastered it.
That’s also the case with French. Many French people will tell you that their language is very hard. They’ll say that they, themselves, sometimes don’t know which verb conjugation to use. They’ll mention how their pronunciation is difficult. And they’ll get into the way words are spelled.
You shouldn’t worry about any of these.
Any native speaker of any language makes mistakes. I catch myself hesitating between words in Danish all the time. I consider my English good for a second language, but I still make a lot of errors.
You’ll make mistakes in French as well, but don’t worry about it. Everybody does!
How many English words come from French?
When learning French as an English speaker, you’ll have one great advantage.
You already know a significant amount of words in French!
Linguists estimate that 45 % of English words have French origin.
Just to show you an example of this, here’s a sentence I borrowed off a French movie review:
Un couple ordinaire se change en figures héroïques faisant resurgir quatre siècles de l’histoire des descendants d’Africains déportés en Amérique.I bolded the words that should be easily understandable for an English speaker
So without any prior knowledge of French, you should understand roughly half of the sentence above only by knowing English.
It’s really quite striking how much vocabulary French and English have in common.
It all comes down to history. An important historical event that brought these French (and Latin) words into the English language was the Norman conquest of 1066.
Before then, English was almost purely Germanic. A little like Icelandic today.
But the new king William and his subsequent rule had an enormous influence on the English language. French became fashionable, and the language left an impressive imprint on the English we speak today.
What this all means is that you have been granted a shortcut to learning French.
A lot of the French language is actually not all that foreign to begin with, and this makes it much easier to learn.
What about French pronunciation?
French pronunciation is known to be one of the bigger obstacles when learning the language. The French R, the nasal vowel sounds, the French U.
In reality it’s not that bad. All of these might be difficult for an English speaker, granted, but it’s just a matter of getting used to the sounds.
There is no difference between Americans’ and French people’s physiology. They both have tongues, lips, throats and so on.
It’s exactly the same configuration. So everyone should be able to make the same sounds!
But it takes a little getting used to.
Many people think that learning foreign pronunciation is about “training” other muscles to be able to make other sounds with the organs we use to speak.
I think that to a large extent, it’s about listening. The more often you hear a specific pronunciation, the more used to it you become.
The brain actually solves the puzzle by itself in a way.
If you spend months listening, you’ll notice that you end up being able to pronounce things without having trained your pronunciation that much.
In my opinion you could get far in learning to pronounce French simply by focusing on your listening a lot.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work with your pronunciation. Practice mimicking French speakers as often as you can.
But when you start to get frustrated from a lack of progress, take a step back. You need to focus much more on listening. Keep working on pronunciation, but focus on listening, and gradually you will improve.
A great way to work on your pronunciation if through audio courses. I have discussed this topic in a little more detail in my article about learning French while driving.
Written French is inconsistent and weird
You can’t get around this one. French, in its written form, can sometimes be a little unpredictable. There are so many silent letters, exceptions and weird letter combinations.
It can sometimes be difficult figuring out how a word is pronounced only from looking at its spelling.
I remember when I first went to spend a semester in Paris as a student. My school was close to the park called “Parc de la Villette”. I spent several weeks thinking that “Villette” was pronounced “Viyet” like Marseilles is pronounced “Marsay”.
I then found out that it wasn’t the case.
But even if the spelling seems odd and isn’t that consistent, it’s actually more predictable than English!
English is notoriously inconsistent in the way it’s pronounced. Just have a look at this poem called “The Chaos“.
The thing is, that even though English is extremely inconsistent in the way it’s written versus how it’s pronounced, you still get it right.
Simply because you have learnt the pronunciation and the spelling of the words together.
You’re just going to have to do the same in French. You’ve done it once, so how hard can it be to do it a second time?
French grammar – not that bad!
French people will tell you that French grammar is impossible.
Then why do they say so? Aren’t they supposed to be the experts?
But the French spend years studying grammar and dissecting their own language in school. They learn conjugation tables, rules and what not until they dream about grammar.
And if you want to know what the results are of that kind of rigid grammar study, go have a look at the comment section of any French YouTube video for young people.
(Hint: Grammar studies doesn’t seem to help!)
The French will tell you that their language is terribly hard in terms of grammar because they are utterly traumatized. And young people make tons of mistakes when writing because they are, well, young people.
French grammar is not any more difficult than English, Spanish or Danish grammar. It’s different, granted, but not more difficult.
You need to learn a few verb conjugations, you need to memorize the genders of each word as you’re learning them. And that’s pretty much it.
Learning grammar, in my opinion, should come from habituation.
As you listen, read, speak and write more and more French, you will gradually get used to the language. You’ll start to notice when something is wrong. In the same way as you do in your native language.
Is French difficult then? No, but..
So is French a difficult language to learn?
You already know hundreds, if not thousands of words in French because of shared vocabulary between English and French.
So in that regard, French is easier than a lot of languages.
When it comes to pronunciation, you’ll face a few obstacles.
But it’s nothing compared to these letters in Arabic: “ع ,ق ,ص ,ض, ظ ,ط ,ح ,خ ” … Those are quite the challenge!
And the grammar does require some time to get used to. But it’s definitely doable.
So no – French is not a particularly difficult language to learn. It’s one of the easier ones out there. But you won’t learn to speak French fluently over night.
To become fluent in French, you need patience, diligence and willpower. You need to study every day and to keep doing it. It took me 3-4 years before I dared to tell people with confidence that I spoke fluently French.
But today, I do speak French.
And if you put in the work: You’ll speak French too!