Is German Harder to Learn than French? Grammar, Vocabulary and Pronunciation

avatarMille Larsen
6 mins read

French and German are two of the most important European languages. One have the reputation of being the language of love. The other is said to sound hard and aggressive.

But which one is easier to learn for an English speaker?

German words and French words - which are easier to learn?

The German language is a West Germanic language just like English and historically the two have a lot in common in terms of vocabulary, pronunciation and even grammar. But many of these things have changed during the last ten centuries.

Modern English is known to use a huge amount of loan-words from French. Some say the more than 50% of the modern English lexicon is in fact of French origin. What this means is that looking at a French text might evoke a higher degree of familiarity than trying to decipher the same text in German. This is quite interesting, especially due to the fact that French is in fact a language belonging to the Romance language family. In that sense, it's only very distantly related to English!

Which is harder? French grammar or German grammar?

There are some different aspects of each language that make them either slightly harder or slightly easier than the other.

French has a more complicated verb conjugation system where you need to learn a lot more forms and declensions than in German where other auxiliary words are used in addition to the words instead of changing the verb itself.

German, however, has another word-order than French and English. In German, the verb goes in the end of the word whereas French and English put the object in the end. "I like to eat apples" becomes "I like apples to eat" in German, but the word order remains the same in French. This can take some getting used to.

And then there's the thing about German cases. In German the articles and personal pronouns change depending on what kind of sentence it is used in and what gender the noun is. This takes some getting used to, and it's actually a quite important feature of the German language. So you do need to get it right! French doesn't have this.

So is German grammar harder than French grammar? It's difficult to say, since both languages have their own fields that need extra attention. I would say, that the German case system and word order makes it slightly more difficult than the French grammar, but not so much that you should shy away from studying German.

What about pronunciation?

In terms of pronunciation, German has the advantage of being written almost completely phonetically, meaning that as soon as you know how to pronounce a specific letter or letter combination, you'll be able to pronounce everything.

French is much more complicated in that regard, and you can't always guess how a word is supposed to be pronounced. Add to that than French has a huge amount of silent letters. And that they're not always the same! French words can seem long and complicated on paper, but when you hear them pronounced out loud, they sound like a one-syllable word.

In terms of individual sounds, French and German actually (and surprisingly) look alike.

They both have the "Guttural R" which, to English speakers, can be difficult. They also both have the "French U" (or German Ü) sound, which might seem tricky to pronounce. (Although it's just a question of saying "eee" with your lips rounded like you would for a "ooo").

There's also the French "E" and the German "Ö" that sound alike.

Add to that that French is known for its "nasal" vowels, which sound a little like you're holding your nose while pronouncing them. (The French word "un" really is just an "a" sound pronounced by someone who has a cold).

German doesn't have that, but it does have the "Lichtenstein" "ch" sound and the "Aachen" "ch" sound. The first sounds like a snake hissing and the latter sounds like you're clearing your throat.

So both languages have similarities in terms of pronunciation as well as a few things that make them stand apart.

I'd say, however, that German is the easier language to pronounce, not because the sounds are necessarily easier, but because you can (more or less) always figure out how to pronounce a word from just looking at it.

French orthography is not very reliable in that regard. Add to that fact that a lot of words in French sound alike, and with the language spoken quickly, it can be hard to tell words apart while in German, generally, everything is much clearer and articulated.

Which language is harder according to "ze experts" ?

The Foreign Service Institute, or FSI, is the American government institution in charge of teaching foreign languages to US diplomats going overseas. They've divided the languages that they teach into groups based on the number of classroom hours they estimate that it takes the average English speaker to learn them to Fluency.

The FSI puts French in category 1 and German in category 2, meaning that they estimate French to take 5-600 classroom hours to learn, and German 900 hours in order to reach fluency.

It's actually surprising that a language like German which is of the same language family as English is deemed more time consuming than French, an ancestor of Latin. The shared history of French and English might be a big part of the reason though.

So while FSI dosn't clearly state that German is harder, they estimate that it takes longer to learn, which isn't the same thing.

Still, when you look at their numbers as well as my comparisons above in terms of Grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary, I think that I'd say that yes, German is harder to learn than French. It's not an impossible beast of a language by no means! But German has a few features, mostly in terms of grammar that simply needs a little more getting used to than French. (For an English speaker).

So there you have it! German just might be little bit harder than French for an English speaker.