French and Italian are two European languages with similar origins. The languages have a lot in common and they've both got a reputation for being languages of beauty, passion and warm-bloodedness.
But how similar are French and Italian really?
French and Italian, despite similarities in grammar, vocabulary and origins, are not mutually intelligible. While they have up to 89% lexical similarity, and a closely related grammar structure, the two languages just sound inherently different and it's especially the pronunciation that makes the languages so different.
So which one is the most difficult to learn for an English speaker?
Both French and Italian have aspects that are simple and accessible and others that make the language a little more complicated. French is difficult to pronounce for many English speakers and it has more irregularities in grammar and few rules to lean on. Italian also has its challenges, but I still think that French, overall, is slightly more complicated than Italian.
But despite that estimation, both French and Italian are considered easy languages by the FSI, and they're some of the languages that are supposed to take the shortest time to learn for an English speaker. So if you're going to only learn one, my advice is to not focus so much on difficulty, but rather pick the language that you want to learn the most.
But what are the differences between French and Italian? Let's dive into it:
Origins: French And Italian Have A Common Ancestor
The main reason that French and Italian have so much in common is their shared origin story.
French and Italian originally evolved from the everyday language left behind by the Roman Empire, Vulgar Latin.
When the West-Roman Empire fell, around 1500 years ago, the Latin dialects spoken around the former empire slowly began to evolve. For each region, Latin evolved differently because there wasn't a unifying central administration left to keep the standardized language in place.
Another important point is the different linguistic influences that the different regions saw when the Romans ceased to be a factor. In France, Germanic languages such as Frankish and Celtic languages like Gaulish made a great impact on the evolution of Vulgar Latin, and these languages played an important part in turning the Latin language into Modern French.
Italian, on the other hand, had a much more linear evolution from Vulgar Latin. After the fall of the Roman Empire, hundreds of local dialects and vernacular languages thrived in what is today Italy.
While these flourished side by side, some ended up gaining influence, and it's the dialect spoken en Florence in the 1400's that eventually got picked up by poets such as Dante Alighieri, who were among the first people to write prose in Italian and not in Latin. The use of Italian dialect in literature sparkled an evolution which eventually ended up turning the Florentine dialect of Italian into the standard language of modern day Italy.
Italian And French Alphabets And How They're Pronounced
In terms of alphabet an pronunciation, French and Italian are quite different. While French is known for its many vowels, consonants, special letter combinations and the silent letters, Italian has fewer sounds and more consistent rules.
Italian is a phonetic language and is pronounced exactly as it's written whereas in French, it can be complicated to figure out how to pronounce a word if you haven't heard it before, even for a native!
If we first look at vowels, Italian has 5; a,e,i,o and u. I and O can be pronounced in two different ways though, meaning that there are 7 vowel sounds in total.
French has the same 5 vowels with the addition of y. Where it's different from Italian, though, is that French vowels have many different possible pronunciations. In fact, there are 13 different vowel sounds in French, or 17 if you count the infamous "nasal" vowels that pose some difficulties for some. Other challenges include the French "u" and the "e".
In terms of consonants, French, too is a little more varied than Italian, but most of the differences don't cause too much concern, other than the French R. The R in French is neither thrilled, nor pronounced like the English R, but instead it's a guttural R pronounced from the back of the throat.
Here's a video instructing you how to make the French R:
In Italian, the R is thrilled, like in many other languages. This sometimes causes problems with English speakers as well, even though the letter isn't as big of a deal.
French and Italian both have their silent "H" in common as well as many other consonants that don't necessarily pose a challenge for English speakers.
Vocabulary In French And Italian
As I've already mentioned, both French and Italian evolved from Vulgar Latin, beginning some 1500 years ago. This means that the two languages got most of their vocabulary from Latin roots, which in turn explains why they have so seemingly much in common vocabulary-wise.
But how much do they actually have in common? Linguists have found that around 89% of French and Italian words are similar, meaning that they have the same roots and that they're recognizable between the two languages. As a comparison, French and English only have 27% of words in common, despite the high number of French loan-words in English.
As an example of this, let's have a look at the same text-bite in both French and Italian and see how they compare. This is the first article of the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, first in French:
Tous les êtres humains naissent libres et égaux en dignité et en droits. Ils sont doués de raison et de conscience et doivent agir les uns envers les autres dans un esprit de fraternité.
And now in Italian:
Tutti gli esseri umani nascono liberi ed eguali in dignità e diritti. Essi sono dotati di ragione e di coscienza e devono agire gli uni verso gli altri in spirito di fratellanza.
While the two texts are obviously different, you'll notice that almost every single word is the same (despite having another form). This actually makes it possible for a French speaker to read a text in Italian and getting the gist of it with very little guessing.
So does this mean that French and Italian are both very purely Latin languages? Well, no. As mentioned before, French has been influenced by both the Frankish language which is a Germanic language and the Gaulish language which is Celtic. But in reality, the amount of loan-words from these two languages isn't staggering.
French And Italian Grammar
Grammar wise there are both similarities and differences between French and Italian. Some aspects of Italian grammar can be more complicated, but then Italian is more consistent whereas French doesn't always adhere to strict rules.
One such example is gender. In French, to figure out if a noun is masculine or feminine, you have to learn it by heart. Sure, there are some common patterns that you can memorize that will help you figuring out gender on the go, but there are so many different types of nouns, that remembering all the cases becomes an up-hill battle.
With Italian, on the other hand, nouns are feminine if they end with and "a" and masculine when they end by "o". Easy!
As for articles, French is easier. In French you have articles for plurals, singulars, feminine and masculine. With Italian, it becomes more varied because each article changes depending on the word and how it's formed. If the first letter of the word is a vowel, one article is used, but if it's a consonant another one is used.
And there are many more differences in grammar between French and Italian, but writing a complete list would be a little tedious. The two languages aren't any more different grammar-wise than you'd expect, and for the most part, they're actually pretty similar.
I also wouldn't say that one language is necessarily easier than the other in terms of grammar, except that Italian might be slightly more consistent in its rules whereas French has more exceptions. (But then again, Italian has many irregularities too, like it's the case with plural nouns).
Conclusion: Is Italian Or French The More Complicated Language For An English Speaker?
So finally, is French or Italian the most difficult language and what makes the difference?
It's a hard question to answer, because in all honesty, the two languages have a lot in common.
In terms of pronunciation and writing, I'd say that Italian is the easier language. It's much more consistent in its spelling and you can read it out loud and pronounce it correctly once you've learned a few rules.
French on the other hand isn't always easy to read out loud and new words are sometimes pronounced quite differently than you'd expect. Add to that that French has a lot of silent letters and that the few extra vowels and the French R might pose a challenge.
Grammar-wise and in terms of vocabulary, I'd call it a tie. While each language has its slight differences, they have much more in common and there aren't really anything that seriously sets one language apart from the other.
So because of writing and pronunciation, I'd say that French is slightly harder than Italian. But only slightly.
What's really much more important than pronunciation, spelling, grammar and vocabulary is how motivated you are as a learner. If you dream of French language and culture at night, French might be significantly easier for you, simply because you have the drive to learn it. If, on the other hand, a language puts you off for some reason, you'll have a significantly harder time learning it simply because.. You don't want to!
In the end, I'd suggest that you ignore the differences between French and Italian. When it comes to picking a language to learn, you'll be much better off picking the one you like the most.