French and Italian are two related languages belonging to the Romance branch of Indo-European languages. They're both known for their rich history and culture, their magnificent cuisine, and for being beautiful, elegant languages.
If you were to learn one of them, however, which one would be easier?
Italian is simpler for an English speaker in several ways. When it comes to pronunciation, Italian has fewer sounds than French, most of which are close to sounds that exist in English. The grammar of French and Italian is close to being equal, but Italian might be a little more regular. In terms of vocabulary, an English speaker might find French easier because of the many loan-words in English, but this advantage applies to Italian words too, because they're close to French. Finally, Italian is pronounced the way it's written whereas French spelling is very different.
In short, I'd say that, yes, Italian is in fact easier than French in most cases, but let me elaborate a little:
Why Italian Pronunciation Is Easier Than French
When comparing the difficulty of the two languages I've got to say this: Italian is much easier pronunciation-wise than French.
French is definitely not the most difficult language in the world to pronounce, don't get me wrong. But it's got a lot more challenging sounds than Italian as well as some inconsistencies in spelling, which might make pronunciation confusing for a beginner.
In terms of phonetics, Italian has 7 vowel sounds, all of which exist in American English which actually has 15. French, on the other hand, has around 16 vowels 4 of which are special "nasal vowels" that are quite difficult for most English speakers to produce. As are many of the other French vowels, such as the French "u", "e", and several others.
So there's no doubt that Italian vowels are easier to pronounce than those that exist in French.
So what about consonants?
French is notorious among English speakers for its "R" which is nor thrilled by vibrating the tip of the tongue, but sort of a "gargling, vibrating" sound from the back of the roof of your mouth. The same R does exist in German, Danish, and several other languages, but not in English, and not in Italian either.
Other than that, French pronounces several consonants differently from how they're pronounced in English, but the sounds often do exist in English, such as the French "J" which sounds like the "sh" in "shop".
When speaking of Italian consonants, you'll find that the main difficulty is with the "r" like it's the case with French. The Italians do, however, pronounce the "R" in its thrilling version, like a Scotsman would or like the R is pronounced in Indian English. Generally, English speakers have fewer troubles with thrilling their R's than they have with producing the French variant.
Another aspect of pronunciation is how to pronounce several words after one another. Many who have studied a little French will know about the French "liaisons" which refers to how words are linked together in a sentence when the last letter of a word is a consonant and the first letter of the following word is a vowel.
"Je m'apelle" becomes "jem apelle" when pronounced, following this principle. "Deux ananas" becomes "deu Sananas", transforming the "x" in "deux" into an s-sound and linking it to "ananas" (the word for pineapple).
This makes spoken French a little more difficult to understand than spoken Italian because words seem to be connected, and the listener can have a hard time figuring out where one word ends and another begins.
In Italian, this isn't as much of a problem.
Finally, an important difference when it comes to pronouncing the two languages is spelling. Italian is a phonetic language. When you've learned to pronounce each letter and know of the occasional rule that changes the pronunciation, you can pretty much read any text aloud and get the pronunciation right.
This is not the case with French. The French language is spelled closer to how the language was pronounced several centuries back, and it can be quite confusing to figure out how to pronounce an unknown word just from reading it. In many cases, there are rules that can be applied to figure out the pronunciation, but it isn't always the case, and even the French, sometimes, have to ask a new acquaintance with a rare name how they're supposed to pronounce it.
So, in short: Italian is easier to pronounce than French (for an English speaker).
Vocabulary: You May Know More French Than You Think
So what about words? Is French vocabulary harder to learn than words in Italian?
When it comes to words, most English speakers actually have an advantage when learning French.
Simply because the English language has an enormous percentage of French loan-words. Some say that something like 45% of English words actually has come from French, which is quite impressive.
This is clearly an advantage when it comes to learning words in French. Although the words aren't always spelled the same, and sometimes even have a different meaning, you'll certainly come upon a lot of words that you already know in English when studying French.
But could it be an advantage for learning Italian too?
French and Italian are closely related languages. Vocabulary-wise they actually have as much as 89% of their vocabulary in common. Granted, the two languages spell and pronounce words differently, but chances are that if you'd be able to recognize a French word from English, you also might be able to recognize it in Italian.
For an example, let's look at some English-French-Italian cognates:
Ok, I'll stop there.
The above words are just random French loanwords picked from a list in alphabetical order, which I then translated into Italian. For the 6 words, I tried this with, all words had a similar translation in Italian, even though it might not always be the most common version of the word. (Which goes for french as well - in Modern French "célèbre" fits better as a direct translation to "famous" but you get the point!)
So is Italian or French easier in terms of the vocabulary? I'd say that they're almost the same. French might be slightly closer to English vocabulary-wise, since the loan-words did come from French, after all, not Italian, but as you can see from the above, most French loan-words correspond pretty well to an Italian word almost every time. French and Italian are themselves relatively similar.
So let's call vocabulary a tie.
Is French Grammar Harder Than Italian?
French and Italian grammar has a lot in common. They're not similar, but when comparing the two languages grammatically, you'll notice that they follow similar patterns.
French verbs have many conjugations, Italian verbs do too. French as a formal and informal way of speaking, Italian too. French has two genders, and so does Italian.
It's quite visible how closely related the two languages are, actually, when you compare the grammar.
But then there are some differences in how grammar is used in the two languages as well. While both French and Italian have two genders, it's almost impossible to figure out the genders of many French nouns (except for those which follow some common patterns). With Italian, on the other hand, almost all masculine nouns end with "O" whereas the feminine nouns end with "A". This clearly speaks to the favor of Italian.
There are other small differences in the grammar between the two languages, and while some of them speak to the favor of Italian, they really are rather negligent.
So what's the conclusion?
Italian grammar might be slightly easier than French, but we're really talking about small things.
Conclusion: Is Italian Easier Than French?
French and Italian are both relatively simple languages to learn for an English speaker. (if you can call a multi-year commitment "simple").
It's true that French has some features that are slightly more difficult, but the difference isn't huge.
With everything else being equal, I'd say that Italian is the easier language. The main reason is the pronunciation, which demands less time to really get under your skin in Italian. French just has a lot more sounds that you might have trouble with (at least initially). Then there's the fact that Italian is a phonetic language where you pronounce words exactly as they're written as opposed to French (or a language like English) where you pretty much need to know how to pronounce any given word from experience.
In terms of grammar and vocabulary, Italian and French are almost equal.
So what you really need to consider is which language do you want to learn the most!
When studying languages, motivation is extremely important for staying consistent and making progress. You can learn Chinese faster than French and Italian if you have a stronger love for that language, because motivation not only makes studying easier, it also makes remembering easier - and actually using the language becomes more fun.
So, unless you're scared to death of French pronunciation, in which case, you can pick Italian, you should really just go with the language you want to learn the most. Don't worry about it!