Is French Hard to Learn? A No-Nonsense Analysis For The Curious Traveller
When you love to travel and explore the world, there are few skills more useful than a few words of French.
From France and Canada to many parts of Africa, French is spoken by millions of people on a daily basis.
Learn just a few words of French and you can communicate with these people and open up new possibilities when you travel.
But if you've ever dreamed of speaking fluent French, you probably want to know... is French hard to learn?
The short answer is ... it depends...
In this article, I'll explain why and tell you what makes French difficult, as well as what makes it easier to learn than many other languages.
The good news is that learning French is very achievable. With focus and consistency, there’s no doubt that you can achieve a good level of fluency.
Your Motivation Determines How Hard It Is To Learn French
Learning a language is never an easy thing to do. But not for the reasons you might think.
Learning French is not hard because of the accent, the grammar or any other language feature.
In fact, the reason that learning a language is difficult has nothing at all to do with the language itself...
It has to do with you.
In my opinion, the biggest obstacle to learning a language is always yourself.
Being consistent with your practice is hard and we all have days when we don’t feel like studying.
Overcoming these challenges, maintaining your motivation, staying focused and building good habits are by far the most difficult part of learning a language.
As for difficult aspects of the language itself...
They do exist too but they’re never insurmountable if you have a good practice routine and the motivation to keep going!
Learning French won't be a walk in the park, but if you have strong motivation and you study regularly, you'll get there.
What Makes French Easy Or Hard?
For English speakers, French will be easier than most other foreign languages because it has more in common with English.
It’s not as alien to us as languages like Russian, Chinese or Arabic which use different alphabets and word orders and have fewer shared words.
That said, there are also some tricky aspects of French which can cause you a lot of frustration too.
Let’s look at some of the things that make French a relatively easy foreign language to learn, as well as some of the biggest challenges it presents.
4 Things That Make French An Easy Language To Learn
French Has A Lot In Common With English
French and English have had a unique relationship ever since the Normans won the Battle of Hastings in 1066. (Depicted below on the famous Bayeux Tapestry).
One legacy of this history is that English has borrowed a lot of French vocabulary. In fact, it’s estimated that about 70% of French words are the same or similar to words in English!
With the arrival of William the Conqueror et ses amis to England in 1066, French became the most commonly spoken language in the English royal court and over time this caused both languages to steal many words from each other.
These words are familiar to use in English but their roots are French!
One quick way to boost your French vocabulary is to identify words or patterns that are similar to English. Words with the ending ‘-tion’ in English, like education, construction, innovation, formation, etc., are a great example of this.
If you want to say these words in French, you simply need to pronounce them with a French accent. So the English word education (ed-u-ka-shun) becomes éducation (e-dju-ka-si-aw) in French. It's that easy!
A similar ‘hack’ can be applied to English words that end in ‘-ent’ or '-ant', like important, independent and competent.
Voilà! C’est cela!
You’ve literally expanded your French vocabulary by a few hundred new words in a matter of seconds! This means that memorising new vocabulary in French is a lot easier than in other languages.
French Word Order Is The Same As English
In English we use SVO word order: Subject - Verb - Object. Here's an example:
- He speaks English
- He = subject (the person doing the action)
- speaks = verb (the action)
- English = object (the thing the action is being done to)
In French, this structure is normally the same! Let's take a look...
- Il parle anglais.
- Il (he) = subject
- parle (speaks) = verb
- anglais (English) = object
Not all sentences are so straightforward, but in general, French word order is not very difficult.
The trickiest thing to remember for English speakers is that in French, adjectives go after the noun they describe, rather than before.
So while in English, we say...
- ‘the black cat'
... in French, you would say:
- ‘le chat noir’ (literally ‘the cat black’).
This might feel a little strange at first but you’ll get used to it very quickly.
The (relative) simplicity of French word order is a major positive for native English speakers. It allows you to start speaking and communicating effectively from very early on in the learning process.
And getting those first successful conversations under your belt is great for building momentum and motivation.
It's Easy To Find Native French Speakers To Practice With
French is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, with around 76 million native speakers and another 235 million fluent speakers.
This is great for learners because it means it is really easy to find exchange partners to practice speaking with.
Just take a quick look on a language exchange platform like italki and you’ll see how easy it is to find native French speakers to practice with.
This might not seem like a big deal but it really does make learning French much easier. It allows you practice more often and keeps you motivated to learn French.
Plus, the more native speakers there are, the more entertaining and interesting content you'll be able to find to practice your French with, including French books, movies on Netflix and much more!
Which takes me on to my next point...
There Are Lots Of High-Quality French Learning Resources
In the English-speaking world, French is the second most popular foreign language to learn.
(The most popular is Spanish).
This means there’s a high demand for quality learning resources and a competitive marketplace for education companies to provide them.
The result of all this is that finding good resources (free and paid) for learning French is easy, and the quality of these resources tends to be quite high.
If you're just getting started with French, I recommend Olly Richard's French Uncovered programme. This excellent online programme teaches French through the medium of story and will take you from complete beginner to intermediate in French.
3 Things That Make French A Hard Language To Learn
So now you know about some of the things that make French easier to learn than many other languages.
But what are the most common problems that make French difficult for English speakers? And how can you overcome them?
Let's look at the top 3...
French Is Not A Phonetic Language
Unfortunately for learners, French doesn’t sound very much like the way it is written.
- There are silent letters (and even clusters of letters) everywhere
- Vowels can change their sound significantly depending on the context in which they’re used
- There are accents which change the sound of a letter (L’accent aigu)
- And accents which normally don’t change the sound at all (L’accent grave)
It can all get very confusing!
However, it’s worth remembering that if you’re reading this article you already speak an even more frustratingly non-phonetic language: English!
Imagine learning English and trying to pronounce words like 'about', 'though' and 'through' for the first time! Notice how the letters "ou" represent completely different sounds in each of those words.
The non-phonetic nature of French doesn't mean it is more difficult to learn than other languages. It just means a slightly different approach is required.
If you rely on the written word to learn new vocabulary, you’ll most likely end up learning a lot of words incorrectly because you’ll mispronounce them. And this means extra work because you’re going to have to relearn those words all over again!
For this reason, I’d argue that listening practice is more important at an early stage in French than it is in phonetic languages like, for example, Spanish.
If you normally rely on a visual learning style, placing greater emphasis on listening from the very beginning may take some getting used to. But it's worth the effort.
It’s just a matter of getting accustomed to the sounds of the French language and how they are represented on paper.
You’ll be surprised how quickly you start to identify patterns when you practice consistently.
Learning To Pronounce The French ‘R’ Sounds
One of the biggest challenges that English speakers have in learning French is pronouncing the letter ‘r’.
Personally, this little letter drove me crazy for months! But when I eventually realised why I was constantly mispronouncing it, it became a lot easier to get it right.
The reason that most English speakers struggle so much with this letter is that they associate it with the English ‘r’. But it's not that simple!
The letter 'r' in French is not a single sound. In fact, it can represent any one of 5 different sounds depending on where it appears in a word!
The English ‘r’ sound is made by raising the tongue towards the roof of your mouth but in French, most of the ‘r’ sounds come from your throat and are created by the vibrations of your uvula (that long dangly thing in the back of your mouth!).
Mastering The French R Sounds Takes Time
These sounds don't exist in English which is why it can take quite a while to master them. So don't expect to pronounce your French R's correctly on Day
Take your time, and do lots of listening. This will help you get used to hearing and recognising the French R sounds, which is the first step in being able to pronounce them correctly.
This probably all sounds very complicated. And I’m not going to lie... It is difficult to learn these sounds.
But once you stop associating the French ‘R’ with the English ‘R’ sound, it becomes a lot easier to learn how to pronounce it correctly.
Every language has its own unique palette of sounds and French is no different.
The first step to learning the new sounds in any language (especially if it uses the Latin alphabet) is to disassociate those letters from their equivalents in English.
When you treat them as new sounds and try to mimic what you hear instead, you’ll find that pronunciation (and understanding) become much easier.
Your Fear of Making Mistakes
This is one of the main reasons that most people never learn to speak a new language very well, even when they understand a lot.
Mistakes are an essential part of the learning process and you need to make as many of them as possible, so that you can correct them!
As long as you’re afraid to make mistakes, you’ll never learn a language successfully.
Of course, none of us wants to get something wrong. But it’s much better to make a mistake and learn from it than not make the mistake and never realise you've picked up something wrong!
There's an old saying that ignorance is bliss. But ignorance is certainly not a good learning strategy.
Overcoming your fear of mistakes is the very first step you’ll need to take if you want to learn to speak French with real people when you travel.
Is French Hard To Learn? My Honest Answer...
Yes, French is hard to learn.
It's far from impossible if you're willing to put in the effort.
Learning French is definitely easier than learning languages like Russian, Chinese or Arabic.
Like any new skill or habit, learning a language isn’t easy. And French is no exception to this rule.
But is it exceedingly difficult to learn French? No, it’s actually very manageable if you're consistent in your approach.
Learning French takes time and it will challenge you. You will experience moments where you feel stuck and there’ll be times when you feel like giving up.
But the key in those moments is to keep going. Many others have learnt French before you, and many more will learn it after you.
The Key To Learning French Successfully? Enjoy The Process
The one thing that will most definitely make French easier for you is learning to enjoy the process. Have fun with it!
Any task is going to be difficult if you’re not enjoying it, but add a little fun to even the most tedious task and instantly becomes a little easier.
It’s not hard to apply this to French; it’s a very fun language to learn!
So embrace French culture and media, use French to make new friends or mix up your learning time with some more engaging resources.
Do whatever it takes to make sure you’re enjoying the time you spend learning French and even the hardest parts will begin to seem a little easier.
As the French say themselves...
"Ce n'est pas la mer à boire"
Literally: "It's not as if you have to rink the sea";
Meaning: "It's not that difficult"
What's your experience of learning French? Do you think it's an easy language to learn? What were the most challenging aspects for you? Leave your answers in the comments below!
Resources Related To This Article
The Anti-Tourist Club
The Anti-Tourist Club is a training and support centre for curious adventurers who want to do travel differently.
It is where anti-tourists like you and I come together with a common mission:
To put learning at the heart of our adventures and unlock the kinds of meaningful travel experiences most tourists never have.
In French Uncovered, you'll learn to speak French through the power of story. Olly Richards' comprehensive beginner programme teaches you French through a fun and natural method that makes learning a pleasure, and grammar a breeze! If you're interested in learning French from beginner up to intermediate level ahead of your next adventure, Olly's course is my top recommendation.