Whether you’re currently learning studying French or considering it, you may be wondering how hard it is to learn French.
According to most experts, French is among the easiest languages for english speakers to learn. Still, it can still be very challenging!
Determining how hard it is to learn French isn’t exactly an easy question to answer. But there are some factors that can help, such as comparing French to other languages.
Let’s learn just how hard it is to learn French.
How hard is it to learn French as an english speaker?
Complicated pronunciation and a myriad of verb conjugations tend to make French seem like a difficult language to learn. But you might be surprised (or maybe reassured!) to discover that it’s not generally considered to be one of the world’s most challenging languages.
Although lists and criteria vary, most experts point out that the most challenging languages to learn are tonal languages – that is, languages where not only pronunciation but the tone you use to say a word can completely change its meaning. Examples of fully tonal languages include Mandarin and Vietnamese. Other languages, like Norwegian and Korean, are partially tonal, with emphasis on particular syllables changing a word’s meaning.
French doesn’t fall into either of these categories. French pronunciation may be difficult, but while inflection may slightly change the impact of a sentence, it won’t alter its meaning completely. In this way, French is similar to other non-tonal languages, including English.
Another thing that can make a language hard to learn is its alphabet. While languages like Japanese, Arabic, and Hindi have alphabets with a vast number of letters, characters, or letter combinations and rules, French uses the Latin alphabet, which has only 26 letters. Although you have to add accents to certain letters in some cases, this is nowhere near the complexity of many other languages’ alphabets.
Add to this concepts like complex sound clusters that you’ll find in languages like Arabic and Korean, or a myriad of intricate grammar rules (found, for instance, in many Eastern European languages), and French seems relatively simple when you think about it.
For these reasons, among others, the Foreign Service Institute ranks French as a Category 1 language, which means it’s one of the easiest languages for English-speakers to learn.
This will vary for speakers of other languages. But the general idea is that characteristics like the relatively low number of letters in its alphabet, its non-tonal nature, and its relatively simple grammar rules makes French easier to learn than many other languages in general.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not challenging to learn French – or any language, for that matter. According to scientists, learning a new language challenges the very way our brains work.
Essentially, the brain looks for patterns and likes familiarity. This becomes increasingly the case the older we get. So learning a new language, with new rules and sounds and vocabulary – not to mention the cultural aspects that go with it – goes against what the brain would normally do.
But this is a good thing. Just like we’re told that going out of our comfort zone is often beneficial, learning a language is great for the brain, increasing neural plasticity, especially as we get older and our brain gets even more set in its ways.
What are the most difficult things about French?
French is considered relatively easy to learn compared to many other languages. But it still has its challenges.
The most difficult things about French can be divided into two categories: challenges specific to French and challenges that apply to language learning in general.
The hardest things about the French language
There are several challenging things about French. Some of these features may be shared by other languages, but they often come up when students, non-native, and native speakers of French alike are asked about the hardest part of learning French.
This is the biggest challenge for most French learners. For one thing, certain sounds might be difficult for us non-native speakers to master (oh, guttural “r”, how you still continue to elude me!). But there’s also the fact that there can be such a huge difference between how French words are written and how they’re pronounced.
Even a relatively easy-to-pronounce word can still be tricky for beginners based on the simple fact that you don’t pronounce certain letters at the end of it…in most cases. That’s why learning by listening is so important.
Other learners point to the fact that even if you’ve mastered how to pronounce individual French words, knowing how they sound when you put them with other words – for instance, when to make a liaison – can be hard, too.
Because French pronunciation can be so challenging and because French words don’t always sound the way they’re written, understanding spoken French can be daunting. Fortunately, as with every other challenging item on this list, your French listening skills will get better with practice.
Masculine and feminine words
French isn’t the only gendered language, but gendered words are certainly a big part of what makes French tricky to learn. Interestingly, this isn’t just the case for those of us whose native language doesn’t have genders; even other gendered languages don’t always share the same rules or genders for individual words.
I have to confess that even as a longtime fluent speaker of French, I still occasionally get tripped up by gendered words, much to my bilingual French son’s delight. Like all French children, he learned genders more or less instinctively, or through constant exposure to the language. Like most non-native speakers, on the other hand, I had to try to memorize rules and sometimes even individual words that are exceptions to these rules, and hope that things go smoothly when I’m using them, even if I’m tired or in a hurry or using vocabulary I’m not familiar with.
Fortunately, there are strategies that can help you determine whether a French word is masculine or feminine. But it still remains a challenge, at least occasionally, for many of us.
Gender and number agreement
If you’ve been learning French for a while, you’ve probably had a moment where you thought you’d conjugated a tricky compound verb perfectly. And just as you were patting yourself on the back, you realized – no – it’s conjugated with être and the subject is feminine and plural, so you’ve got to add a few letters to that past participle you were so proud of yourself for memorizing.
Gender and number agreement are everywhere in French, from adjectives to verbs. French is far from the only language in which this is the case, but it still adds to the challenge of learning it!
• verb conjugations and irregular verbs. Not only does French have a number of verb tenses that all call for different endings depending on the subject; it’s also frequently listed as one of the languages with the most irregular verbs. That means it’s not enough to know how to conjugate a typical verb – well, verb group, since there are multiple French verb endings. You also have to essentially memorize dozens of irregular verbs, as well.
But wait! There is some good news: As you may know already, many of these irregular verbs have one specific quirk but basically follow the typical conjugation rules.
And here’s another bit of good news: French may have a lot of irregular verbs, but according to most sources, English (which I assume you already speak well, since you’re reading this article) has even more. So it could be worse….
The hardest things about language learning in general
The second category of things that make French difficult to learn actually applies to learning pretty much any language. These include:
Idioms and figurative language
Every language has sayings, literary expressions, wordplay, and more, that makes it even more challenging for a learner to master. Add to this the fact that a global language like French can have different sayings, jokes, and common expressions depending on the country or region where a particular variant is spoken.
Slang and new and old terms
Languages are living things. One of the consequences of this is that some vocabulary will end up falling out of use or sounding old-fashioned. And meanwhile, new words are being created all the time, whether in the pop culture or business world, or as slang terms (which may eventually evolve into standard vocabulary). It can be hard to keep up! But take heart – even native speakers of a language may not know all the latest cool slang, after all.
The other items on this list are external. They’re just facts about the nature of French or of languages in general. But this French learning challenge comes from inside each one of us – and it’s often the most formidable barrier to learning and speaking any foreign language.
We work hard to learn the rules of a language and we strive and are encouraged to speak it flawlessly. And so, when it comes time to interact with a native speaker, a lot of us freeze up. What if we forget a word? What if we say the wrong thing? What if they don’t understand us? What if our pronunciation is off?
But the thing is, if you don’t speak at all, sure, you’ll avoid having these problems, but you’ll also never get to use your hard-earned language skills or make a connection with a French speaker. So, take a deep breath and accept that no non-native speaker of a language speaks it perfectly, all the time, no matter how good they might be.
Luckily, here’s something else to keep in mind: Most people you talk to won’t care if you didn’t pronounce something perfectly or if you got a conjugation wrong. If they don’t understand you, they’ll just say so, but not in a mean way.
Always remember that the bottom line is that languages evolved so that we could communicate with one another. As long as you can convey what you’re trying to say, you’ve succeeded, even if you made a few mistakes or weren’t the most eloquent speaker. And if you do end up saying something without mistakes and maybe even in an eloquent way, which will happen more and more often, the more you practice, then that’s just a bonus.
Remembering what you’ve learned
One of the most frustrating things about learning a language is that even if you reach fluency, you can easily forget it if you don’t practice it. Like working out, using a language is something you have to do regularly in order to “stay in shape,” so to speak.
Luckily, there are so many ways to keep French in your daily life, including reading French news websites, listening to French podcasts or radio broadcasts, watching shows in French, reading books in French, and more. And if you haven’t practiced in a while and are getting rusty, using a language learning app like French Together can be a great way to review and get your skills back up to their former level.
What’s the best way to learn French?
As the Alliance Française Ottawa’s website reassuringly points out, the challenges of learning French can be overcome with the right kind of learning method.
But as you may already know, this doesn’t necessarily mean the same solution for each learner.
First, there’s the question of how you learn. Some people tend to do better by seeing things written down, while others tend to learn better by listening.
That said, there has to be some balance. If, like me, you’re more of a visual learner, only relying on visuals like grammar guides and conjugation exercises and French books mean that you won’t be able to understand or speak French correctly. And if you only learn by listening and speaking, you won’t know how to read or write French well.
Unless you’re studying French in a program at a school or university, the good news is that you can pick and choose how you learn – and there are lots of options out there. I’ve reviewed many of them, and personally, I think the best way to go is to use a few of them simultaneously. Fortunately, from a pricing perspective, this shouldn’t be too bad, since many apps are affordable or even free. Some French learning resources are also available for free online, at a library, or at used bookstores, among other places.
And of course, you can watch lots of French TV shows, documentaries and films for free on YouTube. You’ll also find French films and series (or the option to choose a French audio track for series and films) included in your subscription to certain streaming services you might already have, like Netflix.
Reading in French is also easy to do for free or on a budget. You can freely access French websites, public domain books, and blogs, just by doing an online search. And thanks to libraries, used bookstores, used book websites, and e-books, reading whatever book you want in French shouldn’t break the bank.
I always marvel at this. When I was growing up, the internet was relatively new and limited, YouTube didn’t exist, and most French-language books, magazines, and newspapers had to be imported, making them pricey. So right now, we are in the golden age of free or inexpensive French learning resources! The downside is that it can make knowing the best way to learn difficult.
Ways to practice French
In addition to French learning apps and other educational resources, it’s important to make French a part of your daily life as much as possible. This is maybe even truer for advanced or fluent learners who may not be studying every day. Luckily, there are lots of ways to do this, too.
Keep reading and watching things in French. Try to listen to French music. To keep up your French speaking and listening skills, finding a French conversation partner is a great solution – and many websites offer this for free or in exchange for conversation practice in your native language.
In terms of putting together how you should learn, try to make sure you cover the basics: At least one way to read French, one way to write French, one way to speak French, and one way to listen to French. If you need or want to particularly focus on one of these skills, add another way to do that.
Try to do at least one of these things daily to keep up your level of French.
How long does it take to learn French?
French may not be the hardest language to learn, but like any language, it will take time to master.
Determining how long it takes to learn French is a bit complicated. According to the FSI, a speaker of English would need 23-24 weeks (a little more than half a year) to learn French. But as we covered in our in-depth article on the subject, how long it takes to learn French really depends on some important variables, including your native language, how often you’re able to study, and how motivated you are. When you consider all of this, on average, it could take anywhere from about 6 months to 3 years to learn French.
Is learning French worth it?
Now that you’ve seen how challenging French can be and how long it will take to learn French, you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed or discouraged. But please don’t be! Learning a language is a long process, and in some ways, it never stops. But don’t see that as a bad thing; see it as something beautiful.
I can promise you that there will be tough and frustrating moments along the way, but as you learn French, you’ll also have moments of discovery, moments where you feel proud of yourself, moments where you’re suddenly able to understand and connect with stories and dialogue and native speakers. These moments will leave you feeling thrilled and confident and inspired.
Learning French has some benefits beyond those wonderful ones. Studies have shown that learning a language can help brain health in a number of ways, including increasing gray matter and slowing the affects of age-related issues like memory loss.
Another reason to learn French is that it’s one of the most spoken languages in the world, making it helpful for travel and business.
Even if you don’t travel and don’t have much contact with speakers of other languages, there are so many great books, poems, films, series, and more that are originally in French. Personally, that’s one one of the reasons I started learning French. And after a few years, it was amazing to be able to read Baudelaire’s poetry in its original version, delight in Zola’s vivid descriptions, and chuckle along with Beigbeder’s 99 Francs (both the novel and the film). It’s moving and often powerful to be able to read first-hand historical accounts from different periods of French history – many of these have never been translated. It’s lovely to enjoy and understand the original dialogues in Amélie, the lyrics of Edith Piaf’s powerful ballads, as well as the clever wordplay of musicians like Matthieu Chedid (-M-), who wrote my favorite French song, La Seine.
If goals like these speak to you, keep them in mind when you’re feeling frustrated while studying French. You will be fluent one day, and in the meantime, you’ll learn and discover so much along the way!
I’d like to end this article with one of my favorite French expressions: Bonne continuation. A phrase that can be used in all sorts of situations, it literally translates to “Good continuation”. In this case, it means “Good luck as you continue learning French!”
Have you discovered any French expressions you love? If you haven’t yet, don’t worry. Keep studying French and you will!