French language: is it hard to learn ?

learning French
Aug 12, 2022

Foreigners who have learned French have merit!  The French language is a puzzle.  Why is French perceived by foreigners as a language difficult to learn?  73% of French people themselves consider it a difficult language!  Demanding, not always logical…

Here are some reasons that explain the difficulties in learning French as a foreign language.

Read and don’t get discouraged!

1. French is a language with multiple origins and influences

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These Gauls are crazy to speak such a convoluted language!  But above all, this complexity hides a great wealth, stemming from several linguistic roots.
French originates from the Roman language, derived from Latin. Over the course of history, it has been modified and enriched by Gallic (Celtic language), then under Germanic influence from the Franks.
Finally, the many regional and local variations, the languages ​​of Oc and the languages ​​of Oil, have generated a language that is complex but rich in its diversity! And it continues today with the expressions unique to each region and the accents that overlap to make it even more difficult for outsiders trying to understand french people.

scolaires en cours de français

Victor Hugo in this regard, spoke of the legacies of the French language:

«  The French language, from that time on, began to be chosen by peoples as an intermediary between the excess of northern consonants and the excess of southern vowels. »

(The Laughing Man, 1869, Victor Hugo)

2. French agrees with gender and number

groupe-etudiantes FLE

Knowing the gender of a French word is not easy … And once you know whether it is a feminine or masculine noun, you still have to conjugate the sentence by adding the singular or plural mark… French is hard to learn because there are so many combinations and conjugations to master! 

In everyday life, the English don’t meet this issue since there is no gender distinction in their language.  On the other hand, French has nothing to envy to Italian, which juggles four ending vowels depending on gender and number, while Russian or German distinguish three genders!  So… “un” or “une” orthographe (spelling)? “Un” or “une” après-midi (afternoon)?  ….  Better take it as a game.

3. Tu, Vous, On: but who is talking to whom?

stage-en-entreprise francophone

This is a question that torments many foreigners learning French… In a discussion, you have to be reactive and decide spontaneously: what will be the correct pronoun?  Tu or vous? 
The life of an Englishman is much simpler, no such considerations since there is no distinction: You is universal. 

In French, you have to wonder about your age, your hierarchical level, the relationship you have with your interlocutor before daring to say ‘tu’!  Even if the use of ‘tu’ tends to spread, the alternation with the ‘vous’ remains very common in the language of Molière.  Not to mention the “On”, a pronoun used abundantly by the French, and which can replace all the other pronouns depending on the context.  French is a “social” language, which clarifies the different human relationships!


4. Write and pronounce French: the trap of phonetics

The language of Voltaire is a foreign language riddled with small traps and it holds surprises for those who trust phonetics. French is not necessarily written as it is pronounced.  Between the aspirate Hs, the silent endings, the Ss which are added where we do not expect them (we say UNE SouriS (mouse), no ?!) or the irregularities which simply need to be learnt by heart… The FFL learner  must show patience and courage!  His memory is strained as the French themselves fall into many pronunciation traps.  Who never makes the mistake of writing the word accueil (welcome) “” when it sounds like “”?  In short, beware of pitfalls, French is a language that follows certain codes, but sometimes it likes to overcome them …

5. The delicate practice of French conjugation

groupe-etudiantes FLE

While English is already well known for its “irregular verbs” which can be repeated at will to learn them by heart, French surpasses itself in terms of conjugation, as a good, self-respecting Latin language.  The mode, the time and the person, then the quantity of irregularities, make it possible to measure the difficulty of French by the complexity of its conjugation.  A learning puzzle that requires real training over time!  Software and websites even offer direct question answer online games to memorize verbs!  We challenge you to conjugate the verb COUDRE (to sew) in the imperfect subjunctive… French conjugation is a real challenge!

6. Numbers after 60: a linguistic curiosity 

groupe-etudiantes FLE

The French speaker does not even realize it anymore: the French nomenclature of 60 to 100 defies all logic and ties the brains of learners in knots.  Soixante-dix (70) ….  Quatre-vingt-dix (90)… This counting system, which can make foreigners give a sour laugh, comes from the vicesimal system, which is based on the number twenty.  It completes the decimal system which applies from 20 to 60. This basic nomenclature 20 goes back to the origins of people who used to count on their ten fingers and ten toes.  So we don’t say “deux-vingts” but “quarante” (40).  We don’t say “nonante” either, but “Quatre-vingt-dix” (90)… Learners of French have to muse a lot … Otherwise it would be too easy.

7. French is an evolving living language

groupe-etudiantes FLE

The French language is evolving because it belongs to modern languages, and is used by 300 million speakers.  Its changes are manifested by new words, which enter the dictionary or simply in everyday language.  The older generations even have difficulty understanding the younger ones… Numerous anglicisms, foreign or regional influences, technical vocabulary linked to new technologies make some people perplex!  French is enriched each year with new terms that are adopted by French speakers while others disappear, out of obsolescence and disuse.

For example, Blob, influenceur (influencer), hygge, féminicide (femicide), etc. are entering the 2021 dictionary. French is therefore a complex foreign language insofar as it lives and evolves with the times.  It is open to the world and adapts to the international context, which is also what makes it rich and dynamic.

French follows grammar and conjugation rules which it sometimes derogates from… The language of Molière thwarts the Bescherelle codes, and makes learning more difficult for a foreigner, all the more so if his mother tongue is neither Latin nor Germanic. 

It all depends on the point of view … When you look at it, French is not as hard as, for example, Mandarin which requires learning a new alphabet made of sonograms, and does not show any phonetics.

French author and filmmaker Eugène Green sums up the complexity of the French language in a beautiful way and gives it all its grandeur:

“French requires hindsight, intellectual reflection to find the right spelling, to conjugate, even for someone whose mother tongue  it is.  So much so that the French language puts an author of foreign origin on an equal footing “.

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