If you’re considering learning French as a second language, you may be asking yourself, “Why is French hard?” How easy is it to learn French, anyway? There are certainly aspects of the language that are complex, but it is easier than you may think if you work to understand why it is like that.
Things like pronunciation, grammar, and French expressions are certainly different, but French has more in common with English than you may realize. No matter what aspects you struggle with, the personalized attention from a French tutor can help you master them.
1. Accent Marks
English speakers can find reading, writing, and typing French accent marks confusing at first. You know how sometimes the same letter can make different sounds? On a basic level, accent marks mark the difference between those sounds.
É – Accent Aigu
The accent aigu only appears above the letter E. It is pronounced like “ay.”
Examples of words that include it: desolé, médicin
È – Accent Grave
The accent grave usually appears above the letter E, but can appear above any vowel. It is pronounced like the E in the English word get.
Examples of words that include it: problème, deuxième
Ç – Accent Cedille
The cedille appears under the letter C. It makes the sound soft, like an S as opposed to hard like a K.
Examples of words that include in: français, garçon
Ö – Accent Trema
The trema can appear over any vowel. It makes the second vowel in a pair voiced. It is often used with names and places.
Examples of words that include it : coïncidence, Zoë
Ô – Circonflexe
The circonflexe can appear over any vowel. It does not significantly alter the pronunciation. There is a movement to remove it from the language, but it is still important to recognize it and know which words include it.
Examples of words that include it: être, hôtel
One of the most common mistakes that French learners make is putting off working on pronunciation. Sure, it can be intimidating, but if anything French pronunciation is more logical than English pronunciation because the rules are more consistent. Pronunciation is an area where a tutor is particularly helpful because the tutor is someone to regularly talk to who will correct you and stop you from forming bad habits.
Ask anyone who has never studied French what they know about it and they will probably say “it has a lot of silent letters.” It’s true. H at the beginning of words and D, G, M, N, P, S, X , and Z at the end of words are all silent. There are some exceptions for names and words that originated in other languages.
In certain cases, e’s in the middle of words are skipped over. This is called the “e muet” or an unvoiced e. It applies to words like acheter (aush-TAY) and appeler (aup-LAY).
Another distinctive feature of French that even non-speakers recognize is the nasal sounds. The dialect spoken in Quebec is particularly nasal. English has nasal sounds, but they are all consonants: m,n, and ng. In French the nasal sounds are vowel-consonant combinations.
When you say them, redirect air that would normally come out of your nose. To see what that feels like, say “sing”, “sang”, “song”, and “sung” out loud in English and notice how your tongue presses against your soft palate.
Notable Sounds That Are Different From English
French R’s are guttural, which means you have to pretend you’re gargling water from the back of your throat to get the right sound. For it to sound natural, you will have to exaggerate it when you first work on it, and then pull back.
When English speakers see “th” in a word, we sound it out like the word “thick.” That sound does not exist in French but the combination of letters does. When you see a “th” in French, pronounce it like a hard T.
A French “ch” sounds like an English “sh”
If a word ends in “er” or “ez”, it is pronounced like “ay”
The “ent” ending is silent
French is very grammatically different from English. French grammar rules are decided by forty experts in language, literature, and politics who form an institution called L’académie Française. That means as hard as you may find it to believe, every rule exists on purpose.
Adjectives are typically placed after the noun in French. This is the opposite of the norm in English. However, there are significant exceptions. A helpful way to remember which ones come before the noun is the BANGS list:
- B – beauty
- A – age
- N – newness
- G – gender
- S – size
For example, color is not on the BANGS list so “the blue car” would translate to “la voiture bleue” but size is, so “the big car” would translate to “la grande voiture.”
Everything in French is gendered. Nouns are either masculine or feminine and the rest of the sentence has to be consistent with it.
If the subject of a sentence is masculine, you have to use masculine articles for it like un (a, one) or le (the).
If a noun is feminine, the equivalents are une and la, respectively.
In sentences that include “my [object]”, “your [object]”, “his [object]”, or “her [object]” use the article that matches the gender of the object, not the sentence. For example, “She talks with her professor” would be “Elle parle avec son professeur” because the word professor is masculine, even though the subject is a woman.
You probably noticed some Es in parenthesis at the end of some of the vocabulary words. If you are a woman, the word is spelled with the E. If you are a man, it is not. If you are non-binary, do what you want I guess. There is not a consensus on how non-binary people should navigate grammatical gender.
In English, the gender of the subject and whether the subject is plural or singular do not affect other parts of the sentence. They sure do in French though.
“Le grand bateau” is written with the masculine form of “grand”, without an e, because “bateau” is a masculine word. “The big shirt,” however, is “La grande chemise” with “grande” with an e because “chemise” is feminine.
On a similar note, if the noun is plural, the adjective has to be plural too. Matchy-matchy! So if you were talking about multiple blue cars, you would say “les voitures bleues” or multiple big boats would be “les grands bateaux”.
If you want to get anywhere in French, you need to know how to conjugate French verbs. The first step of conjugating French verbs (except for futur simple and conditionnel) is to chop off the ending of the infinitive, the unmodified form of the verb, to make it a stem.
The next step is to attach a new ending to the stem depending on the subject that precedes it. The most logical place to start is with the present tense and then move on to the past and future tenses. There are three categories of regular verb infinitives: ones the end in “-er” ones the end in “-re” and ones that end in “-ir.”
4. Phrases and Expressions
Memorizing only basic phrases can make you sound more like a robot than a person. Sprinkle these common French phrases into your conversations will help you close the gap between speaking technically well and speaking authentically.
Ah la vache
“Ah la vache!” is a versatile interjection that literally means “oh the cow!” People use it to express surprise, disappointment, or admiration much like “oh my god!” in English. Other similar expressions include “oh la la”, “ah zut”, and “dis donc.”
“Pif” is a crude slang word for nose, so “au pif” literally means “by a nose.” Doing something by the nose is guessing or estimating. “Au pif” can be used when you would use “about”, “roughly”, or “at random.”
“N’importe quoi” has three main uses, none of which are literally “not important what.” The first is an alternative to “anything.” The second is a dismissive “whatever.” The third signifies “a whole lot of nothing”
“Quand même” is used the way English speakers use “all the same,” “in any case,” “anyway,” or “still.” Its literal translation is “when same.”
“Bref” is a filler word that literally translates to “brief”. French speakers use it the way English speakers use fillers like “anyway,” “basically,” “in short,” “in a nutshell.” You may also see “en bref” in writing to introduce a conclusion
So, Is French Hard to Learn?
The answer to this question is: it doesn’t have to be! Whether the best way to learn French is on your own or in a class, French tutoring can help you struggle less with the hard parts. Once you find the right tutor for your goals and prepare for a successful lesson, you’ll be on your way.