Is learning french so difficult?

By Anouche Karaman 24-06-2020

French, difficult?

At least that's its reputation. But why is French a difficult language to learn?

What makes learning French difficult?

These Gauls (French people’s ancestors) are crazy! And anyone who has ever rolled up their sleeves (or their socks) to immerse themselves in the language of Molière will be able to testify to that. Here is a short, non-exhaustive list of reasons why learning French is difficult.

Why is French difficult to learn?

1) The gender test 

What makes French difficult to learn is first of all the gender test. While the English don't have this problem on a daily basis, learners of French quickly realize that the gender of a word is the kind of little detail that can make all the difference.

There are a few tricks to determine whether a word is masculine or feminine, and the letter “e” does not mean the word is systematically feminine! It is only the letter that is used to make a masculine word feminine, if at all possible. Ex: grand->grande.

A few tricks to remember to make is easier to know is a word is masculine or feminine?

You need to look at the ending of a word.

If the word ends with a nasal sound (an, in, on – regardless of its spelling), more often than not, it is masculine.

Words ending with a hard consonant (s/t/d) is more often than not masculine.

Ex: garçon, grand, thon, plomb, géant, gant, grain, marchand, chien etc…

Words ending with Vowel-double consonant-E is more often than not, feminine.

Ex: baguette, cruche, tarte, bonne, personne.


2) YOU: collective or polite.

Life is much simpler for those who don't have to deal with this kind of pirouetting. Because in French, not only does the way you address someone depend on the age and importance of the person you are speaking to, not only does it depend on the relationship you have with them.

This is true both for the YOU: tu or vous and the way you make questions: inversion for formal speech, est-ce que for normal speech, normal sentence structure but with a higher pitched end sentence for informal.

Veux-tu ? formal

Est-ce que tu veux ? normal

Tu veux ? informal


3) Numbers above 60

Another puzzle that makes French difficult to learn, numbers above 60. If this system, laughed at by foreigners, seems to defy all logic (why don't we say septante or nonante, as in Switzerland?), we can consider ourselves fortunate.

These numbers are indeed the survivors of an old system, using the base twenty (and not ten, like the decimal system). We have therefore escaped twenty-ten (30), two-twenty-ten (50), etc !

4) The spelling puzzle

Between the letters that are not pronounced at the end of words, the letters that are not pronounced in words and the accents that change the pronunciation with a well-placed pencil stroke, French is not the most instinctive language there is! Complicated for those whose mother tongue is pronounced the way it is written?

Word endings are not pronounced because in doing so the word becomes feminine and is then pronounced all the way through up to the silent final E. So pronunciation is key to being understood, as ill-pronunciation is the best way to lose your audience (French do not care about grammar but about pronunciation, for obvious reasons: if you pronounce a masculine word and pronounce the last letter, you are making it a feminine word, which your listener is trying to locate from a previous sentence, trying to figure out what you are referring to. By the time the listener understands it is a pronunciation error, the conversation will have continued, and the listener has lost the thread of the conversation, making it hard to follow.

5) The nightmare of conjugation

Like any good Latin language, French has a hair-raising conjugation - the verb changes form with fashion, tense, person and number. Add to this the concordance of tenses, past participle agreement or grammatical exceptions and you get an idea of the festivities!

Conjugation is not THAT difficult in fact:

Endings are always the same, regardless of the tense, according to the group (one of three), the verb belongs to:

                                                                        Singular                        Plural

1/ -er verbs                                                     -e, -es, -e

2/ -ir (with “ss” for we you they)+re          -s, -s, -t/0                   -ons, -ez, -nt

3/- others                                                        -x, -x, -t


Stem changing verbs: out of the six (I, you, he/she/it, we, plural or respectful you, they) learning only three is enough: I, we, they.

Then adding the above mentioned endings on the other three will do the trick.

Tenses: learning only 3 will allow you to know the most important tenses and modes, as they are derived from those:

Present (used to form both imperfect and subjunctive)

Future (used to form conditional as well)

Past participle used to make all past tenses, more importantly: passé compose.


6) ... and regional specialities!

Once the previous tests have been overcome, the learner is not at the end of his or her difficulties. Indeed, the French language varies according to the region: if you want a pencil, for example, you will ask for a "crayon de bois" in the Hauts-de-France, a "crayon gris" in Franche-Comté or a "crayon de papier" in the East. Similarly, never, ever ask for a pain au chocolat in a Toulouse bakery - you'll be laughed at! There, it is called “chocolatine”.

Is French so difficult?

Then yes, all these reasons make French difficult to learn. However, it's all relative. If you think of Chinese, with its thousands of sinograms and four different tones, or the Russians who decline everything they can get their hands on, or of the Turkish who has serious agglutinatory tendencies, you're not so badly off in the end!

Often described as a difficult language to learn, French does indeed have some fantasies that are sometimes difficult to grasp for a child or a foreigner learning it. In fact, more than 73% of French people think that French is a difficult language. French spelling champion Guillaume Terrien even acknowledged that the French language is demanding and not always very logical.

So why is French so difficult to learn?


Multiple origins

First of all, the French language is a Roman language. It is therefore derived from Latin. However, over the course of history, it has been influenced by Gaul, which is a Celtic language, notably with terms such as "charrue", "chêne", "sillon", etc. Later, French was influenced by the Franks. For example, the terms "arquebus", "arrow", "reed" are derived from it.


An evolving language

The French language is often decried as a difficult language also because it is constantly evolving. Proof of this is that grandparents sometimes have difficulty understanding the vocabulary used by their grandchildren. Some words appear and others disappear because they become obsolete. These perpetual evolutions are one of the characteristics of living languages. French is also being enriched by foreign influences (notably through anglicisms) and a vocabulary linked to the appearance of new technologies ("twittosphere", "youtubeur", "geek", etc.).

In conclusion:


Difficult rules

Learning a language is not always easy, especially with French and its rigorous grammar. Its spelling is also quite original with for example the verb "to call" which takes two "p" and one "l", but once conjugated "I call" always takes two "p", but this time two "l". French also has a complicated conjugation with many tenses to know. You must also distinguish between the feminine and masculine with "le", "la", "une", "un", and between tutoiement and vouvoiement, unlike English.


A different pronunciation of writing

Also, one of the aspects that makes learning French difficult is pronunciation. Indeed, it is sometimes different from writing. For example, "bœuf" is pronounced with the "f", but in the plural, we say "des bœufs" without pronouncing either the "f" or the "s". And put yourself in the shoes of a foreigner learning French before the words "eye", "heart", "hardware" or "lime tree" or “dough” not pronounced like “laugh”. We wish them good luck!

Nevertheless, this complexity makes French a rich, very precise language for expressing a thought. That is why it is the language of the law. Moreover, if you learn other languages, you will notice that the French language is no more complicated than other languages. In English, a word will have two different meanings depending on the context. In Chinese, you need to know thousands of ideograms to write. Languages like Xhosa have "clicks" that are impossible for a European to reproduce.


In short, it's all about being motivated and above all not letting go!