French is arguably one of the most beautiful-sounding languages, but is notorious for bestowing its spelling and pronunciation woes upon the novice speaker. Let’s take a look at some of the aspects of French that make it hard, and offset it with others that may make it quite easy, and ways to help yourself improve.
If your goal is to be able to recite and translate international treaties and carry on philosophical or political conversations, your outlook is going to be different from someone that aims to enjoy the food, culture, and history of the French, and sustain everyday conversations.
Difficulties with Learning French
- Pronouncing all those vowels…
At the outset, it appears that there are few rules governing how to pronounce written French words. The difference between “ou” and “au” befuddle the early speaker, and many veteran French speakers immediately identify learners by common mistakes. The former, “ou,” is pronounced (oo), whereas the latter is almost identical to the English word “oh.” Hearing natives speak, either through an online course, or other method, will help you distinguish many of the common vowel combinations and how they should sound.
There are also a slew of accents that appear over French vowels: e, ê, è, and é are all valid characters in French, and each is pronounced slightly differently, with distinct rules of use. Learning these distinctions will quickly help you comprehend more spoken French in short time, and help compound your efforts to pronounce words correctly. Learning the alphabet and its variations will help immensely in understanding the phonetic differences between these characters. Then try to pick them out when listening to native speech.
- Do I pronounce this consonant…?
Most folks know about the classic French words ending in “x:” Bordeaux, faux, roux, etc., and that the “x” remains silent. But how about words like “rapport,” “poulet,” or “cabernet?” Thanks to the wine varietal, it is clear that the “t” in “cabernet” is silent, but what about the other words? Alone, the ending “t” is silent; but there are also specific rules dictating that certain consonants become audible when followed by a vowel in the next word. This probably becomes the most confusing aspect of learning to speak quickly, especially once you’ve familiarized yourself with common words that stand alone, but then start stringing them together as you become more advanced.
But There’s Hope – the Easier Stuff
- Reading similarities
When reading French, pronunciation doesn’t matter; so if your vocabulary and basic grammar is up to snuff (or even if not), you’re more likely to understand what you’re looking at versus what you may hear at first. Despite English’s classification as a Germanic language, there are so many English words derived from French that an English speaker can very likely identify at least 10% of the words on a page of French after only a couple of days.
- Foods and travel
If you speak English, it is relatively easy to tell if you’re about to order a meat dish in France. This is because the English words for several prepared meats derive from French, whereas the living animal is referred to by its Anglo-Saxon-derived word. Take a look, and you can see it’s pretty easy to
identify a lot of common ingredients:
In addition, there are several categories, fruits, and vegetables that share roots in common with English, which helps decipher menus. Regardless, for the best culinary experience (if you have no dietary restrictions), you may still want to ask for the “plat du jour” anyway…
Improving Your French
- Practice speaking and listening
While it may not always be easy to find people to practice with, you can take French language classes online, or use recordings and music; verbally try to reproduce the sounds you hear. Repeatedly listen to phrases you cannot immediately parse to see if you can identify the usage of certain pronunciation rules. When reading, read aloud, paying close attention to the pronunciation rules and accents. Try to pair it with an audio track to make sure you’re not practicing detrimentally. As you practice you will find applying the rules, and speaking words and phrases in sequence will come more easily.
- Label things around the house
For common nouns, this is a very quick way to etch the likeness of words into your memory and drive association with the objects themselves. Every time you open the stove and see “poêle” written on it, you will develop the association over time. As you reach for the stove handle, say the object aloud, or if you’re more advanced, add a few other words around the noun to describe what you’re doing. Similarly, for verbs, when you perform actions, try to say the verb aloud, or if you don’t know what it is, make a note to research it later.
- Add some formal structure
Find an online tool to help you put the pieces in place, test your knowledge, or practice your pronunciation with easily accessed audio tracks. Similarly, take a language class to experience learning with other folks and get individual attention from an instructor.
So is French hard to learn?
Hopefully with these tips and information, learning French is not as daunting as it might have seemed at first. You can take note of what may make French difficult for some learners (check out my comparison here), and keep those points in the front of your mind as you study so you can identify common stumbling blocks and develop strategies to work through them. Remember that any language has its own quirks, but with a little focus, commitment, and clear goals, you can achieve great progress in time.