French or Spanish: Which is Easier to Learn, Master, and Speak?
Salut tout le monde! Or should I say hola, instead? If you’re here, it’s because you’re wondering which foreign language to study and to finally answer your burning question once and for all: which language is easier to master, Spanish or French?
Undoubtedly, gaining fluency in any foreign language is a considerable task, no matter which language you choose. The good news is that French and Spanish are both considered fairly easy to learn in comparison to many other world languages. In fact, according to the Foreign Service Institute, attaining proficiency in either of these languages requires the least amount of study time, averaging to about 575-600 hours or around 24 weeks (depending on your routine).
Learn One or Learn Them Both
What’s even more enticing is the reality that learning one of these languages significantly improves your ability to master the other one faster. Having personally learned French first, I was able to learn Spanish much faster and more efficiently, and I can promise you that it’s absolutely possible for you, too.
What’s Difficult About Each Language?
Before taking on a new challenge, it helps to prepare yourself to overcome the potential obstacles up ahead. This is especially relevant when you are weighing your options between two closely related fields of study. Let’s explore the most complex aspects of both Spanish and French to give you a feel for potential bumps in the road to fluency.
The Complexities of French
1. Pronunciation Rules
Both French pronunciation and aural comprehension require a dedicated attention to detail to master. Due to liaisons, enchaînement, silent consonants, and their many exceptions, it is difficult to determine where one word ends and another one begins.
2. Five Accent Marks
French uses five distinct accent marks that affect the pronunciation of words, as well as their meaning, and even give clues on how the word was spelled in antiquity. The five accent marks are:
- L’accent aigu: é (pronounced “ay”)
- L’accent grave: è, à (pronounced “eh” and “ah”)
- La Cédille: ç (pronounced “s”)
- L’Accent Circonflexe: ê (pronounced “eh”)
- Le Tréma: ë, ï (pronounced “eh” and “ee”)
3. Two-Part Past Tense
The French past tense is composed of two parts, an auxiliary verb and a past participle, called le passé composé. While this tense is also used in English and Spanish, it is much more frequently used in French. In fact, it’s basically the equivalent of the simple past in English and Spanish. The big headache here is learning whether to use “avoir” or “être” as the auxiliary (or helping) verb when forming the compound past tense.
For example, “aller” or “to go” uses être (conjugated to “suis”) in le passé composé:
- Je suis allé au parc. (I went to the park.)
Meanwhile, “ranger” or “to clean up” uses “avoir” (conjugated to “ai”) in le passé composé:
- J’ai rangé ma chambre. (I cleaned up my room.)
4. Specific and Complicated Word Order
French uses a highly particular word order and sentence structure that makes no room for deviation. When a verb, pronoun, object pronoun, or adverbial phrase ends up in the wrong spot, you’re likely to make complete nonsense out of your sentence, or worse—say something entirely different from what you intend to.
5. Agreement with Compound Verbs
Remember when I mentioned that le passé composé requires that you learn to use either “avoir” or “être” as a helping verb? Well, it gets worse: these verbs must also agree with the pronoun they refer to! Compound verbs and pronominal verbs change spelling (and sometimes pronunciation) depending on the subject of the sentence or the direct object.
If the direct object is male, the auxiliary verb “avoir” doesn’t change to agree:
J’ai vu à Pierre. (I saw Pierre.) – changes to – Je l’ai vu. (I saw him.)
However, if the direct object is female, the verb changes to agree:
J’ai vu à Lisette. (I saw Lisette.) – changes to – Je l’ai vue. (I saw her.)
*Verbs conjugated with être as well as pronominal verbs require even more attention. Learn more from a popular French teaching blog, Lawless French.
6. Two-Part Negation
French uses two words—”ne…pas”—that surround a conjugated verb, pronoun, and verb preposition in order to make a negative sentence. The second part, “pas” can be replaced with “jamais” for “never,” “personne,” for “no one,” and “rien,” for “nothing/anything.” For example:
J’ai de l’argent. (I have money.)
Je n’ai pas d’argent. (I don’t have any money.)
Je vais à l’école. (I’m going to school.)
Je ne vais jamais à l’école. (I’m never going to school.)
Things sure do get crazy with French negation when you start cramming pronouns and prepositions in between!
The Complexities of Spanish
1. Verb Conjugation Overload
More than 100 conjugations exist for each Spanish verb. Yeah, that is a lot! Many beginner Spanish learners experience conjugation fatigue, from overloading their brains with the vast expanse of verb variability. The best way to overcome this is to take your time, organize verbs by category (ar, er, ir), and learn irregulars as you go. Also, don’t stress too much at first and rely more heavily on the subject pronoun to do the heavy lifting. Speaking of the subject pronoun…
2. The Subject Pronoun is Often Omitted
Spanish is notorious for removing the subject pronouns altogether in daily conversations and communications. This requires learners to memorize each and every conjugation (in all tenses) to understand who is performing the action (and when).
Fuimos al supermercado. (We went to the supermarket.)
While it’s acceptable to say nosotros fuimos, it’s completely unnecessary since the verb makes it known who went.
This gets complicated when someone asks you:
¿Va al supermercado?
Oh! Do they mean YOU as in usted va or do they mean HE/SHE as in él/ella va? Only context will save you here!
3. Super Common Subjunctive Tense
The subjunctive mood is more difficult than the French subjunctive and it’s used constantly in Spanish. It appears when preceded by particular trigger words (see examples) that you will need to memorize. It’s also consistently used to express wishes, desires, probabilities, and speculations.
¡Ojalá que salga bien! – (Hopefully it all works out!) – trigger word is ojalá
Necesito que me traigas un vaso. – (I need you to bring me a cup.) – expressing a desire/need
Learn more about this tense in our Subjunctive series.
4. Two Imperfect Subjunctive Tenses
Two forms exist to express the imperfect subjunctive: -ra and -se. The good news is that you’ll probably only need to focus on -ra since it’s commonly used in speech. The bad news? Both forms are used in writing, especially literature, so you’ll be better off learning them both!
For example, it’s pretty common to hear:
Si yo tuviera un cachorro, estaría super feliz! (If I had a puppy, I’d be super happy!)
Meanwhile, it’s not common to hear this, but you may see it in Spanish literature:
Le exigieron que aprendiese a manejar. (They demanded that he learn how to drive.)
5. Two Ways to Say “To Be”
The Spanish verbs estar and ser both mean “to be” in English, but they have almost entirely different meanings. Estar tends to refer to temporary states of being and existence, while ser implies something is more permanent; however, plenty of exceptions will pop up along your journey to fluency!
Estoy en la cocina. (I’m in the kitchen.) – temporary, changing
Soy de España. (I’m from Spain.) – permanent quality of myself
But, watch out! We use the temporary verb estar for él está muerto to mean “he is dead.”
6. More False Friends than Sister Words
Another name for “sister words” is cognates, which are words across languages that have similar pronunciation and meaning. On the other hand, false cognates, also known as false friends, are words that look similar but don’t mean the same! In relation to English, Spanish has more false friends than cognates. Want to see some examples? Check out this list of 40 False Cognates in Spanish That Will Trip You Up and Confuse You.
What’s Easy About Each Language?
Whew! Take a deep breath. All the complexities will melt away (or at least stand down for now), while we focus on what’s easy and enjoyable about learning each language.
The Simplicities of French
1. You Know a Ton of French Vocabulary Already
In fact, English has more in common with French than any other language. Historically, French was the language of the governing class in England, while the proletariat spoke English. Eventually, these two linguistic worlds collided, and statistics say that the English language borrowed a staggering 45% of its words from French!
2. The Subject Pronoun Is Always Used
Similar to English, French always uses the subject pronouns in their sentences. This is good news for beginners, because it means that verb conjugations are not essential for understanding! Because many verbs sound similar in their conjugation, the subject pronoun is actually what provides clarity.
Tu viens avec moi. / vyɛ̃ / (You’re coming with me.)
Elle vient avec mon ami. / vyɛ̃ / (She is coming with my friend.)
2. Only Two Words Mean “You”
French uses “tu” as a singular and familiar form, while “vous” is the plural and formal form.
Tu = you (informal)
Vous = you (formal)
Vous = you all
4. French Subjunctive Isn’t Super Common
The French subjunctive mood is certainly used, but not as often as it is in Spanish. What’s more, it’s almost only after “que” (while the Spanish subjunctive is after que, cuando, como, etc.).
Tu fais ton travail. (You do your work.)
Je veux que tu fasses ton travail. (I want you to do your work.) – subjunctive
The Simplicities of Spanish
1. Spanish is Phonetic
If you look up any Spanish word in the dictionary, you’ll notice that there is not a phonetic guide next to it, as there is in English. That’s because Spanish is phonetic! Once you learn how syllables and letters are pronounced, then the consistent rule applies to all words (with a few exceptions).
2. Rules for Accentuation
The emphasis of Spanish words usually falls on the penultimate (second to last) syllable. When this is not the case, an accent mark appears on the vowel that carries the stress.
Yo hablo con mi madre. / AH-blo / (I talk to my mother.) – stress on penultimate syllable
Ella habló con mi tía. / ah-BLO / (She talked to my aunt.) – stress on last syllable with accent mark
This consistency makes it possible for you to correctly read brand new words!
3. Flexible Word Order
Unlike English and French, Spanish has a flexible word order, allowing you to move the subject from beginning to end. In English, we use the order Subject → Verb → Object (SVO). Spanish will sound correct using the SVO order as well as VSO and VOS. For example:
Ella camina en el bosque. – She walks in the woods.
Camina ella en el bosque. – She walks in the woods.
Camina en el bosque ella. – She walks in the woods.
Are You Ready to Start?
Now that we’ve covered what’s difficult and easy about learning each language, it’s time for you to make a choice! Both Spanish and French are eagerly awaiting you to master them, so maybe you’ll be like me and decide to learn them both. If you’d like to practice today with a native Spanish speaker, sign up for a free class with our teachers who live in Antigua, Guatemala! If French caught your eye this time, check out the free trial class that Coucou French offers.
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