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Is French Language Study Difficult?

By Sophia, published on 15/03/2018 Blog > Languages > French > Is French Hard to Learn?

For some people, embarking on a journey of learning a foreign language is a giddy adventure; for others, learning new language involves combating a great deal of stress and frustration, compounded with a deep reluctance to hit the books.

Attitude plays a large part in one’s ability to learn a second language.

Some of the roadblocks we throw on the path to of motivation toward any endeavour are purely fictional. I have no proficiency for languages, some might say. Or: I can barely speak English; how could I learn to speak French?

And, the most decimating of all: what use would I have for speaking French?

You would have to realise the many benefits of learning French language and culture in order to answer that question most thoroughly.

Enough pop-psychology!

Back to the main point: is learning languages, especially French, a tortuous ordeal to be avoided at all costs?

We contend that learning how to speak French is challenging but enjoyable and – more surprisingly!, an easy endeavour that everyone can, and maybe should undertake!

Here are a few reasons why fluency in French is easy to achieve…

French grammar is as precise as a flying acrobatic team Like these aviators, French grammar demands exacting precision Source: Pixabay Credit Bluesnap

French is a Grammatically Precise Language

Do you have any plans this weekend?

How would a listener know whether the you in question is one person or a group of people?

You might be standing amidst a group, but the speaker wants to know only about your plans.

In French, this ambiguity would be resolved by using the corresponding pronoun: tu for a single person, or vous for a group.

Unless the person you communicate with is older, in a position of authority – such as your boss, and/or not well-known to you, in which case s/he would use the formal you.

You will have learned how to address someone formally, using vous, early in your French classes.

In itself, the language of Molière is no more precise than any other language and, if such a claim should be made, the only way to prove it would be by lexical depth – the number of words that populate the vocabulary.

English, Arabic and German all have a substantial vocabulary, but they borrow heavily from other languages.

By comparison, French vocabulary is relatively shallow – and the French resist importing words from any other language by law!

Incidentally, do you know how many French words and phrases populate the English language?

What we mean by grammatically precise is that there are virtually no French grammar rule exceptions.

In fact, French grammar is so straightforward that you might start to understand grammatical structures after just a few language lessons; when you’ve mastered beginner level French vocabulary.

However, there are some facets of grammar in French that are substantially more difficult to grasp, such as grammatical gender.

How does one divine whether an object should be masculine or feminine?

Add to that, word agreement: if the noun in is feminine – has a la or une article; then the adjective must also be in feminine form.

A white shirt would translate to une chemise blanche; but a white sweater would become un chandail blanc. Note the feminine and masculine adjective endings!

Here, we give a touch of encouragement: French grammatical gender is much simpler for the English speaker to learn than in other languages, such as German!

Verb Tenses and Conjugation in French

Whereas the English language has a total of 12 verb tenses, the French language has nearly double that number – all questions of mood aside.

The good news is that you are not likely to need all of them at once, and some, not ever!

Precluding French language skills beyond intermediate, you won’t need the more difficult tenses at all – unless you are in a French immersion programme.

Your French teachers have surely impressed upon you that the most important aspect to remember in using any verb tense is agreement.

If the subject is feminine, the verb, where applicable, must have a feminine suffix.

Je me suis lavée depicts a woman who has washed herself. If the writer were a man, there would not be an extra E at the end of the verb.

J’ai mangé – I have eaten, is not genderised, no matter whether a man or a woman has eaten.

Naturally, such agreements are paramount in reading and writing in French. The gender connotation does not change the word pronunciation – in these cases.

There are nouns that do change form according to gender: mâitre versus maitresse – male and female teacher, for example.

As for English speakers, so the native speaker of French: you will find irregular verbs in either language.

We daresay the list of French irregular verbs is substantially shorter than the English one!

And only a handful of French irregular verbs are used in conversational French; compared to about 200 English irregular verbs in daily use.

Speaking French is not a turbulent affair; the language should flow Spoken French flows much more smoothly than this rushing river! Source: Pixabay Credit: Gerald Friedrich

The Rhythm and the Flow of French

To make this point, let us study a commonly used English word that was imported from French: resume.

In English, when the spoken stress is placed on the second syllable, the word is a verb.

When the spoken stress is on the last syllable – pronounced resumay, it becomes a noun.

Such double-meaning, double-function words are liberally sprinkled throughout the English language.

We, whose native language is English, are used to them and take them in our stride.

Imagine a francophone attempting to decipher the phrase: not on my watch!

Does the speaker mean nothing bad will happen during his time to be on guard, or that nothing should be placed on his device for telling time?

Linguistic experts agree that, because of the syllable stress necessary to make English comprehensible, the end effect of the spoken language is staccato; choppy.

French vocabulary needs no inflection to give meaning to its words. Instead, words are grouped into phonic units and delivered in a unique rhythm.

The words in the noun groups are spoken together quickly, with a rising tone; the verbal phrase with a falling tone and the prepositional phrase, if any, is treated to a rising-falling tone similar to the one used in Mandarin Chinese.

It may take a while for any French learner to get used to that distinctive parlance.

How long do you think it might take you to learn French?

Placing and Speaking Accents Correctly

What are those diacritical marks on some of the most common words in French? Why are they even used? And why do some Cs have a cedilla under them, and others don’t?

We don’t need them at all in English, after all!

In a surprisingly large number of cases, said accents are used to denote a now-absent S: étudiant, for example, or école.

The Umlauttwo dots over a vowel are used to indicate that each vowel must be spoken separately: Noël, for example, or naïve.

Beyond that, the issue of accents gets a bit more convoluted.

The accent that looks like a tiny hat; as in forêt, can be used to distinguish between two like-written words: haler, meaning to haul in, and hâler – the verb to tan.

Imagine getting the accents wrong on this word pair: gène meaning gene (as in genome); and gêne – to bother!

How to use a Cedilla in La Langue Française

There! Did you see it? Under the letter C in the word meaning French?

Failure to place a cedilla correctly results in the C sounding like K.

The French rule approximates the English version of I before E: unless the C is followed by either E or I, you must apply the cedilla to obtain the S sound.

Please! Don’t ever call for a garcon (pronounced gar-kon)! You will get much better service from a garçon.

Again, rules for accents and other marks apply more to reading and writing French than to listening comprehension or speaking French.

However, with an exquisitely tuned ear, you may well hear the differences between accented homophones such as chaîne and chêne!

What if a French speaker took 'not on my watch' were taken literally? How might a native French speaker interpret ‘not on my watch’? Source: Pixabay Credit: Splitshire

Taking Things in Context

When you get right down to it, French and English are not so different: each has grammar rules, homophones and homographs; both languages conjugate verbs and have multiple tenses.

Both languages require the attuned linguist to be aware of nuance – another effective French word!

Nuance and context are closely related concepts in linguistics.

Whereas the first is a subtle difference in meaning, the second represents finding meaning through associated words and actions.

Making use of not on my watch once more…

If you see a man utter that phrase while running, panicked, to his bureau, on top of which lays his wristwatch, you may infer that he does not want something spilled on his watch.

The action provides the context for the meaning of the phrase.

On the other hand, whispering that same phrase could represent either a plea or a threat – that is nuance.

From your French courses you will learn that the language is rife with examples of subtle nuance and elegant turns of phrase that simply don’t translate into our first language.

Phrases whose true, complete meaning can only come to life if you can speak the French language more or less fluently.

Do all of these reasons why you should learn French have you motivated to sign up for language courses?

Once you discover how easy studying French really is, you might feel inspired to learn Russian, learn Spanish or even to learn Japanese!

Wouldn’t it be great to put polyglot on your resume?

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