WHY IS LEARNING FRENCH SO DAMN HARD?
Admissions and tips from a French language teacher
I don’t care what anyone says, French is damn hard. I speak decent Afrikaans, English and German, but the language of Molière still has me tongue-tied and feeling like a fool most days.
I challenged Anouche Karaman, language teacher and founder of the Swiss Learning Academy in Geneva to explain why French is so hard to learn.
Here is Anouche’s explanation for why learning French is difficult with some tips to make it easier.
WHAT MAKES FRENCH SO DIFFICULT TO LEARN?
1) THE GENDER TEST
Learners of French quickly realise that the gender of a word is exactly the kind of little detail that can make all the difference. Getting your le-s and la-s right, seems nearly impossible when you first start learning the language.
There are a few tricks to determine whether a word is masculine or feminine, but note the letter “e” at the end of a word, does not necessarily mean the word is feminine!
Here are a few tricks to make is easier to know if a word is masculine or feminine:
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, for example garçon, grand, thon, plomb, géant, gant, grain, marchand, chien etc…
- Words ending with a vowel – double consonant – e is more often than not, feminine for example: baguette, cruche, tarte, bonne, personne.
2) BEING POLITE
Life is much simpler for those who don’t have to deal with this kind of pirouetting. In French, not only does the way you address someone depend on the age and importance of the person you are speaking to, but also on the relationship you have with them.
This is true both for the YOU: tu (informal) or vous (formal) and the way you form questions:
- Inversion for formal speech
- Est-ce que for normal speech
- Normal sentence structure but with a higher pitched end sentence for informal speech.
- EXAMPLES :
- Veux-tu ? formal
- Est-ce que tu veux ? normal
- Tu veux ? informal
You can be formal saying « tu » : veux-tu and informal using « vous » : vous voulez? Vous is not just about respect but also about hierarchy (formal speech).
3) NUMBER CRUNCHING
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?), the French finds it very logical.
These numbers are indeed the survivors of an old system, using the base 20 (and not 10, like the decimal system).
4) THE SPELLING PUZZLE
Between unpronounced letters at the end of words, letters that are not pronounced in words and accents that change the pronunciation with a well-placed pencil stroke, French is not the most instinctive language there is! This can be very 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.
Example? Grand – grande??
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 CONJUGATION NIGHTMARE
Like any decent Latin-based language, French has 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 tense, according to the group (one of three), the verb belongs to:
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 composé.
6) … AND REGIONAL TWISTS!
Once the previous challenges 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.
SO, IS FRENCH REALLY 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 have serious agglutinatory tendencies, it’s not the most difficult language to learn after all.
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.
French is a Roman language. It is therefore derived from Latin. However, over the course of history, it has been influenced by many other languages. including Gaul, which is a Celtic language and the Franks.
AN EVOLVING LANGUAGE
The French language is often decried as a difficult language also because it is constantly evolving. 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.).
Nevertheless, this complexity makes French a rich, very precise language for expressing a thought. Moreover, if you learn other languages, you will notice that French 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 giving up!
BON COURAGE! Are you struggling to learn French? Do find learning French harder than other languages?
For more info about Swiss Academy and the French language courses they offer – visit the Learning French website.
Also read our article by Swiss Academy about the FIDE examination.