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How Hard Is French To Learn?: Your Ticket To Making French Easier

Flag-themed flag of France as feature image for how hard is French to learn articleIs learning French easy?

Yes.

Or better said, it’s as easy or as difficult as you want to make it.

Problem is, a lot of people hold unrealistic expectations.

And at the first sign of trouble, they give up.

In actuality, French shares many common words with English and its grammar is quite similar.

We’ll look at these aspects of the language so you never have to feel intimated by French again.

Better:

I’ll show you have to use memory techniques to deal with the more complex aspects of the language.

That way, you can make progress no matter what challenges you face.

Ready? Let’s dive in!

Is French Easy To Learn?

Like Italian, French is considered a “Category One” language by the Foreign Service Institute.

They suggest that you’ll need approximately 30 weeks to reach basic fluency.

CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) provides even more granular levels to consider:

  • Beginner (A1-A2)
  • Intermediate (B1)
  • Upper Intermediate (B1-B2)
  • Advanced (C1)
  • Proficiency (C2)

Based on my experience passing some of these levels in German, the CEFR levels make sense. What makes less sense is the idea that 30 weeks in a classroom is going to get you to an intermediate level. It might on paper, but not necessarily in real speaking situations.

For this reason, it’s important to realize that you will have your own personal journey with French. The ease or difficulty will play out relative to your motivation, discipline and interest in the language.

Those are the real factors to consider when thinking about learning a new language. Even if French is considered one of the easier second languages for English speakers, it also need to consider your consistency with what I call the Big 5 of Language Learning:

  • Memory
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Speaking
  • Listening

Graphic illustration of the Big Five of Learning

When you optimize your activities with the Big 5, everything about learning French will get much, much easier.

The 5 Most Difficult Components of the French Language

The most difficult aspect of learning a language like French is avoiding bad advice.

For example, some language learning gurus will tell you to not use a dictionary, or they will suggest that you should only memorize vocabulary in context.

Although there is a context dependent advantage in many respects, you hardly need to always memorize colors, days of the week, months and a host of other words along with phrases. Doing so can slow your progress incredibly.Anthony Metivier holding a French dictionary

In this respect, it definitely makes sense to memorize directly from a dictionary at least some of the time. When I’m learning a language, I often carry a physical dictionary around with me. It’s very effective for getting in lots of spaced repetition with example sentences.

When it comes to the language itself, here are some things to watch out for and focus on.

French Pronunciation

Both continental French, Quebecois and the many variations around the world include a mixture of highly melodic sounds with sometimes guttural pronunciations.

It can be tricky to shift from gliding smoothly across them before dive-bombing into sounds you may not be used to making as a native speaker.

You will also encounter nasal sounds you’re likely not used to in French phonetics. There is also the “r” sound that can be quite elusive, not to mention the subtleties of our next topic.

French Spelling

One of the first things many people note is the lack of alignment between how French words are spelled and their pronunciation.

This feature is sometimes called “deceptive orthography.” There are many silent letters, or letters that are pronounced completely different than they appear to native English speakers. Yet, a hallmark of fluency at the C2 level is both accurate spelling and pronunciation.

A subset of spelling is dealing with homophones and near-homophones. These are words that sound the same or similar, but have different meanings. English has many too, but when learning a language, it can be especially tricky dealing with them.

Infinite Idioms

Like many languages, French is loaded with idioms.

You kind of have to roll with the punches and just learn them, even if they don’t make sense to you.

For example, C’est très chouette may literally mean, “that’s very owl.” But what the French speaker likely means is, “That’s very cool!”

Gendered Nouns, Articles

In English, we’re not used to dealing with chairs and socks and chickens with articles other than “the” and “a” or “an,” etc.

In French, you need to learn these words and their articles at the same time. It’s important to do this so you have proper noun agreement when using the nouns with adjectives and articles.

a woman is listening to another woman

Rapid Pace Of Native Speakers

It’s not necessarily the case that French native speakers are speaking all that fast. But it can certainly seem fast when you’re a learner.

Even at more advanced stages of your learning journey, words can seem to disappear into one another.

Plus, sometimes pronunciations change in big or small ways depending on the words surrounding them. This can leave you feeling alienated, especially when you encounter someone speaking a French dialect.

5 Factors That Affect How Difficult French Is to Learn

Beside the complexities of French itself, many of us face additional challenges.

Let’s look at these factors and make a preemptive strike against each.

Your Own Fear Of Failure

Many people struggle with perfectionism, which is often linked to fear and self-doubt.

Don’t worry. You can develop mental strength to overcome this problem. Meditation can also help.

Phonetic Insensitivity

I’ve talked a lot with my friend and language learning expert Olly Richards about my struggles with pronunciation in a variety of languages – including my mother tongue.

He suggested that this is a real problem and nothing to do with my discipline or motivation. Some people just have more highly tuned ears than others.

Fortunately, you can practice chorusing to help. Basically, you listen to a French native speaker, then record yourself and compare the recordings.

There are some language learning software programs that will visualize what your speech looks like. That way, you can experiment with changing your pronunciation based on what you see on the screen.

Health And Well-Being

As a person who deals with depression, I can tell you from experience that this disease definitely interferes with language learning. It’s not just brain fog, but a combination of symptoms discussed in The Victorious Mind that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

how to journal for self improvement feature image

However, you can rewire your brain. One trick is to start keeping a daily journal specifically for language learning.

But you also will do very well to consider getting rid of foods that are bad for your brain. Attend to your sleep and fitness as well.

Family & Work Commitments

There’s no doubt about it: becoming bilingual in French takes time.

But with a bit of scheduling, you can make it happen.

Plus, you can start thinking in French while spending time with your family. Think about the words for daughter, son, wife, etc. and what you would like to say to them.

And it’s wonderful to make language learning a family affair. Even if they’re not interested, you can communicate with them in order to garner their support of your goals. Setting boundaries around your learning schedule will be golden.

Long story short: We all have time when we’re willing to make it and shift how we think about our everyday activities.A cup of coffee sits on a monthly goals calendar. Keeping achievable goals can help you learn how to stay focused while studying.

Poor Goal Construction

Perhaps the biggest problem French learners face is unrealistic ambitions and an all-or-nothing attitude. Many times I’ve heard from people that they aren’t willing to learn French at all because they have thousands of words to learn.

Patiently, I remind them that if they can’t memorize one word reliably, they certainly aren’t going to be able to memorize one thousand.

That’s where systems, milestones and goals come in.

By systems, I mean working out a consistent, daily study pattern. Life is complex, so sometimes I have to repeatedly use a journal to work out or revise these systems.

The goal is pretty simple: fluency. But because “fluency” doesn’t really mean that much after B1 in the CEFR system, you have to work out this definition on your own.

That’s where milestones come in to help ensure that you have the most robust learning cycle possible.

Let’s look at what they are and how milestones work as the leading step in our next section.How to Learn and Memorize French Vocabulary by Anthony Metivier book cover

3 Memory Techniques to Make Learning French Easy

When it comes to memory techniques, it doesn’t always have to be about mnemonics. We’re also talking about systems and procedures that are easy to follow and impossible to forget.

Let’s start with milestones.

Setting Achievable Milestones For French

Instead of creating a massively ambitious goal that makes you quake in your boots, start with modest milestones. These can include:

By chunking down the massive goal of becoming fluent into much smaller steps, you’ll have more fun. And you’ll be able to keep moving forward without feeling frustrated.

Use Optimized Flashcards

Many people use flashcards for language learning.

But there’s a special way to optimize them so they form memories faster.

Here’s an example of what I mean for French:

optimized flashcard for learning la chouette in French

This drawing took just a few seconds to sketch out.

It’s not art, but I made sure to include a minimum of three colors following the advice of memory expert Tony Buzan.

The drawing is of an own in a shoe.

Why? because la chouette means owl in French.

Now, you might be thinking, “Hang on… that flashcard doesn’t look optimized to me!”

It is, however, because while I was switching between colors, I was thinking about how “shoe” was going to help me remember that the “ch” in this word is much more like “sh” in English.

I also started thinking about Romeo and Juliette for my complete mnemonic image because of how chouette sounds and Juliette as a shoe-wearing owl helps me remember that it’s a feminine noun.

I’ve left the image incomplete because the science of active recall shows us that when we create learning puzzles for ourselves to solve, we form memories faster.

That’s why there are also no answers on the back of my cards. That prevents me from cheating as I test and grow my memories.

numbered memory palace example using a 00 99 pao

The Memory Palace Technique

Once you start using mnemonic images like the example given above, you can place them in Memory Palaces. It’s a cool way to make French easier, and also enable you to learn languages like French and Spanish at the same time.

To use this technique, you would imagine something like Juliette as a shoe-wearing owl in a familiar building. For example, I could place it in any one of the numbered locations in the Memory Palace illustration above using the method of loci.

Then, during review, it’s just a matter of mentally revisiting the spot in the Memory Palace and asking, “What was happening there?”

This process of recall has been in use for thousands of years. It’s not for everyone, but if you find it useful, it will help you memorize thousands of French words and phrases.

Is Learning French Easy? Absolutely Yes!

As mentioned, there are indeed barriers that can make learning any language difficult.

But we’ve explored paths around the main obstacles. And you’ve discovered three of the most powerful memory-based tactics for rapidly absorbing as much of the French language as you could ever please.

If you’d like more help, get my FREE Memory Improvement Course now:

Free Memory Improvement Course

This course will help you come up with dozens of Memory Palaces and goes into more details about using mnemonic images to help you memorize even the most complex French words and phrases.

So what do you say? Are you ready to dive into learning French?

I would wish you good luck, or better said:

Bonne chance à toi!

But the fact is that when you follow the steps we talked about today and supplement with proper memory techniques, you won’t need luck. You’ll have the best memory science and memory techniques that go back to our ancestors on your side.

Now that’s what I call très chouette!

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ABOUT ANTHONY METIVIER


Anthony Metivier is the founder of the Magnetic Memory Method, a systematic, 21st century approach to memorizing foreign language vocabulary, names, music, poetry and more in ways that are easy, elegant, effective and fun.

Dr. Metivier holds a Ph.D. in Humanities from York University and has been featured in Forbes, Viva Magazine, Fluent in 3 Months, Daily Stoic, Learning How to Learn and he has delivered one of the most popular TEDx Talks on memory improvement.

His most popular books include, The Victorious Mind and… Read More

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