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5 difficulties of the French language

Learning French, as learning any other language, requires effort and motivation. Even if nearly 30% of all English words come directly or indirectly from French, English speakers learning French often fear that the language is difficult and tricky to master. If you have decided to learn French, I have listed 5 difficulties of the French language.

 

1 – False friends

The English and French languages were strongly influenced by the introduction of French at the time of the Norman invasion of Britain in the 11th century.

English and French contain many cognates. False friends, also called false cognates, can be challenging to master ; indeed, people learning French have sometimes seen them written and assume that they have the same meaning in English, which is wrong.

Sometimes the sound is close but not exactly the same : « actually » in English is not phonetically far from « actuellement »in French which means « currently ».

There are 1,700 cognates (words identical in the French & English). Some have the same meaning in English while others do not. Here is a short selection of some common false friends used in French :

 

Finalement vs Finally
Finalement means « eventually » or « in the end », while finally is « enfin »

Envie vs Envy
 Avoir envie de means to want or to feel like something: « Je n’ai pas envie de travailler » – « I don’t want to work « / « I don’t feel like working. » The verb envier, however, does mean to envy. Envy means to be jealous or desirous of something belonging to another. The French verb is envier: «I envy John’s courage »- « J’envie le courage de Jean »

Librairie vs Library
Une librairie refers to a bookstore, while library in French is une bibliothèque.

Assister vs Assist

Assister à nearly always means to attend something: « J’ai assisté à la conférence »- «I attended (went to) the conference »

To assist means to help or aid someone or something: « she assisted her brother with his homework »-  « Elle a aidé son frère à faire ses devoirs »

Éventuellement vs Eventually
Éventuellement means possibly, if need be, or even: « Vous pouvez éventuellement prendre ma voiture » – « You could possibly take my car » / « You can take my car if need be ».

Monnaie vs Money
La monnaie can refer to currency, coin(age), or change, and money is the general term for argent.

 

 

2 – Gender

Another difficulty of the French language is the choice of the correct gender.

Feminine or masculine, that is the question you often ask yourself as a French learner. After hours trying to figure out why “cheveux” (hair) is masculine and “chaise” (chair) feminine, you come to the inevitable conclusion that the gender of French nouns was randomly chosen by linguists.

There are a few tricks for memorizing the gender, so try a few to find out what works best for you. If you tend to be a list learner, a handy trick is to memorize the patterns of endings that typically fall in the masculine or feminine category.

For example, the nouns with these endings are typically feminine:

  • a vowel then a consonant then “e,” like: -ine, -ise, -alle, -elle, -esse, -ette, -euse, -ance and -ence;
  • -tion, -sion, -son;
  • -ure, -ude, -ade;
  • -ée, -té, -ière.

And the nouns with the following endings are generally masculine:

  • -ste and -tre;
  • -u, -ou, -oir;
  • -me, -ment, -isme;
  • -ble and -cle;
  • -eau and -eur;
  • -age and -ege;

 

3 -Prononciation

Many of my students who learn French find that pronunciation is the hardest part of the language. The new sounds, the silent letters, the liaisons… all contribute to making learning and speaking French tricky. It is important to distinguish between “spelling” and “sound”. Like English, French is not necessarily written at is is spoken. Let’s quickly list the main pronounciation difficulties :

The French R :

 

 

Try to avoid the temptation to roll your r like Italian speakers do. It’s a guttural sound produced at the back of the throat which can be difficult to make when the letter R is placed next to certain letters.The French U : The French U is another tricky sound, at least for English speakers, for two reasons: it’s hard to say and it’s sometimes difficult for untrained ears to distinguish it from the French Ou.

 

Nasal vowels :

 

Nasal vowel sounds are created by pushing air through the nose and mouth, rather than just the mouth like you do for regular vowels.

 

Silent letters : Many French letters are silent, and a lot of them are found at the end of words. If you pronounce the word Loup, the final P will be silent. However, not all final letters are silent and once more, you only have to memorize them. Regarding the silent E, most of E at the end of the words are silent.

 

Liaisons and linking :

 

They are two important points in French pronounciation. English speakers often stuggle to know when to link the words together. Liaisons and linking (enchaînement) help smooth out French words and distinguish different words.It involves taking the final consonant of one word and adding it to the first syllable of the second word when : the first word ends in a final consonant (pronounced orally) and the following word starts with a vowel.

Examples

seize heures –> /se zœ ʀ/
onze oiseaux –> /õ zwa zo/

 

4 -Conjugation

Another area of difficulty when learning French is verb conjugation. The most common French verbs are irregular. As an example, for the verb aller (to go), you have je vais, tu vas, il/elle va, nous allons, vous allez and ils/elles vont for I go, you go, he/she goes, we go, you go, and they go. With English, you only have ‘go’ and ‘goes’.

Also, to form others tenses such as the future or the subjunctive, you must master the present tense first.

A few tips such as repeating the verbs out loud, writing them down, practising with various tenses, using flashcards or downloading specific apps dedicated to French conjugaison might help you.

 

Learning where to use Tu and where to use Vous is sometimes difficult for most French learners. If you still hesitate, have a look at my post on that topic.

 

5 -Subjunctive

When it comes to learning the subjunctive, most of my students start to worry. Some French learners who already have a good intermediate level try to avoid using it by remplacing it with other grammatical structures with an equivalent meaning. About 60% of my students (mainly English speakers) will never use it outside the classroom when interacting with natives. One of the main reasons is that the subjunctive doesn’t exist in English.

Above all, you must clearly understand in which context one needs to use the subjunctive.The subjunctive is is used to express wish, hope, fear, uncertainty, and other attitudes or feelings toward a fact or an idea.

To memorize it, start to concentrate on the most common verbs : aller, être, avoir, venir, prendre.

The subjunctive is used with very common grammatical structures such as « Il faut que » ( it is necessary ), « je veux que » ( I want that ). You also use it anytime you give your own opinion on a topic such as «  c’est intéressant que » ( it is interesting that ), «  c’est dommage que » ( it’s a pity that ), « c’est étrange que » ( it’s strange that ).

Some common French verbs such as « vouloir » + que (to hope that ), « demander » + que ( to ask that ), « avoir peur » + que ( to fear that ) are also followed by the subjunctive.

If you have any questions related to difficulties regarding the main diffculties of the French language, don’t hesitate to share this with me, and I will try to guide you in a helpful way.

 

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