What is the Hardest Part About Learning French?

Many consider pronunciation one of the hardest parts about learning French.
French can be a difficult language to learn, but that shouldn’t scare you away from all the benefits that come from learning it!

“Apprendre une langue que vous ne connaissez pas est difficile.”

Do you have any idea what the above sentence in French means? You can probably pick out the words ‘langue’ which looks like language, and ‘difficile’ which looks like difficult. If you know Spanish, ‘apprendre’ looks like ‘aprender’ (to learn). So according to our powers of deduction, we can assume the sentence is something about how learning a language is difficult (English Translation: Learning a language that you’re not familiar with is difficult).

Now, pronounce the French sentence. 

That part’s a bit harder, even if you’re vaguely familiar with how French sounds. In fact, many consider pronunciation one of the hardest parts about learning French. Why is this?

 

Vowels

 

In general, English vowels are shorter than long French vowels, and the French have many vowels which are pronounced with rounded lips. In addition, French use Nasal Vowels – these are pronounced by passing air through the mouth and nose, as opposed to oral vowels, which only involve the mouth. 

 

Examples:

  • When the French say “papa” they press their lips together to prepare the ‘p’ and let the vowels do all the hard work (Listen here).
  • When English speakers say “papa” they press their lips together for the ‘p’ and make sure to enunciate each ‘p’ which tells the vowels how to behave around the consonants.  (Listen here). 

 

Tip: Find a video in French on YouTube and repeat the sentences out loud. Pause, replay, and repeat each word out loud for as many times as it takes to pronounce it correctly. 

 

Silent Letters

 

A phonetic language (e.g., Spanish, Arabic) is one in which each letter has a single corresponding sound; in other words, spelling matches the pronunciation. Other languages, like French and English, are not phonetic: they have letters that can be pronounced in different ways or sometimes not at all. 

 

Examples: 

       1. In French, the letter ‘h’ is never pronounced unless with the letter c, where it transforms to the sound ‘ch.’

      2. In French, the letter ‘s’ is not pronounced at the end of words when:

  • It indicates a plural: chemises (shirts)
  • It is at the end of some words: un corps (a body)
  • At the end of verbs: tu parles (you speak)

 

Tip: The letters B, C, F, K, L, Q, and R are usually pronounced at the end of a word. Use the word ‘CaReFuL’ to remember the most common of the usually pronounced final consonants.

 

Syllabic Emphasis

 

While English is a stress-timed language (some syllables are longer and some are shorter), French is a syllable-timed language (all syllables are the same length). An English speaker might have difficulty adjusting to the rhythm of French and understanding where the emphasis is. 

 

Examples:

  • “Jim and I are going to the store.” In English, when a native speaker says this sentence quickly, ‘and’ can be condensed to sound like ‘n’ and ‘to the’ can be condensed and shortened so that the emphasis is on the words “Jim, going, and store.” 
  • “Jim et moi allons au magasin.” In French, each word in the sentence has the same emphasis, so it might be difficult for the English ear to pick out the emphasis and for them not to speak their own emphasis into it. 

 

Tip: Try stringing together words. It’s not uncommon for French speakers to string together 6 syllables at a time without pausing between words. 

 

French can be a difficult language to learn, but that shouldn’t scare you away from all the benefits that come from learning it! If you’re looking for an amazing program that will help you with your French reading, writing, pronunciation, and grammar, all while having tons of fun, check out Cultural Bytes’ One-on-one tutoring classes. 

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