Why Spanish Isn't Easier to Learn Than French

Dispelling the Myth of Simple Language Learning

Andalusia, Spain
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There is a common myth among English speakers in the United States that Spanish is much easier to learn than French. American high school students often chose Spanish to fulfill a foreign language requirement, sometimes under the premise that Spanish is the more useful language, and other times because it seems the easiest to learn.

In comparison to French, Spanish pronunciation and spelling seem less daunting to the average learner, but there is more to a language than just its phonetics.

 Once you take into consideration several other factors such as syntax and grammar, the idea that one language is inherently more complicated than the other loses all validity. Opinions about the levels of difficulty of French vs. Spanish are usually a matter of personal learning and speaking preferences; for students that have studied both languages, some might find Spanish easier than French, and others might find French easier than Spanish.

One Opinion: Spanish Is Easier

Spanish is a phonetic language, meaning that the rules of orthography are very close to the rules of pronunciation. Each Spanish vowel has a single pronunciation. Although consonants may have two or more, there are very specific rules regarding their usage, depending on where the letter is in the word and what letters are around it. There are some trick letters, like the silent "H" and the identically-pronounced "B" and "V", but all in all Spanish pronunciation and spelling are pretty straightforward.

In comparison, French has many silent letters and multiple rules with plenty of exceptions, as well as liaisons and enchaînement, which add additional difficulties to pronunciation and aural comprehension.

There are precise rules for the accentuation of Spanish words and accents to let you know when those rules are overridden.

In French, accentuation goes by the sentence rather than the word. Once you've memorized the Spanish rules of pronunciation and accentuation, you can pronounce brand-new words with no hesitation. This is rarely the case in French, or English, for that matter.

The most common French past tense, the passé composé, is more difficult than Spanish's pretérito. The pretérito is a single word, while the passé composé has two parts (the auxiliary verb and the past participle). The true French equivalent of the pretérito, the passé simple, is a literary tense that French students are usually expected to recognize but not to use. The passé composé is just one of several French compound verbs and the questions of the auxiliary verb (avoir or être), word order, and agreement with these verbs are some of French's great difficulties. Spanish compound verbs are much simpler. There is only one auxiliary verb and the two parts of the verb stay together, so word order is not a problem.

Lastly, French's two-part negation ne... pas is more complicated in terms of usage and word order than Spanish's no.

Another Opinion: French Is Easier

In a sentence, the Spanish subject pronoun is usually omitted. Because of this, it is essential to have all verb conjugations memorized in order to recognize and to express which subject is performing the action.

In French, the subject pronoun is always stated, which means that verb conjugations, while still important, are not as vital to comprehension. In addition, French has just two words for "you" (singular/familiar and plural/formal), while Spanish has four (singular familiar/plural familiar/singular formal/and plural formal), or even five. There's a different singular/familiar used in parts of Latin America with its own conjugations.

Another thing that makes French easier than Spanish is that French has fewer verb tenses/moods. French has a total of 15 verb tenses/moods, four of which are literary and rarely used. Only 11 are used in daily French. Spanish has 17, one of which is literary (pretérito anterior) and two judicial/administrative (futuro de subjuntivo and futuro anterior de subjuntivo), which leaves 14 for regular use.

That creates a lot of verb conjugations in the Spanish language.

Then, there is the subjunctive conjugation. While the subjunctive mood is difficult in both languages, it is more difficult and much more common in Spanish.

  • The French subjunctive is used almost solely after que, whereas the Spanish subjunctive is used regularly after many different conjunctions: quecuandocomo, etc.
  • There are two different sets of conjugations for the Spanish imperfect subjunctive and pluperfect subjunctive. You can choose just one set of conjugations to learn, but you must be able to recognize both.
  • Si clauses ("if/then" clauses) are very similar in French and English but are more difficult in Spanish. Note the two subjunctive tenses that are used in the Spanish si clauses. In French, the imperfect subjunctive and pluperfect subjunctive are literary and extremely rare, but in Spanish, they are commonplace.
Comparison of Si Clauses 
 Unlikely SituationImpossible Situation
EnglishIf simple pastconditional   If pluperfectpast conditional
 If I had more time I would goIf I'd had more time I would have gone
FrenchSi imperfectconditionalSi pluperfectpast conditional
 Si j'avais plus de temps j'y iraisSi j'avais eu plus de temps j'y serais allé
SpanishSi imperfect subj.conditionalSi pluperfect subj.past cond. or pluperfect subj.
 Si tuviera más tiempo iríaSi hubiera tenido más tiempo habría ido or hubiera ido

 

Both Languages Have Challenges

There are sounds in both languages that can be very difficult for English speakers: French has the infamous "R" pronunciation, nasal vowels, and the subtle (to untrained ears) differences between tu/tous and parlai/parlais. In Spanish, the rolled "R", the "J" (similar to the French R), and the "B/V" are the trickiest sounds.

Nouns in both languages have a gender and require gender and number agreement for adjectives, articles, and certain types of pronouns.

The use of prepositions in both languages can be also difficult, as there is often little correlation between them and their English counterparts.

Confusing pairs abound in both:

  • French examples: c'est vs. il est, encore vs. toujours
  • Spanish examples: ser vs. estarpor vs. para
  • Both have the tricky two past-tense division (Fr - passé composé vs. imparfait; Sp - pretérito vs. imperfecto), two verbs that mean "to know," and the bon vs. bien, mauvais vs. mal (Fr) / bueno vs. bien, malo vs. mal (Sp) distinctions.

Both French and Spanish have reflexive verbs, numerous false cognates with English that can trip up non-native speakers of either language and potentially confusing word order due to the positions of adjectives and object pronouns.

Learning Spanish or French

All in all, neither language is definitively more or less difficult than the other. Spanish is arguably somewhat easier for the first year or so of learning, in large part because beginners may struggle less with pronunciation than their French-studying colleagues.

However, beginners in Spanish have to deal with dropped subject pronouns and four words for "you," while French only has two. Later on, Spanish grammar becomes more complicated, and some aspects are certainly more difficult than French.

Keep in mind that each language learned tends to be progressively easier than the previous one, so if you learn, for example, French first and then Spanish, Spanish will seem easier. Still, it is more likely that both of these languages have challenges of their own than that one is objectively actually easier than the other.