Why People Think Spanish Is Easier than French

Dispelling the Myth of Simple Language Learning

Spain, Andalusia, Malaga, shopping street
Spain, Andalusia. Westend61 / Getty Images

There is a common myth among English speakers in the United States that Spanish is much easier to learn than French. In high school, many students chose Spanish in order to meet the foreign language credit requirement. Many students think that Spanish is more useful in the U.S., but others claim that Spanish is much easier and thus won't require as much work to learn. The same rumor abounds on many college campuses throughout the states.

When asked for more information, perpetrators of this urban legend invariably mention how difficult French pronunciation and spelling are, in comparison to Spanish. And in this, at least, there is some truth.

For students that have studied both languages, some might find Spanish easier than French, and others might find French easier than Spanish. However, everyone's learning and speaking preferences aside, there is more to a language than just its phonetics. Once you take into consideration several other factors, such as syntax and grammar, the Spanish vs. French claim loses a lot of validity. 

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 and 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, whereas 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 which 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

The Spanish subject pronoun is usually dropped, thus it is essential to have all verb conjugations memorized in order to recognize as the listener, and to express as the speaker which subject is performing the action. The French subject pronoun is always stated, which means that verb conjugations, while still important, are not as vital to comprehension: your own or your listener's. 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.

What also makes French easier than Spanish is that French has fewer verb tenses/moods than Spanish.

French has a total of 15 verb tenses/moods, four of which are literary and rarely used, thus 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.

The final straw might be 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 which can be very difficult for English speakers: French has the infamous R apical, 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 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 . estar, por 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-bien, mauvais-mal (Fr) / bueno-bien, malo-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.

It is more likely that both of these languages have challenges of their own than that one is actually easier than the other. 

Learning Spanish or French

Spanish is arguably somewhat easier for the first year or so; beginners may struggle less with pronunciation than their French-studying colleagues, and one of the most basic Spanish verb tenses is easier than French.

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. All in all, neither language is definitively more or less difficult than the other.

Keep in mind that each language you learn tends to be progressively easier than the previous one, so if you learn, for example, French first and then Spanish, Spanish will seem easier. But don't let that fool you!