There are many prevalent myths about language learning which permeate the very fabric of our society. Many English-speaking people compelled to study Spanish or French in school will have fond memories of memorizing tables of conjugations, and the headaches that came from gender and case considerations that are simply unnecessary in English. Foreign students of English, as well, most likely have it very fresh in their minds how impossible it is to make sense of English grammar and, in particular, spelling.
the result of these memories is the misconception that certain languages are “harder” than others. This is a very prevalent idea, and it certainly has some truths to it when considering languages far removed from our own, such as Mandarin Chinese. Still, many language students get hung up on which languages are difficult and why, when this consideration hardly has any effect on their actual studies.
When considering Spanish and French, this conversation becomes a little bit more pertinent. Many students could benefit greatly from learning one or the other, as there are vast worlds of different opportunities that await the fluent francophone or Spanish speaker. What’s more, the languages themselves are similar enough that mastering one will undoubtedly make the other easier to understand and learn.
Still, both languages are very different, and present unique difficulties across every stage of the path to fluency. in order to examine these differences, and make useful observations on the difficulties of learning French versus Spanish, we’re going to stack both languages up side-by-side, and see how they compare and contrast in terms of pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary.
The first thing most students will learn about their new language is how certain letters are pronounced differently. This is an important step, as it allows students to properly differentiate between different words and conjugations, making it possible for them to perceive and understand immediate vocabulary and grammar differences more reliably. It also helps prevent foreign-sounding accents.
For these reasons, pronunciation is often the first thing that students of foreign languages will study. Aside from the healthy learning foundations it can give you, it also is one of the hardest things for beginners to master, and starting to practice your pronunciation early makes a huge difference in the long run. Encountering sounds you find difficult to recognize or reproduce is common when beginning to study a new language.
French pronunciation can be difficult for any student, due to the inordinate amount of silent letters and subtle accents that change based on context. Spanish also has some difficult sounds for first-time learners. One key difference here is that Spanish writing is mostly phonetic, so the way a word sounds is immediately obvious based on how the word is written. The same is not true of French in many cases.
French guttural “r” sounds, which are pronounced with the back of the throat, are similar to the Spanish “j”. French also does not have the rolling “r” sounds that Spanish uses. Spanish, on the other hand, does not have a common voiced sibilant (like “z”). These and other differences form the backbone of the problems people have pronouncing both languages. The Spanish letters “b” and “v” are also pronounced identically to each other.
That being said, pronunciation differences can be easily learned by closely listening to native materials and making sure to practice the way words are spelled. Even though it typically has a minimal effect on the difficulty of learning either language, we’re going to say that French is definitely more difficult than Spanish for this category.
There are obviously vast differences between Spanish and French grammar, since they are two distinct languages separated by hundreds of years of history. There are still obvious comparisons we can make in a few areas that demonstrate the difficulties of one language over the other.
Although both languages use a system of gender to indicate grammar in a sentence, there are also a number of subtle ways the two languages differ that we can identify right off the bat. One of the first things students of French will be aware of is the two-part negation (ne… pas). Although using both words to negate something is not always necessary, it does add a certain complexity to negation that Spanish does not have.
Another area where the two languages differ is in the usage of past tenses. French mainly uses the passé composé for past tense, which is more complex than the Spanish pretérito. That being said, the French passe simple is actually much closer, grammatically speaking, to the pretérito tense, but is a literary tense which students are not expected to use.
Since we’re on the topic of tenses, it’s a good idea to note that French actually has 15 verb tenses or moods. Four of these are literary tenses and aren’t used very much in everyday French. This leaves 11 tenses that are typically used in day-to-day conversation. Spanish, by contrast, has 17 tenses in total. One of these is literary and two others are judicial or administrative. That means that Spanish has a total of 14 tenses that are commonly used, making it slightly more complex than French in this respect.
One thing to keep in mind is that these sorts of differences can have a very profound effect on how the two languages communicate. A good example of this is the tendency for Spanish to leave the subject pronoun out of sentences. This means that Spanish students have to have the necessary tenses and genders memorized in order to interpret what the sentence is talking about, whereas the subject pronoun is always used in French, much like English.
One last important point on grammar is the differences between the expression of if/then clauses between Spanish and French. This stems from the difference in the subjunctive moods used in both languages. Thought.co has a great explanation of this here, if you’re into the grammar jargon, but the point is that French if/then clauses are much closer to English, while this construction is more complex in Spanish.
In the end, grammar is one of the most complex and integral parts of languages. The difference in difficulty in learning any language will depend almost entirely on grammar, and the comparison will only become more difficult the more you familiarize yourself with the different grammar rules. The fact is that while certain grammatical aspects can be described as more or less complex than one another, the overall ability to communicate relies only passively on these rules.
What we mean by this is that different languages have different grammatical difficulties, but the overall complexity remains more or less standard across all languages, particularly ones used by millions of people. Thomas Wier, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the Free University of Tbilisi in Georgia, has a great article about this here.
In the end, neither French nor Spanish can be definitively called more or less complex than the other. As a result, we’re going to call this category a tie. While it can still be an effective practice to study the grammatical differences between languages in the same family, it is unfair to say that either French or Spanish is grammatically more complex.
The last section to look at before we declare a definitive winner for this comparison is the vocabulary. While both Spanish and French are Romance languages (i.e. they descend from vulgar Latin, the common language of ancient Rome), they have both received varying amounts of influence from other languages throughout their history. French has substantial influence from German, while Spanish has more influence from Portuguese and Arabic.
There’s a funny little story about the French language, often repeated by students studying it, about how medieval monks in France were paid by the letter. This supposedly prompted the monks to add extra letters to words, resulting in the many silent letters we see in French today.
While this story is humorous to consider, it is much more likely that the French Academy, which directed linguistic reforms around the year 1740, included the silent letters to retain some semblance of the Latin that many of the words descended from. This makes them easier to understand for those who knew Latin, which was still widely understood by the literate population at the time.
What this demonstrates is the profound effect Latin has had on the Romance languages that descend from it. Both Spanish and French are Romance languages, and so portions of their vocabulary can be recognized between the two languages. Obviously there are many differences, but the vocabulary of both languages will probably be equally difficult for a non-Romance language speaker. On the other hand, both languages will probably be much easier for somebody who already speaks a Romance language, particularly Italian.
One easy way to summarize the difficulty of vocabulary between languages is the “you” test. How many different ways does a language have for saying the word “you”? How do these features differ, and how grammatically rigid are they in common practice?
In French, there are two common words for “you”; one for singular, or casual reference; and one for plural, or polite reference. Spanish, on the other hand, has four words for “you”, making it slightly more complex than French in this regard (for reference, German has seven).
Much like with grammar, it is difficult to say that one language is more difficult than another. That being said, due to the much more broadly eclectic influences in Spanish compared to French, as well as the larger grammatical vocabulary, we’re going to say that Spanish is more difficult than French in this category.
The Difficulty Of Comparison
In order to get a real idea of how these two languages compare, we’ve taken a look at a few different categories, and examined whether or not one language was more difficult than the other. In order to get a more well-rounded idea of one language being difficult compared to another, we must first go over some linguistic history on this issue. The study of language complexity goes back a long way, and is quite entwined with the study of foreign languages, and how people have communicated throughout human history.
There are a lot of different theories when it comes to one language being more complex than another. Most people are familiar with the assertion that Mandarin Chinese is the hardest language to learn. This may be true for westerners, but somebody who already has an understanding of Chinese symbols would have a much easier time learning Mandarin. This is where more complex ideas of language difficulty come into play.
Difficulty in language learning seems to arise when we encounter grammar structures, sounds, and syntax patterns that we cannot relate to within our own native language. Because of this, it will be harder for a Japanese person to learn French than, say, a person who speaks Italian. The similarities and commonalities between the different aspects of the two languages make it an easier language pair for certain individuals.
That being said, some have even theorized that there is a biological aspect to language comprehension, and that people with certain biological ancestry may be predisposed to understanding languages that developed historically among that biological group. For example, somebody who is Asian trying to learn Japanese or Chinese. While this kind of relationship has never been proven, researchers have observed that languages develop different structural features when developing among homogeneous populations compared to heterogeneous ones.
While there are many different theories about comparing languages to one another, there is no definitive scientific consensus for defining one language as more complex, or harder to learn than another. However, some linguists have studied what they call engineered languages for some time, and some of these languages are designed to be as simple, and easy to learn as possible. While this doesn’t prove anything about the complexity of organic languages, engineered languages can give us a lot of insight on how languages could work, and are a good way of demonstrating certain practical linguistic concepts. A good example of an engineered language being designed around logic and simplicity would be Lojban, or more recently Toki Pona.
These languages have certain qualities that take different approaches to different problems of language complexity. By simplifying and streamlining certain things like conjugations and other grammatical features, the linguists who engineer these languages can explore different aspects of language, and compare different linguistic strategies to how they have appeared in organic languages. For example, Lojban was originally developed as a way of studying how language influences the way people think when they speak.
Researchers actually algorithmically generated the vocabulary for Lojban by examining thousands of words from the most common languages across the globe (i.e. Mandarin, English, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, and Arabic, in 1987). The vocabularies from these languages were analyzed phonetically, and similar sounds were marked and tracked across all of the languages, forming the basis of Lojban phonetic vocabulary. The result was a language mostly composed of English and Mandarin sounds, with minor influences from the other four.
Lojban is meant to be easy to learn and use for communication between people of different linguistic backgrounds. Similar concepts to this have shown up in linguistic history before, such as the emergence of pidgins like Jamaican Patois, or Cajun Creole. Historic Lingua Francas, as they are called, have been used to combine grammatical and vocabulary aspects from different languages for common usage going back thousands of years.
As you can see from these demonstrations, the question of languages being more complex or more difficult than each other is very complex, and forms a large part of linguistic studies. When it comes down to it, though, there are simply too many variables in language learning to really draw any meaningful conclusions. As language learners, the most important thing for us to remember on the issue is that similar languages will be easier, and no language is too hard if you really study well.
So, Which Is Harder?
It looks like we’ve reached an impasse. French seems more difficult in terms of pronunciation, and Spanish seems more difficult in terms of Vocabulary, while both seem to have tied for grammatical complexity. The point here, we think, is much like we stated above; that is, no language is truly more or less complex than another, even though it may seem like that to us as we are learning it.
In the end, the difficulty of one language compared to another will rarely be the determining factor in studying it, and it will never actually have any effect on how you study the languages, unless you learn them at the same time. Basically, it’s largely unproductive and inaccurate to think of different languages in terms of how difficult they are to learn compared to each other. It’s entirely possible that you will find Spanish more difficult, while your friend or classmate has more trouble with French. The important thing is that you stay motivated, and keep studying.