The Top Ten Most Difficult Parts of Learning French for Beginners

Let’s face it, learning a new language can be a difficult task; French is no different. We’ve compiled a list of some of the hardest concepts beginners face when learning French. Although there exists universal concepts that pose problems for foreign language learners (such as grammar or pronunciation) we tried to limit our list to concepts that are found uniquely in French. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather a list of our “favorite” difficulties. Let’s begin.

1. Conjugations – Yeah okay, conjugations are pretty universal, but why are they such an issue for Anglophones learning French? They answer is quite simple when you take the time to think about it. Verb conjugations in English are quite simple and as a result native-English speakers are largely unaware of what the word conjugation even means.

While native French speakers are in school learning how to conjugate verbs from être and avoir to marcher and sauter English speakers are busy learning other aspects of their own language. Thus when it comes time to learn basic French conjugations, French teachers are often stuck having to first explain exactly what it means to conjugate a verb before proceeding with how to actually conjugate them! Because of this French conjugations earn a respectable position on our list.

The most well-known book to help learners with conjugations is the Bescherelle. Every French learner should own one.

2. Nous Genders – Gendered nouns are something that exist in many European languages, but for one reason or another have faded out of English over the years. Because of this native-English speakers are stuck scratching their head at the fact that an object with no association to either gender can be labeled as a masculine thing or a feminine thing.

The toughest part of all is that with French (unlike languages like Spanish or Italian) there isn’t as much logic to it. There isn’t any obvious indication that the word for thumb (pouce) is masculine or that the word for water (eau) is feminine. At least for languages like Spanish there is a system that you can follow (-o is masculine, -a is feminine) that, although not perfect, still can be used most of the time and have you be right a good percentage of the time. In French anything goes and because of this it’s one of the hardest parts of learning French for beginners.

3. Liaisons/silent letters – For many of you, liaisons aren’t much to talk about. After all, once you’ve gotten them down they become natural and it sounds strange when someone uses them incorrectly. The issue comes for those first trying to struggle with French’s many silent letters that are only pronounced when they come in contact with a vowel. Still don’t know what I mean? Allow me to explain.

Quand il a vu son ami il l’a salué de la main

The obvious liaison in this sentence is right in the beginning between ”quand” and ”il”. The unobvious factor is that the D is pronounced like a t rather than its typical sound. Combine this with several other letters (x pronounced like z, f pronounced like v, etc.), obligatory liaisons, forbidden liaisons (for example les haricots), optional liaisons and simply the fact the French themselves often make mistakes with liaisons (which makes it hard to learn from speaking with your French friends) and you have a very difficult concept in French for beginners.

4. The Letter “R” – Anyone who has tried to pronounce any French word with the letter “R” anywhere in the word knows exactly what I’m talking about. This letter is the bane of our existence. Many of us work hard on our French accent only to be identified as foreigners as soon as we try to pronounce “grue” or “draps” (or even the dreaded serrurrie).

What about this sound makes it so difficult for us English speakers to master? Well to begin with, the sound doesn’t exist in English so retraining the muscles in your face takes time that most of us don’t feel have the patience to do. This letter alone speaks for itself and could honestly take up an entire article on itself, but for now definitely belongs on this list.

5. High Expectations – Now this is one that nobody ever talks about. Nevertheless, I believe with every fiber in my being that this is a huge factor contributing to the difficulty of French. What do I mean by “high expectations” exactly? Well I think that we can all agree that in order to start speaking French (or any language) with others you don’t need to be perfect. There is certainly a threshold that, once hit, will allow you to not only speak and understand your parter, but also be taken seriously by them. When I say “be taken seriously by them” all I am saying is getting to the point where your partner doesn’t feel the need to change the speed at which they speak or the vocabulary they use.

As native-English speakers, we tend to be very forgiving when it comes to others speaking English. Learners of English can quickly get up so speed and converse with natives without fear of being judged or ridiculed for their level no matter how poor it may be. As a result the threshold for the French (or any other non-native English speaking group) is quite low. On the other hand, for native-English speakers to get to the same threshold as we call it, it takes a bit more work. That’s not to say it’s impossible by any means, but it is definitely something that takes more work and for that it belongs on this list.

6. The passé composé vs. the imparfait – Those who have sat through any sort of beginners French class whether it be in high school, college or wherever expected to see this here. The biggest problem here is that every explanation I have ever seen that tries to describe the different uses of the passé composé and the imparfait (and when to use each one) is unnecessarily complicated and ends up just being confusing. To add insult to injury, French conjugations make it difficult to not only remember which form of the past tense you need to use, but also which form of the verb to use (and how to pronounce it). This is precisely why it’s been placed on this list.

7. The Subjonctif – Ah, the French subjunctive. Such a strange part of French grammar that, to us English natives, seems to serve no purpose. After all if I can say «Tu es content» why must I say «Je veux que tu sois content» ? And to make matters worse every known explanation for how and when to use the French subjunctive is absolutely terrible. Students suffer through class after class and textbook after textbook explaining to them that the subjunctive is used when expressing emotion or doubt.

Unless you already have some background in using the subjunctive then this sort of explanation just doesn’t cut it. In the end students are stuck just guessing when and where to employ the subjunctive and, in combination with additional conjugations to learn, only being right half the time. The funniest thing about this is that the subjunctive actually does exist in English. We say “I was rich”, but “If I were rich”. Or even “I was smarter than her” but, “I wish I were smarter than her”. Classic English subjunctive right there.

8. Agreements – Without getting into too much detail French verb agreements are hard! They start off easy and quickly get harder and harder until it’s darn near impossible to remember every single instance in which a verb needs to agree with the subject or object.

The biggest issue here, perhaps more than most other French grammar concepts, is that the French themselves struggle with this very same contact making it nearly impossible to ask your French friends for help. Each and every time you think you have got this concept down another instance pops up where you just aren’t sure if you are supposed to add that darn e or s (or both). Such a pain for French language beginners.

9. Oral comprehension – While it’s safe to say that understanding any foreign language spoken to you is hard, for French it sometimes seems to be extra difficult. While languages like Spanish are very phonetic with each and every letter being pronounced no matter where they are in the word French is quite the opposite.

With the combination of silent letters and liaisons beginners will wonder if the sentence their French friend just spit out wasn’t just one long connected word. Making the learner frustrated and discouraged. When it comes to oral comprehension there is definitely steep learning curve. But hey, it wouldn’t be so rewarding if there weren’t steeps and hurdles to overcome, right?

10. A vs De – Like many of these other concepts the difference between A and De starts off easy. You’re taught in French class that A means at and de means from. Easy right? Well this idea is quickly debunked when you learn a verb like “acheter à” means to buy FROM. Well it quickly gets much more difficult as you progress. The difficulty comes with situations where neither A nor De have any direct translation into English. Let’s play a game. Which preposition should be used in the following example?

Il arrete _ chanter ? – De – Why is this? Just because

Tu joues _ un jeu ? – A – Why? Again, just because

Il continue _ parler francais – BOTH

Without any sort of real logic to help you remember which preposition to use and in which instance, students are forced to simply remember it through repetition which, at least in the beginning, results in many embarrassing mistakes.

There you have it! Although this list is anything but exhaustive this is definitely ten of the most difficult part of French for beginners. Didn’t see something that gives you a headache? Comment below and tell us some of your favorite “difficult” parts of learning French!

7 thoughts on “The Top Ten Most Difficult Parts of Learning French for Beginners

  1. Edith Reese says:

    C’est vrai! I was lucky enough to be part of an experimental program as a child where my school taught French via closed circuit TV from 2nd through 4th grades. We finally had a “live” teacher in 5th grade who was mortified by our accents and spent an entire semester re-teaching us how to pronounce things properly.

  2. Julia Louka says:

    This is a very helpful article. I have studied French since I was eleven years old, throughout school and college…I’m 71 now. It’s great to know that the points addressed are universally difficult and it’s not just me being stupid . Thank you.

  3. Richard Peterson says:

    I have learned to have a working knowledge of French through books, videos and wevsites. Oh yes, I did take one semester of French as a community college class as an over-40 adult. I have an unusual hobby; I find French Protestant hymns for a Christian website. It helps me stay fresh in my understanding at French. I also have a working knowledge of Spanish and Italian.

    One thing that makes French a challenge to learn is that different verbs can sound very much alike . I will use one example with a conjugated form of the English verbs to have, to be and to go. In French, the plural 3rd person form (ils, elles) are as follows: ils ont, ils sont and ils vont. Any first year student of French knows how much these three different verbs sound alike! The ils vont might seem to sound different from the other two but at normal conversation speed this one would sound like the other two. That makes much confusion possible while learning French.

    Contrast that with how it would be in Spanish. This would be: ellos tienen, ellos son (or ellos estan) and ellos van. These conjugated verbs mean different things and also sound different. This would make confusion between these very different conjugated verbs very unlikely.

  4. Tom Munger says:

    Excellent ! I’ve been trying, off and on, for 55 years to learn French, and this list hit every stumbling block. I was even married to a native French speaker (and first rate professional French teacher), and still find all these points troubling. Pauvre, pauvre pitoyable moi.

  5. Pamela Webster says:

    Eh bien, j’ai besoin etudier la langue francais encore une fois….. aidez ou assistez moi (?), j’espere que oui.
    (j’ai quatre-vingts-six ans!)

  6. Amelie Hurford says:

    First of all, thank you very much for your article. It is very clear and accurate. It does highlight English speakers main difficulties when learning French. Plus, I also really like the picture you have chosen to illustrate it! It does look like some students!!

    Conjugations are indeed rather difficult to grasp for English speakers as you are definitely correct, most people don’t even know what they are. I have even spoken to many English people who couldn’t really remember what a verb is. Everything became much clearer when I spoke about action words though. Grammar and conjugations are taught totally differently in France and in England. And for this reason, it can give English speakers a hard time!

    Like you mentioned it, the letter “R” and, more generally speaking, pronunciation is difficult in French. The letter “u” is tough too. How do you say “dessus” and “dessous”? Can you hear a difference? Probably not. Well not if you are a total beginner. Nasal vowels are particularly hard for English speakers too as they don’t actually exist in English.

    I have described pronunciation difficulties encountered by English speakers in my blog 53 difficult French words you’ll struggle to pronounce.

    http://frenchlessonsaustralia.com.au/difficult-french-words-youll-struggle-to-pronounce/

    Don’t hesitate to read it and tell me what you think!

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