If you are thinking of learning a new language and are wondering whether French or Italian is easier I have the answer for you.
During my childhood and teenage years in Italy I studied French at school for eight years. As well as being a native speaker of Italian who knows some French, I also know about the experience of native English speakers when they learn Italian, what they tend to find challenging and what feels easy for them.
In this article I will answer the question “Is Italian more difficult than French?”
You will also get to directly hear the thoughts of two native English speakers who learned both French and Italian and have become proficient in both.
Is Italian more difficult than French?
Both Italian and French are classed as languages closely related to English by the FSI (Foreign Service Institute). The FSI came up with a language ranking system that ranks languages in order of difficulty from the perspective of a native speaker of English.
Both Italian and French are placed by the FSI into Category I (the easiest out of five categories), and it is estimated that a learner would take between 24 to 30 weeks of study to reach what is called “professional working proficiency”.
For an English speaker, Italian may be slightly easier to learn than French because of the difficulties presented by the French spelling and pronunciation. Italian is a phonetic language, meaning that words are written in the same way they are pronounced. This makes Italian reading, listening and speaking easier and less ambiguous than French.
If you are trying to decide whether to learn Italian or French, it’s important to remember that the two languages have a lot in common. In fact, the Italian spoken in northern Italy can even be referred to as a French-Italian, as I discussed in my article “Italian Accents Compared: Which Is Best?“.
1. Italian pronunciation is easier to learn than French pronunciation.
The French language contains many sounds which are very hard to pronounce, not only for English speakers, but for speakers of other languages as well.
Three well-known examples of French sounds which are difficult to pronounce are the French “r”, the French “u” and the many nasal sounds found in the French language.
For this post, I wanted to hear the opinion of a native English speaker who learned both Italian and French so that I could understand their experience of these two languages.
Mike Sadler, from the UK, is a linguist and professional translator of French and Spanish, with a career in secondary education management and teaching. Mike studied Italian for two years and, thanks to his background, became proficient very soon after starting.
I asked Mike which language he thinks is easier to learn, Italian or French. Here is what he said:
When it comes to speaking […], Italian is a lot easier than French. The French vowel sounds are extraordinarily difficult for us English (as is a French “r”). Now, meaning is often attached to these sounds that we cannot make and as a consequence, we cannot communicate at all, as we cannot say the word in a way that a French person can understand it. Italian, on the other hand, has a simpler system of pure vowel sounds and diphthongs such that while we obviously sound foreign, we can be understood.Mike Sadler
Below are a few examples of French words which are particularly difficult for English speakers to pronounce, and their English and Italian translations.
The Italian language has only two sounds which are tricky for English speakers to pronounce well. These are:
- The “gn” sound found in words like “insegnamo” (meaning “we teach”)
- The “gl” sound found in words like “biglietto” (meaning “ticket”)
These difficult Italian sounds are found a relatively limited number of words, and not as widespread as the French, “r” , “u” or the French nasal sounds, which are found in the majority of French words.
Mike also added that one difficulty in pronouncing Italian correctly is that the stress is hard to predict but that, apart from this, Italian pronunciation is easier than French pronunciation.
2. Reading Italian is easier than reading French
Italian is a phonetic language, meaning, in simple terms, that it is pronounced how it’s written, and so reading Italian is easier than reading French or English, which are not phonetic languages.
In phonetic languages spelling and pronunciation are directly related. This means that, just by hearing a new word, you would know how it is spelled and, vice-versa, if you saw a new word in writing, you would know how it is pronounced.
French spelling and pronunciation are not directly related, and this makes reading harder for learners. Below are two examples of this:
- French has many silent consonants. Consider, for example, the word “parler” (“to speak”). The final “r” in “parler” is a silent “r”, it can’t be heard in speech. In Italian there are no silent letters, apart from the letter “h”, so everything that you see written is heard when speaking.
- French has many diphthong sounds. A diphthong is when more vowels close together are pronounced as one single sound. One example is the French word “eau” (“water”), pronounced in a similar way to just “o”. There are no diphthongs in Italian, every vowel that you see written is heard individually when speaking.
Phonetic languages like Italian are easier to read than English and French. One study on English, French and Italian speakers found that there is less prevalence of dyslexia in Italians, because a difficulty in linking sounds to their written symbols is at the basis of dyslexia.
3. Spoken Italian is easier to understand than spoken French
Spoken French can be very fast at times but, in addition to this, there are two features of the French language which make spoken French hard to understand for learners:
- French has a pronunciation rule called “liaison”, whereby the end of one word is pronounced as one with the beginning of the next word. The “liaison” occurs very frequently in French. For example “petites oranges” (“small oranges”) is pronounced as one single word by linking the letter “s” with the letter “o”.
- French has frequent contractions in speech, whereby the phrase “Je ne sais pas” would be pronounced as “Je’n sais pas” and even as “ch’ais pas“.
These features can make French speech merge into one continuous stream to the ears of a learner of French, and can make individual words difficult to separate.
[…] listening to French is very challenging. French has a huge number of homophones, a huge number of silent letter combinations and it is very difficult indeed to understand spoken French. […] Also, in French, many words are run together, making it difficult to work out what you are hearing, where one word ends and the next begins. Italian is a much more phonetic language, making it easier to make out the words.Mike Sadler
There is a large number of homophones in French. A homophone is when two or more words have the same pronunciation but different spelling and meaning. As an example of this, Mike told me that he once misheard the French word “jet” (“hosepipe”) as “j’ai” (“I have”).
Learners of French must be able to rely on context and anticipation to aid their understanding, and this can be difficult.
[…] Spoken French can be very difficult to understand if you aren’t able to anticipate the possible word. Even words that are the same in English but are obviously pronounced differently can be problematic. A notable example was the French word “art” […] We just couldn’t understand what they were saying as we weren’t expecting that word. A key part of listening comprehension is anticipation. […]Janet Sadler (Janet is a professional translator of French and Spanish, Janet learned Italian for two years after a long career teaching Spanish and French in Secondary School in the UK, and quickly became proficient).
As a general rule, spoken Italian is easier to understand than spoken French.
4. English, French and Italian have a large common vocabulary
There is a large number of everyday English words which are very close to French. This makes learning and remembering French vocabulary easier for an English speaker:
In terms of vocabulary, I’d say that French was easier, because so many English words are obviously really close to French ones. There are very often Italian cognates too, but they are less obviously cognates.Mike Sadler
Both French and Italian are derived from Latin, and about 60% of the English vocabulary is estimated to be of Latin origin. So there are words in the English vocabulary which came into the English language from Latin but through French.
There is a large number of English words which are cognates with both French and Italian words. Cognates are words in different languages which have a similar pronunciation, spelling and meaning. This makes both the French and Italian vocabularies relatively easy to learn for an English speaker.
There are English words which look very similar to the French words that they originate from:
- Joy is joie in French and gioia in Italian
- Chair is chaise in French and sedia in Italian
- Money is monnaie in French and moneta in Italian, although “moneta” now means “coin” in Italian, and “monnaie” is often used to mean “currency” or “change”, the everyday word being “argent” (which really means “silver”).
- Arch is arc in French and arco in Italian
- Apricot is abricot in French and albicocca in Italian
- Portrait is portrait in French and ritratto in Italian
- Art is art in French and arte in Italian
There are words which are similar between both English and French and English and Italian:
- Education is éducation in French and educazione in Italian
- City is cité in French and città in Italian
- Impossible is impossible in French and impossibile in Italian
- Obviously/ evidently is évidement in French and ovviamente/ evidentemente in Italian
- Atomic is atomique in French and atomico in Italian
Many cognate words between English and Italian are false friends, so be careful about these. For example, the word “processo” in Italian sounds like “process” in English but it actually means “trial”. The Italian word for “process” is “procedimento”.
There are French words which became part of an international vocabulary and are in use in both English and Italian:
- Omelette (originally from Latin)
- Souvenir (originally from Latin)
As a general rule, the French and Italian vocabularies are similar in terms of difficulty for an English-speaking learner, although French is slightly easier as some words look very similar between English and French.
5. The French spelling and pronunciation can make French grammar harder
The fact that French is not a phonetic language, that is, that words are not written in the same way as they are pronounced, can lead both learners of French and native French speakers to making grammar errors.
Writing in French is also difficult. It has lots of silent agreements, lots of double letters, lots of written accents that do not impact the pronunciation, so you cannot hear them in your head when you’re writing. From my work translating French, I know that even educated French speakers often make writing errors, typically of the “J’ai parler”, when it should be “j’ai parlé” type. It’s even harder for foreign learners. I haven’t really written in Italian, but from the bits that I have written, I’ve found that it has similar challenges to French, but fewer silent letters and that makes it easier.Mike Sadler
Within the French verb conjugations, there are verbs which are spelled differently but pronounced the same. This makes it harder for a learner of French to understand which form of the verb is being used. When listening to French verbs you may need to rely on context more than when listening to Italian verbs.
As an example, consider the conjugation of the verb “to run” in French and Italian. In French the 1st, 2nd and 3rd person singular are spelled differently but pronounced the same while in Italian all forms of the verb are both spelled and pronounced differently:
|Je cours||Io corro||I run|
|Tu cours||Tu corri||You run|
|Il court/ elle court||Lui corre/ lei corre||He runs/ she runs|
|Nous courons||Noi corriamo||We run|
|Vous courez||Voi correte||You run|
|Ils courent||Loro corrono||They run|
Italian verb conjugations are notoriously difficult, as I explained in my article “Six Reasons Why You Should Learn Italian” but still slightly easier than French verb conjugations, because there are no two verb forms which are spelled differently but sound the same in Italian.
There is a number of French words which add an -s to the end of the word to make it plural but the plural and singular versions of the word are pronounced the same. This can make listening harder for a learner of French and force them to rely more on context to understand what is being said.
In French the plural and singular versions of the word “student” are pronounced the same:
In French the plural and singular versions of the word “car” are also pronounced the same:
There are some French words which look, and are pronounced, exactly the same between singular and plural:
The plural and singular of nouns can be difficult to learn in Italian but the vast majority of singular and plural words have a different pronunciation and so there is no ambiguity.
6. The Italian grammar and the French grammar present similar difficulties to learners
The Italian grammar and French grammar present similar difficulties for learners.
In terms of grammar, I think that French and Italian are on a par. Indeed, there are an awful lot of similarities and parallels between French and Italian grammar.Mike Sadler
Generally, the two main stumbling blocks for learners of French are:
Both Italian and French are gendered languages, meaning that nouns are inherently masculine or feminine.
The challenge for an English speaker is knowing, or recognising, the gender of each noun and also coordinating the gender of each noun with the word that it refers to, when necessary.
- Verbs (conjugations, tenses and moods)
Both Italian and French have a larger number of verb conjugations than English and a large number of irregular verbs, which means that learners have to put in a lot of effort to memorise them.
The use of verb tenses in French and Italian can also differ from English, at times.
Finally, both French and Italian have different verb moods (such as the imperative, subjunctive and conditional). The challenge for an English speaker is understanding when to use each mood but also remembering how a verb is conjugated within each mood.
An English speaker may find gender and verbs challenging in both French and Italian.
For an English speaker, Italian is a little easier to learn than French
In conclusion, an English speaker may find Italian slightly easier to learn than French because:
- Italian pronunciation is easier than French pronunciation
- Reading Italian is easier than reading French
- Spoken Italian is easier to understand than spoken French
- The French spelling and pronunciation can make French grammar harder
My advice is to learn whichever language you prefer to learn, without feeling put off by its complexities. The most important factor in learning a language successfully is your motivation and the time and effort that you decide to put into it.
Mike is a professional translator of French and Spanish into English, specializing in human rights and development issues and working mainly for large international agencies.
He previously worked as a schoolteacher and administrator in secondary education (pupils aged 11-18) in England.
Over the years, he has accumulated what he describes as “an alarming collection of qualifications”:
A Bachelor’s degree in Russian and Spanish
A Post-Graduate Certificate in Education
The Final Diploma of the Chartered Institute of Linguists in French
A Master’s in Education Management
The National Professional Qualification for Headteachers
The Post-Graduate Certificate in Translation of the Chartered Institute of Linguists
In his free time, he enjoys traveling, gardening, reading, and playing in the local ukulele band.