The 5 Hardest Aspects of French for English Speakers


While French is a common language to learn, I constantly hear learners express their frustration with the French language. Here are some of the reasons why:


1. Those tricky e & r sounds


Both the French /e/ and /r/ sounds can be very difficult for English speakers. The /r/ varies a lot across different French speaking regions. In some areas, the /r/ is trilled (like in Italian) and in others the /r/ is uvular (pronounced at the back of the oral cavity). Neither phoneme is present in English. Having learned Italian as well, I have come to pronounce the trilled /r/ in addition to the French uvular /r/ (which is the /r/ phoneme I use). Both require much practice. The /e/ on the other hand is not so different from English; however the letter /e/ is not one that gets much attention in English, although it is used quite frequently. There are a number of variations of the /e/ phoneme in English and in French which I think confuses French learners at the beginning.


2. Nasal vowels in French


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Nasal sounds are produced in the oral cavity and in the nasal cavity, as opposed to oral sounds which are produced only in the oral cavity. English has only 3 nasal consonants (n, m, ng) and no nasal vowels (which are used frequently). On the other hand, French is full of nasal consonants and nasal vowels. For French students, nasal vowels are especially hard to pronounce as English speakers are not used to pronouncing words in this way, especially the majority of words.


3. Word Order

For the most part, French uses the same word order as English (Subject Verb Object or SVO). French also utilizes SOV (Subject Object Verb) word order when object pronouns are required. This structure confuses many French speakers because French doesn’t use just one word order, rather two. The concept of moving object pronouns to be said before the verb seems strange to English speakers because no such structure exists in English.


4. Literary Tenses


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Many texts from a number of decades ago contain verb tenses which are considered ‘literary tenses.’ These literary tenses are the preterit tense (le passé simple), the anterior past (le passé antérieur), the older version of the conditional past (le conditionnel passé), the subjunctive pluperfect (le plus-que-parfait du subjonctif), and the subjunctive imperfect (l’imparfait du subjonctif). They are rarely used in contemporary French and found usually in literature from a couple of decades ago or really formal text. In my French courses, I’ve never been taught to conjugate any of the above tenses as it’s said that recognizing them is more important than learning to conjugate them since you will rarely need to compose something with these tenses. Reading texts with these tenses can be overwhelming for French learners.


5. Relative Pronouns

French is not the only language that uses relative pronouns. English (in addition to most other languages) uses a vast array of relative pronouns. French has many, more than English in fact, which contributes to the confusion of French learners. Relative clauses and subordinate clauses are difficult to wrap one’s head around in general. Given the fact that English has a handful of words for a long list of purposes and that French has many different words for that list of purposes, this grammar point can be quite tricky. Not only do learners have to think about these relative pronouns (which can seem quite insignificant to monolingual speakers), but they also have to think about the number of different roles they play and matching them up with their French equivalents.




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Practice makes perfect. Practicing listening will actually allow your tune your ear and allow you to produce the sound more easily. Learners of French should focus on listening activities in order to better understand how to pronounce difficult sounds like /e/ and /r/. In terms of the literary tenses, it’s not necessary to learn how to use them; rather it’s more important that you learn how to recognize them. Rarely will you be required to write in such old tenses. Relative pronouns require much practice as well, but in time you will get the hang of it. Continue to learn about them and access various resources on the web to better understand how they work.

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