Native English speakers are notoriously poor at learning other languages because by comparison other languages are notoriously more difficult than English. Well, not quite. Some years ago I learned Swahili (the national language of Tanzania), which I found to be embarrassingly easy.
True, few native English speakers are ever likely to want to learn Swahili, but rather German, French, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, and some other European language. Admittedly, in many ways these are more difficult than English. However, by zeroing in on their difficulties, we can lose sight of the numerous aspects where they are in fact easier than English.
I live in Brussels, Belgium. One of the national languages here is French (the others are Dutch and German). I speak French fluently. I won’t say that it was easy to learn. However, I have discovered at least seven ways in which French has English beat hands down.
Actually, this shouldn’t really be so surprising. I would wager that every language, including those as far removed from English as Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Malayan, etc., have aspects about them that are simpler and more logical than in English.
But to make the point, let’s stay with European languages, and notably French.
You may be asking yourself: How can French possibly be easier than English? After all, isn’t French afflicted with genders (masculine and feminine), which English isn’t? Doesn’t it have more conjugated forms than English? More than one way of saying “you” (tu, vous)? Three was of saying “the” (le, la, les)? And a spelling system whose complexity virtually defies imagination (even worse than English)?
All true–and all too obvious. However, if we look at aspects of the language not so obvious, we make some remarkable discoveries. For French, here are seven of them (there are others).
1. No tonic accent
Most people, and certainly those who have yet to master another language, are largely unaware of how seriously difficult their own native language could be to a foreigner. As a native Anglophone, you probably find that English is quite easy to pronounce. But the fact is, French is even easier.
What! With its nasalization, trilled “r” and other difficult sounds? Yes, and I can prove it!
First, it is important to understand that no sounds, in any language, are inherently difficult to pronounce. If they were, they wouldn’t exist because the native speakers never would have accepted them into their language in the first place.
Learning foreign sounds is never easy; French speakers learning English have a terrible time with the “th” sound in words such as “the”, “they”, “through”, “throw”, etc. Because there is no equivalent sound in French, they have great difficulty in mastering it. But it certainly isn’t impossible. Just as it may be difficult, but certainly not impossible, for you to master unfamiliar sounds in French.
Where French pronunciation has an undeniable advantage over English (and most other European languages) is its virtual lack of a “tonic accent”.
Tonic accent simply means that certain syllables in words are given more stress than are others. For example, “difficult” is pronounced “dif-fi-cult”; the first syllable carries the tonic accent. It could just as easily be pronounced dif-fi-cult”, which is what the Spanish prefer (dif-fí-cil). Or even “dif-fi-cult”.
Technically, the tonic accent does exist in French, but it is very hard to hear it. For example, in English we say “un-i-ver-si-ty”. In French, this is “un-i-ver-si-té”, with no apparent stress anywhere (except perhaps very lightly on the last syllable). Likewise with “rest-au-rant”, which in French is “rest-au-rant”. And so on. Thus, you never have to guess where the tonic accent should go, so you can never make a mistake.
As a native Anglophone, you have grown up with the tonic accent, so you might not immediately recognize what a relief this is. However, if you have had any dealings with foreigners speaking English, you know that if they put the tonic accent on the wrong syllable, you might not understand the word at all. By foreigners, I don’t necessarily mean non-native English speakers. If you are British, try conversing with an American or Australian, and you are likely to have the same problem. And vice versa.
I once had a British friend in Brussels. All the native Francophones agreed that he had great mastery of French grammar and vocabulary. The problem was, when he spoke no one understood what he was saying. He simply couldn’t let go of the tonic accent. As a result, the Francophones could hardly grasp a word he said.
2. Gallic Impersonality
A. Use of “on”
For Anglophones, imbued with the idea that French is a very personal language (the so-called “’language of love”), few things are more surprising than the frequent use of the very impersonal “on” (pronounced ohn). By contrast, Francophones learning English are surprised to discover that English has no equivalent of “on”, so they have to search all over the place for substitutes.
Actually, this is not entirely true. English does have an equivalent: “one”. But it is seldom used. The Queen uses it: “One has considered the matter carefully” rather than “I have considered the matter carefully”. Moralists use it: “One should not kill”, “One should be ready to fight for one’s country”, etc. University professors speaking about arcane subjects use it: “One can clearly see this in the fossil record.” In almost all other circumstances, it is studiously avoided.
French uses “on” without the slightest embarrassment. In fact, using it avoids a lot of embarrassment. Familiar habits and patterns of thought are often hard to break, so at the beginning you may find using “on” rather strange, especially in sentences such as “On s’aime beaucoup” (we love each other very much). However, you will not be able to deny its usefulness.
For example, a key problem in English is avoiding “genderism”. English as a language does not have genders, but English speakers do. And they are very aware of it. This is the explanation for the very odd use of the plural pronoun “they” as if it were a singular.
Example: If someone studies hard, they will succeed.
Why do we make this apparently illogical switch from the singular pronoun “someone” and the singular verb “studies” to the plural pronoun “they’? Because otherwise, it would be necessary to say “he will succeed”. However, the sentence clearly is not directed only to males. Alternatively, it would have been necessary to say “he or she will succeed”, or “he/she will succeed”, which are cumbersome. French has no such problem. “Si on étudie bien, on réussira”.
B. Use of possessive adjectives
Here is another example of how Gallic impersonality avoids genderism. Consider the sentence: “Everyone who studies hard will see their effort rapidly rewarded.” In French, this is: “Chacun qui étudie bien verra son effort rapidement récompensé.“
In English, although we start the sentence with a singular subject and verb, we finish it with a plural possessive adjective (“their”). In French, the sentence remains singular all the way through, as it logically should. This is because “son effort” can mean either “his effort” or “her effort”.
“Son” is indeed classified as a “masculine” possessive. However, in French the term “masculine” has nothing to do with the nature of “chacun”, but only with the nature of “effort”, which is a “masculine” noun. The sentence could just as easily have been written: “Chacun qui étudie bien verra sa dépense d’effort rapidement récompensée“. Now the possessive adjective “sa“ is “feminine”, which again has nothing to do with the nature of “chacun”, but only with the nature of “dépense”, which is a “feminine” noun.
The inherently impersonal nature of French grammar automatically precludes a lot of “political incorrectness”, whereas in English we can achieve this only through some rather illogical and inelegant grammatical contortions.
3. Use of infinitives
A major problem most foreigners face in English is the correct use of infinitives. As a native speaker, you probably never realized that infinitives could be a problem. After all, an infinitive is just an infinitive.
Well, not quite. English infinitives in fact are very unusual compared to French infinitives and those of most other European languages. This is because French infinitives are unified, while English infinitives are separable. For example:
1. French: manger
2. English: to eat
The English infinitive can be used with both parts (“to eat”), which grammarians call the “complete infinitive”, or only the second part (“eat”), which grammarians call the “incomplete infinitive”.
The problem is, in many cases this is not optional, but required. For example: “I need to eat something” (complete infinitive), but “I must eat something” (incomplete infinitive). So what’s the difference? Why in the first example is the “to” necessary and in the second not only isn’t it necessary, using it would be incorrect?
In French this problem never arises. “J’ai besoin de manger quelque chose” and “Je dois manger quelque chose”. Simple, isn’t it. Just imagine if French worked like English. You would constantly be making choices about which form of the infinitive to use—and in many cases you would be wrong.
4. Use of definite articles
Use of the definite article (“the”) in English presents pretty much the same problem as use of the infinitive (see above). In other words, you constantly have to be making choices about when to use it and when not to use it. French is much simpler.
Really! Doesn’t French have three definitive articles (le, la, les) compared to only one in English?
Absolutely! But the problem is not deciding which definite article to use. Rather, it is deciding whether or not to use any definitive article at all.
In French, you retain the definite article much more frequently than you do in English. Thus, you have considerably fewer decisions to make, and therefore considerably fewer opportunities to make mistakes.
1. “I like cats” (cats in general)
2. “I like the cats” (specific cats, not necessarily all cats)
In French, both statements are rendered “J’aime les chats”, so no decision about whether or not to use the definite article. You distinguish their meanings via the context in which they are used.
5. No distinction between “a” and “one”
The words “a” and “one” are the equivalent of “un” in French. Fundamentally, these two words mean the same thing; however, “one” is more precise, so it adds emphasis. For example:
I have eaten in a Japanese restaurant
(at least one, perhaps more)
I have eaten in one Japanese restaurant
(only one, no more)
Both of these sentences are rendered in French as “J’ai mangé dans un restaurant japonais.” As with the definite article, you distinguish the meaning from the context, or by purposely adding intensifying words such as “ne . . . . que” or “seulement une fois”.
Je n’ai mangé qu’une fois dans un restaurant japonais.
J’ai mangé seulement une fois dans un restaurant japonais.
Many Francophones speaking English frequently make the mistake of saying ”I have eaten in one Japanese restaurant” when they really mean ”I have eaten in a Japanese restaurant”. As an Anglophone speaking French, you will never make this mistake, because it is simply not possible!
6. Simple and progressive (continuous) tenses
English makes frequent use of progressive (continuous) verb tenses, whilst French almost never does.
The progressive tenses are formed by two verbs: the helper (auxiliary) “to be” and the “present participle” (-ing form) of the other one.
Examples: she is eating / elle mange; we are talking / nous parlons; they are running / ils courrent.
English uses progressive tenses to distinguish between the general time period when an action takes place and the exact moment that the action takes place. French generally does not make this distinction, but rather leaves the interpretation to context.
In English, if you say “I eat” when you mean “I am eating”, or say “I am eating” when you mean “I eat”, you are committing a serious error. Although progressive tenses technically exist in French, you can largely ignore them. In short, no such error is possible!
7. Converting verbs into nouns
Because of its fondness for progressive verb tenses, English has a characteristic way of converting verbs into nouns, i.e. using a verb as the subject or the object of a sentence.
In French, and many other languages, you simply use the infinitive: Marcher est bon pour la santé. You can do the same thing in English: To walk is good for health. However, the preferred form is: Walking is good for health. To Anglophone ears, “walking” is more dynamic than “to walk”, i.e. it seems to give a better picture of what is happening.
This may very well be the case—in English. But there is no such distinction in French.
The grammatical term for the -ing form of a verb when used as a noun is “gerund”. The “gérondif” also exists in French, i.e. “marchant”, but it is virtually never used to replace an infinitive. So you have no choice. The correct form is “marcher”, because it is the only form. Simple, isn’t it?
Do you feel that that all this talk about the “simplicities” of French is beginning to look like camouflage for its manifest difficulties? To a certain extent, you are right. However, the purpose here is not to hide French’s difficulties. But to minimize them by highlighting those aspects of French that are not so difficult—and are in fact really quite easy.
By rejoicing in French’s simplicities rather than focusing on its complexities, learning the language can be made more rapid and more enjoyable than you might have expected. The same is true of other languages.
I don’t mean that by focusing on the simplicities, learning languages will suddenly become easy. Learning a language is never easy, French or otherwise. But it can certainly be made rather less difficult.
Philip Yaffe is a former writer with The Wall Street Journal and international marketing communication consultant. He now teaches courses in persuasive communication in Brussels, Belgium. Because his clients use English as a second or third language, his approach to writing and public speaking is somewhat different from other communication coaches. He is the author of In the “I” of the Storm: the Simple Secrets of Writing and Speaking (Almost) like a Professional, available from the publisher (storypublishers.be) and Amazon (amazon.com). Contact: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org