The truth behind the myth
There is a common myth among English speakers, at least in the United States, that Spanish is much easier to learn than French. In high school, more than 95% percent of my fellow students chose Spanish in order to meet the foreign language requirement. Some said that Spanish is more useful in the US (an interesting discussion for another day), but most claimed that Spanish is much easier and thus they wouldn't have to work as hard. The same rumor abounded when I was in college, and I still hear it today. When asked for more information, perpetrators of this urban legend invariably mention how difficult French pronunciation and spelling are, in comparison to Spanish. And in this, at least, there is some truth.
Spanish is easier…
Spanish is a near-phonemic language, meaning that the rules of orthography are very close to the rules of pronunciation. Each Spanish vowel has a single pronunciation and although consonants may have two or more, there are very specific rules regarding their usage, depending on where the letter is in the word and what letters are around it. There are some trick letters, like the silent H and the identically-pronounced B and V, but all in all Spanish pronunciation and spelling are pretty straightforward. In comparison, French has many silent letters and multiple rules with plenty of exceptions, as well as liaisons and enchaînement which add additional difficulties to pronunciation and aural comprehension.
There are precise rules for the accentuation of Spanish words and accents to let you know when those rules are overridden, whereas in French accentuation goes by the sentence rather than the word. The fact is that once you've memorized the Spanish rules of pronunciation and accentuation, you can pronounce brand-new words with no hesitation. This is rarely the case in French (or English, for that matter).
The most common French past tense, the passé composé, is more difficult than Spanish's pretérito.* The pretérito is a single word, while the passé composé has two parts (auxiliary verb + past participle). The passé composé is just one of several French compound verbs** and the questions of auxiliary verb (avoir or être) and word order with these verbs are some of French's great difficulties.
* The true French equivalent of the pretérito, the passé simple, is a literary tense which most French students learn to recognize but not to use.
** Spanish compound verbs are much simpler: there is only one auxiliary verb and the two parts of the verb stay together, so word order is not a problem.
French's two-part negation ne … pas is also more complicated in terms of usage and word order than Spanish's no.
French is easier…
French has fewer verb tenses/moods than Spanish. French has a total of 15 verb tenses/moods, four of which are literary and rarely used, thus only 11 are used in daily French. Spanish has 17, one of which is literary (pretérito anterior) and two judicial/administrative (futuro de subjuntivo and futuro anterior de subjuntivo), which still leaves 14 for regular use.
While the subjunctive is the bane of students of both languages, it is more difficult and much more common in Spanish.
- The French subjunctive is used almost solely after que, whereas the Spanish subjunctive is used regularly after many different conjunctions: que, cuando, como, etc.
- There are two different sets of conjugations for the Spanish imperfect subjunctive (and therefore also the pluperfect subjunctive). You can choose just one set of conjugations to learn, but you must be able to recognize both.
- Si clauses (if… then… clauses) are very similar in French and English but are considerably more difficult in Spanish. French uses normal everyday tenses, while in Spanish, two subjunctive tenses are used that are, in French, are extremely rare literary tenses.
|Unlikely Situation||Impossible Situation|
|English||If simple past + conditional||If past perfect + past conditional|
|French||Si imperfect + conditional||Si past perfect + past conditional|
|Spanish||Si imperfect subjunctive
|Si past perfect subjunctive
+ past conditional or past perfect subjunctive
The Spanish subject pronoun is usually dropped, thus it is essential to have all verb conjugations memorized in order to recognize (as the listener) and express (as the speaker) which subject is performing the action. In French, the subject pronoun is always stated, which means that verb conjugations – while still important, of course – are not as vital to comprehension: your own or your listener's. In addition, French has just two words for “you” (singular/familiar and plural/formal), while Spanish has four (singular familiar, plural familiar, singular formal, and plural formal – plus a 5th in some countries).
Neither one is easier…
There are sounds in both languages which can be very difficult for English speakers: French has the infamous R apical (pronounced in the throat), nasal vowels, and the subtle (to untrained ears) differences between tu / tous and parlai / parlais. In Spanish, the rolled R, the J (similar to the French R), and the B/V are the trickiest sounds.
Both languages have two genders and require gender and number agreement for adjectives, articles, and certain types of pronouns.
The use of prepositions in both languages can be difficult, as there is often little correlation between them and their English counterparts.
Confusing pairs abound in both:
- French – c'est vs il est, encore vs toujours …
- Spanish – ser vs estar, por vs para …
- Both have the tricky two past-tense division (Fr – passé composé vs imparfait; Es – pretérito vs imperfecto), two verbs that mean "to know," and the bon-bien, mauvais-mal (Fr) / bueno-bien, malo-mal (Es) distinctions.
Both French and Spanish have reflexive verbs, numerous false friends with English that can trip up non-native speakers of either language, and potentially confusing word order due to the positions of adjectives and object pronouns.
The bottom line…
Spanish is arguably somewhat easier for the first year or so – beginners may struggle less with pronunciation than their French-studying colleagues, and one of the most basic Spanish verb tenses is easier than French. However, beginners in Spanish have to deal with dropped subject pronouns and four words for you, while French only has two. Later on, Spanish grammar becomes more complicated, and some aspects are certainly more difficult than French. All in all, neither language is definitively more or less difficult than the other.
Also keep in mind that each language you learn tends to be progressively easier than the previous one, so if you learn, for example, French first and then Spanish, Spanish will seem easier. But don't let that fool you!
- French mistakes and difficulties
- Literary tenses
- Si clauses