French or Italian: Which one should I learn?

French or Italian: Which one should I learn?

by Anne-Lise Vassoille

Updated August 7, 2023

So, you’ve made the decision to learn a foreign language, but you can’t make up your mind between French and Italian. These two languages share the same reputation for romance, which may explain why so many people are keen to learn them. Their common Latin origin also accounts for their many similarities. 

But French and Italian have evolved in different ways throughout the centuries, and these two Romance languages are clearly distinct. If you’re struggling to choose just one, you may wonder which language is easier to learn. You may also wonder whether French or Italian is more useful to know. If you’re wondering, “Should I learn French or Italian?”, our guide may shed some light on the matter.

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How similar are French and Italian?

In order to assess which language is more difficult to learn, it’s important to have a solid understanding of what makes them similar and what distinguishes them. 

The similarities

French and Italian belong to the family of Romance languages, which means they both descend from Vulgar Latin. As such, they share many cognates. For instance, a large number of er verbs in French are nearly identical to –are verbs in Italian:

aimeramareto like/love
arriverarrivareto arrive
continuercontinuareto continue
demanderdomandareto ask
habiterabitareto live (in a place)
mangermangiareto eat
parlerparlareto speak
penserpensareto think
visitervisitareto visit

Due to their common origin, French and Italian also share similar grammatical characteristics. For instance, they have the same two grammatical genders of masculine and feminine, which apply to nouns and adjectives

When it comes to verbs, French and Italian follow the same general rules of conjugation. For simple tenses, verb endings change according to the subject. Meanwhile, compound tenses are usually made of the auxiliary verb “to have,” followed by the past participle. Only a handful of verbs require the auxiliary verb “to be” and the list is nearly identical between the two languages. 

In terms of syntax, both languages usually follow the same word order. Just like in English, sentences are normally structured according to the “subject-verb-object” formula:

Je connais Paul.Io conosco Paul.I know Paul.

When the object is expressed with a pronoun, the word order changes in both Italian and French, with the pronoun appearing between the subject and the verb. In English, on the other hand, the order remains unchanged, with the pronoun following the verb:

Je le connais.Io lo conosco.I know him.

From these initial observations, it’s clear that Italian and French are built on the same linguistic framework. Yet, throughout the centuries, the two languages have also evolved in remarkably different ways.

The differences

The differences between the two languages can be traced back to their evolution throughout the centuries. As such, Italian is a lot closer to Vulgar Latin, whereas French shows greater German and English influences. 

This is true for both grammar and vocabulary. For instance, it’s possible to drop a subject pronoun in Italian in exactly the same way as in Latin. In such cases, the conjugated verb carries the information necessary for deciphering who the subject is. French speakers, like German and English speakers, can’t simply drop their subject pronouns in this way:

Je connais Paul.Io conosco Paul.
Conosco Paul.
I know Paul.

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Even at a basic level, French and Italian differ from each other in significant ways. A good example is the Latin alphabet they both use. The French alphabet contains the same 26 letters as in English. But the Italian alphabet only contains 21 letters, with J, K, W, X and Y being noticeably absent. There are also more accents in French than in Italian, which has only three.

Along with a more complex alphabet comes a trickier task of spelling in French. In Italian, pretty much every letter corresponds to one regular sound, making it relatively easy to learn the pronunciation rules. By contrast, French is not shy about silencing its letters — especially at the end of words and with the h consonant — and about clustering vowels. Nasal sounds are another challenge learners struggle with when studying French pronunciation.

While both languages are often considered very pleasing to the ear, Italian pronunciation tends to be more defined and sharp, with the stress usually falling on the second syllable. Meanwhile, French pronunciation is more fluid and doesn’t have set rules to stress particular syllables. Each language also rolls its r’s in a distinctive way.

Is Italian easier than French?

So, now that we have reviewed the similarities and differences between these two Romance languages, it’s time to answer the question that may interest you more. Italian or French — which one is easier to learn?

In terms of grammar, Italian and French have a similar degree of difficulty, which is hardly surprising considering how similar they are. So, no matter what, you’ll need to take time to learn and practice the rules. 

With only the English Channel separating France from Great Britain, French and English have influenced each other immensely. This is particularly visible in the vocabulary. From the business world of entrepreneurs to haute couture fashion to the art of ballet, many French words have infiltrated the English language. As an English speaker, you may therefore find it easier to learn vocabulary in French than in Italian.

When it comes to pronunciation, Italian is clearly the easier language, as it contains fewer and more consistent rules. Words are pretty much pronounced the way they are written, and the main trick is to master the intonation. By comparison, French pronunciation is not so straightforward and demands more practice.

In the end, the difficulty you experience learning French or Italian will very much depend on your own personal strengths when it comes to grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. So, it might be worth considering one last factor before making your decision. 

Is French or Italian more useful to learn?

Considering their fairly similar degree of difficulty, this is just as important a question to help you decide which language to learn. Before anything else, you’ll need to consider your own goals in order to make the best choice.

French clearly outpaces German in terms of total number of speakers across the globe, and the same is true when comparing French and Italian. Nowadays, there are 300 million French speakers spread across various continents, from North America to Africa. 

By contrast, Italian has a significantly lower number of speakers, with a total of 66 million people speaking the language globally. In Europe, 14 million speak Italian as a second language, and some countries count more speakers than others. In Malta alone, about two-thirds of the population speak conversational Italian. In Albania, a former colony, 70% of people can speak at least some Italian.

Beyond numbers, you also need to consider your interests and career prospects. Both Italian and French are useful languages when it comes to gastronomy, fashion, the arts, cinema and tourism. In addition, from Ferrari to Lamborghini and from Vivaldi to Boccelli, Italian is a great language to learn if you’re a car lover or music enthusiast. Do you prefer the aerospace industry instead? Then knowing French will be a plus if you wish to apply to the Airbus group.

Learn the romance language closer to your heart

If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Should I learn French or Italian?”, then it’s important to consider the similarities and the differences between these two languages born from a common mother. This will help you to compare their degree of complexity in various areas, such as grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. And once you work over the linguistic technicalities and consider your goals, don’t forget to pick the language that will make your heart smile!

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Anne-Lise Vassoille

Anne-Lise is a translator and copywriter working for various industries… Settled down in London, she cannot get enough of the exceptional cultural life in the English capital city, starting with theater, be it to see a new West End show or to roll up her sleeves with her amateur drama group. She is also interested in photography, as her Instagram profile shows. She indulges her passion for languages in a translation blog she writes with other linguist friends. Go to her Linkedin page to know more about her background and her professional experience.

Anne-Lise Vassoille
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