Is French really more difficult than English?

This question is quite often the topic of discussions and the only informed answer is: « It depends on your point of view ».

But before going into the detail, let us first make one thing clear: basically, no one language in the world is more difficult than any other, and the proof is that all the children in the world learn their mother tongue at about the same age. Moreover, regardless of the language, those who speak it spontaneously in their daily relationships with their nearest and dearest do so with the same ease, in the same relaxed manner, without stopping every few moments to wonder how this or that grammar rule works or if this or that word is approved by any authority.

Historically, these two languages have evolved quite differently because for centuries, French was the language of the aristocracy, both in England and in the rest of Europe.

English, as the “« language of the people », was not subject to the same requirements of “purity” as the elite language of French, especially since the 17th century, when the court of Louis XIV literally took hold of French to make it a language as far away as possible from that spoken by the people, which was seen as a degraded form of French. It was under his predecessor, Louis XIII, that the Académie française was founded by Richelieu in 1637 with the main mission « …of working with all possible care and diligence to give certain rules to our language and to make it pure, eloquent and capable of handling the arts and sciences ».

It was also at the same time that the grammarian Vaugelas, one of the first members of the Académie française, published his famous « Remarks on the French language », which contained this definition that has so marked the history of our language and the attitude of French speakers towards it: « Proper use is the way of speaking of the best at Court, in accordance with the way of writing of the best of the authors of the time ».

This is what gave rise to the idea among French speakers that what does not correspond to the language of a certain elite should be prohibited and, moreover, that the spoken language should ideally be aligned with the written language and in particular with that of the great writers.

As part of a linguistics course I taught at the University of Ottawa in the 1970s, I sometimes played recordings of interviews on CBC English and French television with players from the National Hockey League. In the English interviews, players and interviewers generally used the same familiar language level and each seemed to be very linguistically comfortable in their roles. In French interviews with French-speaking players, on the other hand, the interviewers always used very refined language that was obviously out of reach for the poor players who often hesitated, stammered and clumsily tried to imitate them. It must be said that at that time, Radio-Canada hosts all spoke very polished French, often with a « French from France » accent that would make even the French themselves blush!

Of course, we cannot generalise too much from this anecdote, but it does reveal one of the difficulties of French in relation to English, namely the greater gap in French between the everyday language (the familiar level) and the much more polished language traditionally required of French speakers in this type of situation. It should be noted, however, that all this has changed considerably since then, while all language levels can (sometimes unfortunately) be found in French-language media depending on the type of programme and the identity of the participants. Nevertheless, there is still a tendency to judge French (especially in Canada) more harshly than English on the « quality » of their use. In our country, the “joual” is much more of an obsession than is « slang », its equivalent among English speakers.

In conclusion, it can be said that, historically and culturally, French has become more difficult than English, not so much because of its intrinsic characteristics, but because it has been made more difficult by imposing models and rules of use on it which, while suitable for formal or written uses of the language, ignore and proscribe many of the particularities of the language used familiarly by ordinary people in their corner of the country and in their daily activities.

Pierre Calvé
Professor of Linguistics
University of Ottawa

Translation: Sean Macmahon

See also: Le français est-il vraiment plus difficile que l’anglais ?