Why does French suck?
February 18, 2009 4:38 PM   Subscribe

Why does French suck?

When I was registering for this semester's classes, I was trying to choose between beginning French and beginning Japanese. I chose Japanese, and now I kinda feel in over my head. I have a problem with thinking the grass is greener, yknow, and I keep thinking I should have taken French instead. Now, considering I took Japanese, this is pretty counterproductive. Besides, I'm pretty sure learning any new language is a challenge, and there must be some ways that French is difficult to learn for an English speaker. Could you guys tell me what ways those would be?

For instance, in Japanese, I have to learn three huge and completely foreign-to-me alphabets. Then there's pronunciation of a bunch of sounds I've never really used before, such as the r/l thing. There must be aspects of the French language like this that pose a challenge to an English speaker. Knowing what these are I think would help me put my nose back to the grindstone in Japanese class. Thanks.
posted by malapropist to Writing & Language (64 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
French has gender, and native English speakers don't naturally assign an arbitrary gender to their nouns.

You have to remember that adjectives have to agree with the nouns they're modifying both in gender AND in number.

French also has verb conjugations and, wouldn't you know it, the most common ones – être (to be) and avoir (to have) – are among the most irregular and annoying ones.

The pronunciation also involves a tricky 'r' in the back of the throat and remembering that whole parts of words that would be pronounced in English are not pronounced at all.

That said, the language does share an alphabet and a sizable chunk of its vocabulary/etymology with English (beware "false friends" though!) and, once you know it, you can wow people by reading things properly in French restaurants.
posted by zadcat at 4:44 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sorry. French is totally awesome. You should have taken French.
posted by bricoleur at 4:45 PM on February 18, 2009 [28 favorites]

More glottals in French than in English.
posted by box at 4:47 PM on February 18, 2009

You've got to make rolly R sounds in French, which is hard and makes you feel like a dork. Japanese is a very "flat" sounding/feeling language with no new sounds that aren't already used in English.

The "R"/"L" thing you mention? That's a totally Anglo joke - why would you ever need to think about this supposed "dilemma" when there IS no L sound in Japanese? Unless you're trying to speak English with a Japanese accent (which you'll only do for people and place names that are from languages with L's in them), it's just a non-issue; don't make it into one.
posted by springbound at 4:47 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, for Japanese, they're usually very appreciative of whatever efforts you make to speak their language. (See other AskMe questions for more on this phenomenon.)

As for speaking French to a native speaker - well, maybe I won't mention what they say about the accents of native English speakers attempting to communicate in French. They're bad enough about French speakers from other countries. "Oh, you speak Québécois, how cute!"
posted by HopperFan at 4:50 PM on February 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Any language can be difficult to learn, but I would imagine that French is about the easiest for a native English speaker. The grammar's not all that different in comparison to others, there's a huge overlap in vocabulary, there's more of a shared history and culture than there would be with Japanese. Spelling isn't always obvious, but there's a logic to it and it's still - generally - more sensible than English spelling. If you were looking for ease, you should have taken French.

On the plus side, you'll learn to think about many aspects of grammar that you wouldn't have otherwise, and starting with a more "alien" language will make learning a third or fourth one much easier. And it's better to start while you're young.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:53 PM on February 18, 2009

French for an English speaker doesn't suck. You can speak and read it pretty quickly and become very comfortable / fluent in a few years. Memorizing vocabulary / gender and getting pronunciation and slang down are the hardest parts.
posted by zippy at 4:54 PM on February 18, 2009

Yeah, so, uh, what I actually meant in those parentheses up there was "Unless you're trying to speak English/another language with Ls in it with a Japanese accent..."

Seconding the gender thing in French! Oh my lord, arbitrary genders...! It's one reason I took Japanese in school rather than German! Genders make every noun you learn like learning TWO, because you have to remember not only the word itself, but the gender that has to be used for it. Ugh!
posted by springbound at 4:56 PM on February 18, 2009

To be honest, English and French don't quite 'share alphabets'. Learning another language written in Roman alphabet still requires that you relearn that alphabet, as it is used in different ways in other languages (sometimes radically so). Also, while English can help at learning French vocabulary, there are likely to be some entirely different meanings that look the same ('false friends'), and many many more that have subtle differences that you will miss if you just see the French word as an English cipher. Both these add up to a significant level of 'interference', where you're not only have to learn French, but learn to separate that out from all the things you 'know' about French through already speaking English.

Specific things about French you have to grind through which you won't know from English: noun gender, gender agreement, more complicated conjugations, stupid orthography (sure, English too has a stupid orthography, but now you have to know two!), a couple of vowel sounds you may never get, oh, and that wonderful wonderful counting system.
posted by Sova at 4:56 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

As people have mentioned, French has gender, and it's all but impossible for a native English speaker to really associate gender properly -- you can memorize them, but that's different. And jerks will pretend not to understand you when you use the wrong gender with a completely unambiguous noun (even ambiguous ones are almost never unambiguous in the contexts that jerks are jerky in).

French also has vowel sounds that are similar to English ones but just different enough that it's quite difficult to ever get vowel sounds correct (especially if you're me). This is particularly true of vowels that are, in Standard American English, diphthongs.

Finally, French pronounces voiceless stops without aspiration and you will always betray your English routes by aspirating them (certainly I will, despite spending hours on trying to fix it).
posted by jeather at 5:03 PM on February 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Having studied both (and still sucking at them both)

I have to say that the main difference in learning the two for me is that the sense of accomplishment / fluency curve is way better in Japanese. I received no particular joy from being able to carry on a conversation in French, but the first time I was able to read the name of an item in a japanese supermarket written in kana - I experienced a ridiculous level of pleasure.

so I think its more of an accomplishment to learn Japanese coming from an english speaking background.

but -- I have to be honest here - French would have been much easier.
posted by Julnyes at 5:03 PM on February 18, 2009

The Foreign Services Institute categorized languages by learning difficulty for English speakers. French is Category I, the easiest, taking 23-24 weeks for "general professional proficiency" in speaking and writing. Japanese is Category III, the hardest, taking 88 weeks.

But with French, you'd be misled by a lot more false friends. And, oh those wacky gendered nouns (and the adjectives have to agree!) And... and... nah, that's all I've got.
posted by Zed at 5:05 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

A huge amount of your English vocabulary traces its recent origins to French. You have a major head start in vocabulary, minimal structural changes that are relatively easy to learn.

Hell, stop for a minute and just catalog the French phrases that we have incorporated... nom de plume, menage a trois, lassaiz faire, bon vivant, savant, salient, jeux de mot,...

My god, man... French does not suck. George Bush sucks.
posted by FauxScot at 5:07 PM on February 18, 2009

French is just plain easier for a native English speaker, in almost every way. The entire fundamental syntactic structure of the language is completely different from English.

French verb conjugation is complicated, but then, Japanese verb conjugation isn't simple either by any means if you are an English speaker.

Orthography is weird in French with all that is not pronounced (except when there is liaison), but at least it is built around the same familiar core system as English. Japanese has the three writing systems and no spaces between words! And in terms of pronunciation... Japanese has fairly simple sounds, if you ignore the fact that every word and every phrase has a specific pitch-accent pattern that can completely affect the meaning!

The Japanese counting system is way the heck more complicated than the French counting system. Depending on whether an object is a person, flat, long, furniture, etc., you use slightly different numbers. I'd take quatre-vingt-onze over the Japanese system any day.

Not to mention the kanji... my god, the kanji!!
posted by kosmonaut at 5:14 PM on February 18, 2009

I started Japanese in high school (I am now fluent and live permanently in Japan), and immediately regretted it, because it was always my worst grade.

The grammar, once you get a handle on it, is very interesting, though. Even beautiful. And the writing system is of course incredibly interesting.

I've studied German and Spanish as well, and I'm sure the same could be said of French: these hardly qualify as foreign languages compared to Japanese. I mean, having never studied French I can look at a newspaper article and still have a good idea what it's about. That's no foreign language!
posted by zachawry at 5:17 PM on February 18, 2009

I would be far more impressed to find that any given friend had learned Japanese than French. So there you go...the coolness factor!
posted by Pomo at 5:19 PM on February 18, 2009

I agree with Julnyes; learning Japanese can be a whole lot more satisfying, just by virtue of it being very different from English. Also, once you've learned the first two alphabets and gotten experienced with the grammatical structure, I think it gets a lot faster to learn. You just have to get used to it.

I took French for a year in high school before switching to Japanese. I'd found French kind of boring in that most of it was pretty easy to learn, and the parts that were hard were just annoying, like gendered nouns. Gendered nouns are horrible. Also, in Japanese, you don't have to worry about making your nouns/adjectives/articles agree (there are no articles at all), the pronunciation is a lot more consistent, and you don't have to worry about pluralizing.

All in all, though, French is probably easier, so I suppose if you are choosing a language to study based solely on its ease of learning, you've made the wrong choice. Rather than telling yourself why French sucks, maybe you should try telling yourself why it will be awesome to learn Japanese?
posted by you zombitch at 5:20 PM on February 18, 2009

Yeah Japanese is far harder. Stick with it and it will have been better than the easy, everybody knows it, French.
posted by fire&wings at 5:20 PM on February 18, 2009

Spelling isn't always obvious, but there's a logic to it and it's still - generally - more sensible than English spelling.

One problem I had was that there were a lot of unpronounced letters, so you had to learn how to say a word separately from how to read it. But I only had very little French, so maybe it's regular enough that you get used it.
posted by smackfu at 5:28 PM on February 18, 2009

Sorry, but I have to cast my lot with the French Doesn't Suck camp. It's kinda tricky to get the pronunciation right, but it's pretty easy to learn.

However, a few semesters in and you'll have to do a bunch of tedious explications de texte on Chateaubriand's three-page descriptions of, like, trees and shit, and that really does suck.

I've also had few practical applications for all the French I've learned, but, being the sort of nerd who's into Pokemon and Hello Kitty, I often find myself wishing I knew at least a little Japanese. If you'd rather visit Tokyo than Paris, or if you want to read manga, etc., consider that your motivation to stick by your choice.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:34 PM on February 18, 2009

As a lover of languages I purposely learned a languages from three different language groups, including Russian, Spanish and German. I did that because knowing one language from each group makes it easier to understand related languages. Also, knowing a romance language such as French can help you to learn other marketable languages (at least in this country) such as Spanish, and can help you to understand English better.

You did not do a bad thing by learning Japanese, however. Fewer students learn that language, so you will have job opportunities that others will not have. Furthermore, usually when you learn a foreign language you learn about the culture of the country that speaks it. This means that you, if you wanted to, may be able to get a job in Japan teaching English, editing books (like my Japanese-speaking friend did for Houghton Mifflin), working in technology, among other choices.

In general, learning any foreign language broadens your horizons, whether you choose French or Japanese. I think your choice was a fine one even if you find it a challenge. Good luck!
posted by Piscean at 5:45 PM on February 18, 2009

French has a boring alphabet. But with Japanese, you get to make friends and impress enemies with your thorough knowledge of non-Latin alphabets!

Just wait until you can pronounce every sign you see in the background of a movie set in The Future. Then you'll know.
posted by soma lkzx at 5:52 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Japanese verb conjugation makes French verb conjugation look like a task worth of escaping from hell.

This is coming from a Canadian who has a French mother and who's been around French all her life. I've studied French in late immersion. I also started Japanese about two years after that, and never once have I ever been sad to pursue Japanese over French.

You'll get over the r/l thing very quickly. The character set is the hardest thing. Work hard on hiragana/katakana now because being you can never be too good at reading it fast. Kanji will be rough. You need to be serious about studying it. Flash cards are your friend here. But it's also very interesting to see how the words link up, the history of kanji components, and all the other nuances of the language. I find it much more fulfilling than French, and ultimately much easier than the hell that is verb conjugation.
posted by Meagan at 6:08 PM on February 18, 2009

According to the CIA World Fact Book, (for first language speakers). It seems like a nearly statistical tie for suckiness/uselessness.

Learn Chinese.

1. Mandarin Chinese 13.22%
2. Spanish 4.88%
3. English 4.68%
4. Arabic 3.12%
5. Hindi 2.74%
6. Portuguese 2.69%
7. Bengali 2.59%
8. Russian 2.2%
9. Japanese 1.85%
10. Standard German 1.44%
11. French 1.2%

2005 estimates
posted by geekyguy at 6:08 PM on February 18, 2009

I took French myself, since my mom is French and my school didn't offer Japanese. But I think one big advantage of learning Japanese is the source materials available. I had to sit through "French in Action." You could watch "Naruto Shippuden."

Of couse, Spanish would be even easier, thanks to the Telemundo telenovelas that are always on TV.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 6:12 PM on February 18, 2009

French pluralization is weird.

In English you can hear the 's' in standard plurals and non-standard plurals change the sound of the word entirely ('goose' -> 'geese'); once you learn it verbally, you'll rarely mess up when writing it.

The French would not be content with such an easy-to-use system. French plurals are silent unless there's a vowel sound at the beginning of the following word. Then there's the bloody non-standard 'x' plurals, also silent-unless-followed-by-a-vowel. And the doubled-bloodied exceptions to the non-standard pluralization rules.
posted by CKmtl at 6:14 PM on February 18, 2009

Eh, geekguy's stats do not include the huge parts of Africa and all the Europeans, rich Middle Easterners, etc. that speak French as a second language. I am American but often resort to French when I am in Spain or other non-English speaking European countries. People are nicer that way.
posted by charlesv at 6:16 PM on February 18, 2009

You never have to learn which syllables to stress in Japanese, because you don't stress any. Most Japanese sounds already exist in English, so you don't have to teach your mouth new sounds like with French. I took one semester of Japanese in college and can pronounce Japanese (written in Romaji, of course) really well.

Japanese is easy to learn to speak. It's just REALLY hard to learn to write.
posted by fructose at 6:30 PM on February 18, 2009

Backing up fructose, some people feel that Japanese isn't that hard to speak at all, at least compared to Slavic languages.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 6:39 PM on February 18, 2009

i speak french and come from french genetics. however i'll tell you something the french don't have... japanese dramas! holy crap those things are great. there's also no native manga for the french. we totally suck sometimes. that being said, we totally have awesome boobies.
posted by eatdonuts at 6:44 PM on February 18, 2009

tl;dr the above but:

I have to learn three huge and completely foreign-to-me alphabets. Then there's pronunciation of a bunch of sounds I've never really used before, such as the r/l thing

The fuck? The kana are in toto 100 symbols. I pounded the hiragana in an afternoon shift at work. We're talking ~5 hours here from a language endeavor that is going to take decades to complete. The cool thing about these alphabets is that the reading speed of Japanese is a LOT faster than English, because we read in word-units and Japanese can read in sentence units due to their orthography.

And pronunciation-wise, Japanese is 99% a SUBSET of English, more like a slower Spanish.


That's it, other than subtleties going on with glottal G in the topic marker 'GA' and some tricky tongue gynmnastics involved in certain Chinese-derived words like RYOKAN.

French has verb tenses to make you cry while Japanese verb tenses are logical and HIGHLY regular -- there are only 2 or so irregular verbs in the language.

The cool thing about learning Japanese is that you'll also pick up a useful handle for learning Mandarin down the road -- I'm taking first-year Mandarin now and it's loads easier already knowing more than half of the characters that are coming up.

Oh, and don't forget the masculine/feminine nouns!
posted by troy at 6:51 PM on February 18, 2009

A huge amount of your English vocabulary traces its recent origins to French. You have a major head start in vocabulary,.

And a huge amount of the Japanese vocabulary trace its recent origins to English. Chances are if you don't know the word you can use the native-sounding version of it. Another third or so of the language is borrowed Chinese, which as I said above is good if you want to know Chinese too.

Depending on whether an object is a person, flat, long, furniture, etc., you use slightly different numbers.

The numbers are the same just the counter is different, and of course if you don't know the counter you can just say '~kko' instead and be understood.

Not to mention the kanji... my god, the kanji!!

The Kanji are the totally coolest part of the language. However, it's important IMO to tackle them in order from simplest to most complex, which is NOT what anybody's doing.

Eg. you always learn 校 before learning that 交 means interchange, and often before 木 means tree or that 父 means father.
posted by troy at 7:03 PM on February 18, 2009

French is easier to learn, sorry.
posted by caddis at 7:21 PM on February 18, 2009

French will clearly be more familiar, since speakers of english and french (or their roots) have lived next door to one another for millennia. But you can always learn french later - it'll be a lot easier to pick up on your own with a couple adult education classes and a little time in paris, or whatever, if you want to.

Getting a headstart on a more difficult language that is probably more relevant in the real world makes a lot of sense - Japanese is a pretty useful language to have some knowledge of if you're going to go into business or technology, for instance.
posted by mdn at 7:30 PM on February 18, 2009

French sucks. Their spelling is ridiculous, and you sound like a total dork speaking it unless you grew up with it.

I think Japanese is actually easier to pronounce, and once you wrap your brain around the grammar, it's way less nitpicky. Forget all those stupid pronouns and conjugations and whatnot.

Plus, it's all about the subtext. You can just kind of trail off the end of a sentence if you forget how to say it, and everyone will know what you mean anyway.

Also, people are SUPER IMPRESSED when they find out you speak Japanese.
posted by exceptinsects at 7:30 PM on February 18, 2009

charlesv: "Eh, geekguy's stats do not include the huge parts of Africa and all the Europeans, rich Middle Easterners, etc. that speak French as a second language."
Because those stats are for first language speakers.
posted by geekyguy at 7:53 PM on February 18, 2009

Yes, but if a significant number of people know French as a second/alternate language, it makes French that much less 'sucky' and 'useless.'
posted by citron at 8:08 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you really want to learn French? Join the French Foreign Legion and get a French passport out of it.
posted by geekyguy at 8:08 PM on February 18, 2009

Best answer: French is easier to learn, sorry.

Having studied French, German, Spanish, Mandarin, and Japanese I think I'll call bullshit on that.

Vocabulary-wise that study is apparently missing the central fact that at least 20%+ -- the hard 20% at that -- of Japanese vocabulary is katakana English.

Japanese is an order of magnitude easier to speak than French. While it suffers from a similar homophone problem that Chinese does, French has got some fucked up orthography and irregularities and useless doo-dads to master when trying to understand.

French not only has gendered articles, there are plural and singular forms. Japanese doesn't even HAVE articles.

Prepositions are also easier in Japanese. You can go right down the line of grammatical checklists verb tenses, subject/verb agreement, etc etc and it's arguable that Japanese grammar is easier to grok than French (or English for that matter).

What remains is the Kanji. You need to know 2000 or so, and memorizing 2000 of anything isn't trivial -- and when I first started I was rather overwhelmed and didn't like the kanji much at all.

However, once I discovered Heisig's book I found a way to tackle them, and I did, in less than 3 months of frenzied studying. It was a total blast.

Take 数学 -- mathematics

It comprises the 米 of 米国 (America), there's a woman (女) in here, and the symbol 攵 which has one meaning to beat. Mnemonic story: "Take a number to beat the American woman!"

About a third of the kanji are simple elements like 米 and 女, another third are fun combinations like above, leaving under a thousand that can be bears to remember. But with computer input systems it's becoming easier to write these, too, if you remember their readings.
posted by troy at 8:17 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

As someone who has failed at both languages, I would just like to say that Japanese is awesome and J-dramas are so much better and easier to understand than anything your language lab has in French. And when it's time to learn keigo, you can watch Attention Please or Hotelier.
posted by betweenthebars at 8:34 PM on February 18, 2009

The Japanese love French! They think it's way hot.
posted by lizbunny at 8:44 PM on February 18, 2009

Another note: visiting the country, if only for a couple weeks, will give you an entirely new perspective on learning the language. Everything will start to fall into place as you see how all this stuff is used in the real world, and you will become even more motivated. In the case of Japanese, though, don't be surprised or discouraged at how little you can figure out when you first get here!
posted by zachawry at 8:53 PM on February 18, 2009

French doesn't suck. But I think it's way cooler to take Japanese.
posted by radioamy at 9:21 PM on February 18, 2009

The best thing about learning French is that you learn a lot more about English grammar than you ever did in school as an English-speaker. We are never taught our own language properly; we all learn by osmosis. Because we don't know the rules of English, we can't understand *why* certain phrases are put together in certain ways, or why we have count and non-count nouns, or the difference between direct and indirect objects, etc. French's grammar is far more rigid, and thus far easier to grasp. Learning French will improve your English language ability.


(A personal aside--French is a beautiful language. I find Japanese spectacularly ugly. Would you rather be able to whisper in the ear of a date / significant other / partner in French, or in Japanese?)
posted by tzikeh at 9:58 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

there's also no native manga for the french. we totally suck sometimes.

It's OK, you've got Moëbius and some awesome music, so you're OK in my book.

Oh, and here's a cool guide to predicting the gender of a French noun (by John Walker, founder of Autodesk and author of the Hacker's Diet).

La connaissance des suffixes ci-dessous vous permettra de deviner le genre de 75% des noms français avec une précision de près de 95%.

"If you know these suffixes, you can guess the gender of 75% of French nouns with a precision approaching 95%."

Let's see a similar rule for the appropriately polite verb form in Japanese!

not snarkist, would love to see this.
posted by zippy at 10:25 PM on February 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Let's see a similar rule for the appropriately polite verb form in Japanese!

This should basically cover it. There are some more obscure ones that are rarely used, but the most used variations are here.
posted by armage at 11:42 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

The most difficult aspect of spoken Japanese is learning the politeness levels, which is something you can't really pick up from a book or a classroom.
posted by dydecker at 11:47 PM on February 18, 2009

I taught myself to read French, and yet when I hear spoken French I still find it impossible to distinguish words. I simply cannot tell where one word starts and the other ends. To me spoken French is absolutely impossible to understand and I guarantee you that the sounds are impossible for me to produce with my mouth. I do not have this problem with Spanish -- even without speaking it I can isolate words. Also, people always make fun of German for sounding like puking, but French is much worse. They pull sounds out of way the fuck down in their throats.
posted by creasy boy at 11:58 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Regarding gender in Romance languages, isn't the rule that things which act upon other things are generally male, while things which are filled or acted upon generally female? Of the few Spanish words I can think of off the top of my head it seems to hold true, though I'm sure there are plenty of exeptions.
posted by Jawn at 12:40 AM on February 19, 2009

I think people just have proclivities for different types of languages. I took French in 7th and 8th grade and thought it was difficult. I hated it. I took up Japanese in 9th grade and kept with it, and I always found it very easy. I'm not Asian either, so it's not as if I had any familiarity with the characters... Japanese just has pretty steadfast rules and fewer exceptions to rules than Romance languages, I think. Pronunciation is easy and pretty much never varies. That sort of thing is very easy for me to learn, and the different writing system just wasn't difficult for me to memorize.

Then I took Russian for a year as an elective just to see what it was like. Again, the alphabet was nothing for me, but the grammar was much less straightforward and there were so many rule-exceptions I couldn't stand it.

It seems the majority of people who grow up speaking English have a much easier time with Romance languages, though. There's no way of knowing which group you're in until you try.
posted by Nattie at 12:52 AM on February 19, 2009

Pretty much seconding what troy said about japanese... The pronunciation is easier, the grammar rules are fairly straightforward, the basic alphabets are phonetic and easily committed to memory. The difficulties are generally politeness levels (although initially one can use the standard form) and kanji (any language you have to learn the vocabulary, so you start with the basics). I think the prevalence of loanwords in japanese is slightly easier than the cognates in french. Even if you say them incorrectly, usually people still understand.

My verdict, learn both. (:
posted by vaguelyweird at 1:22 AM on February 19, 2009

forgot to mention, I think the difficulty is psychological. My impression is that people with foreknowledge of another Romance language have an easier time with French.
posted by vaguelyweird at 1:28 AM on February 19, 2009

Best answer: Ten years of relatively motivated Japanese study and I can carry on an everyday conversation without missing more than, say, 20% of the vocabulary.

Five years of indifferent study of German by the end of high school, and I was appreciating poetry.

French is roughly on par with German. If you want to be able to use it beyond bare minimal "where is the bathroom," you're going to get there WAY faster than in Japanese.
posted by DoctorFedora at 2:32 AM on February 19, 2009

Hey, if French is relatively easier, like most commenters seem to say, think of it this way: learn the harder, more challenging language within the formal setting of classes, while you're younger and 'fresher', then work on French-- the "easier" language -- later, with community/continuing ed classes, or audio 'at home'.
posted by NikitaNikita at 3:57 AM on February 19, 2009

I grew up in a French speaking part of Maine, in the US. I had French classes from 7th grade till 12th grade and can remember a lot of it if I need to, but it's a chore. There definitely was some issues learning it, particularly surrounding all the odd rules surrounding the tenses of some words that didn't change the same way as words with the same endings, order of words, and yes that whole male/female business. Though somehow that just started to make sense to me at one point. Of course a table is feminine and a pen is male. One is an object of inherent beauty, the other... writes. Make a table solidly and with carved details and it isn't dressed up, it's just solid and beautiful. Make a pen solidly with carved details and, well, that's just overkill. Doesn't make sense. The table is beautiful, hence feminine, while the pen is an item of work, hence male. This doesn't work 100% of the time, but I got As and Bs.

There were two bonuses to learning French. First, I can watch Italian TV and understand maybe 1/3 of it. Second, while on a week long trip to Mexico I was in some very heavy discussions with large groups of people. International foreign relations discussions. After a day I got weirded out because I could listen to the conversations in Spanish with almost 100% comprehension, reply in English, and they're reply in Spanish, etc. Really cool, but weird.

I still wish I'd learned Latin, though. I'd understand the nuances between words better. And be able to swear without most people knowing. Japanese would be my second choice though. Their culture is too interesting to ignore, but my handwriting is so bad I figured I'd never be able to write it well.
posted by jwells at 6:27 AM on February 19, 2009

Don't bother with geekyguy's chart. If you're learning a language based strictly on the number of speakers worldwide, then you're not a serious language-learner anyway. Go ahead and pick a language for fun!

If you are a serious language-learner, then whatever language you learn, no matter how many speakers it has, will make itself useful to you. That's how knowing languages works. Once you have the skill in a certain language, you will naturally seek to employ it and will find more opportunities than you can handle, no matter how many speakers it has worldwide.
posted by Mo Nickels at 6:35 AM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

One of the best reasons to stick it out in Japanese is practical: You can take a decent French class damn near everywhere. Despite the importance of Japanese, good Japanese courses are much harder to find. You can always catch up on French later, but that's not a guarantee with Japanese.

French may be easier for a beginner, but the bits that resemble English actually make it more difficult to really master. French and English may share an alphabet, plus/minus the diacriticals, but differing pronunciations and French's, ah, special spelling make it harder than you might think. There are a lot of "false friends" as well - words that sound similar (perhaps because they were both derived from the same Latin root, or borrowed from German, or had a shared origin in medieval French) but don't mean the same thing. And irregular grammar? Gender? Yuck.

If you like to read, learning Japanese will let you read many fascinating books (old and new) that have never made it into English; pretty much all French literature's available in good English translations. Same goes for really cool modern movies, manga, etc.

Sure, Japanese writing's a pain to master, but it's also gorgeous. Similarly, Japanese also sounds cooler (of course, I think French is actually a fairly ugly-sounding language. Like creasy boy, I've never understood why people think that German sounds worse.)
posted by ubersturm at 8:03 AM on February 19, 2009

As someone who speaks French proficiently and is now learning Arabic, I can certainly avow that French is not particularly difficult. What is difficult is mastering it in writing form--not an easy feat for a non-native speaker--but as far as being able to read it and communicate with it, it's close to English, and thus not terribly difficult. There is limited vocabulary commpared to the English language, grammar rules are more or less regular and always logical, sentence construction is similar to English...

Learning a Semitic language, now that's a diffierent story...
posted by nonmerci at 10:23 AM on February 20, 2009

As for speaking French to a native speaker - well, maybe I won't mention what they say about the accents of native English speakers attempting to communicate in French. They're bad enough about French speakers from other countries. "Oh, you speak Québécois, how cute!"
posted by HopperFan at 1:50 AM on February 19 [2 favorites +] [!]

Can we please not generalize? This isn't true, at all. Yes, it's true if you have an atrocious accent, and yes, it is difficult for some Anglophones to really "get" the French accent, but it is in no way impossible. I have only ever received rave reviews of my French accent, even having it referred to as "perfect" (which it certainly is not), so let's not talk about what they say, since you can't exactly boil down the entire population of French speakers into one goddamned pronoun.
posted by nonmerci at 10:24 AM on February 20, 2009

To be a little bit contrarian...

I found Japanese to be not only an easier language to learn, but a very elegant and beautiful language.

Japanese has two bit "humps" to get over for Anglophones.
1. The writing systems. Two out of the three systems (hiragana & katakana) require a bit of brute-force memorization that's front-loaded into your learning. The remaining one, "kanji", you can learn gradually while doing the grammar work, at a rate of 5-10 characters per week, depending on how good you are at memorizing things visually. But, it's not as hard as you think - no worse than learning french vocabulary along with its gender and how to pronounce it.

2. The backwards syntax. The way a sentence is constructed is just plain different than it is in English, and it takes some getting used to. Once you have the inevitable "aha" moment where you get the flow of how to put statements together, it becomes very natural.

As for the idea that there's a different numbering system for every type of object you're counting, that's nonsense. There are a few different suffixes that you add on to numbers to describe or state what you're counting. The numbers themselves remain the same, and the counting system is no more difficult than it is in English. e.g.: "juu-nin" means 10 years. "juu-jin" means 10 people. Not rocket science.

Ultimately, if you're studying a foreign language for the purpose of scholarly benefit, you have to choose one that you like. Maybe neither Japanese nor French is the right call? There are a lot of languages out there, and there's at least something fascinating about all of them.
posted by Citrus at 11:23 AM on February 20, 2009

I'm very glad that a few French speakers found your accent "perfect", that's lovely. Of course, I thought it was clear that I was making a generalization, so your experience may differ - but there's plenty of other sources that suggest the Japanese are a bit more lenient (even enthusiastic) about foreigners speaking their tongue.

I also never suggested that it was impossible for Anglophones to develop a passable French accent.
posted by HopperFan at 12:00 PM on February 20, 2009

e.g.: "juu-nin" means 10 years. "juu-jin" means 10 people.

Small aside, but "juu-nin" (十人) means ten people, while "juu-nen" (十年) is ten years. The only two words read as "juu-jin" are 獣人 (part-man, part-beast) and 縦陣 (column of soldiers).
posted by armage at 7:00 PM on February 22, 2009

Crap! You're absolutely right. And, now that I hear it all in my head, I realize that I should have known better. Boy, am I rusty.

Thankfully, my bonehead error doesn't derail my argument - that counting things in Japanese doesn't require learning different "systems", just memorizing a little vocabulary... better than I apparently have. Yeesh. :)
posted by Citrus at 6:40 AM on February 24, 2009

Mod note: few comments removed - don't start fights on different topics and claim you're being helpful, thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:34 AM on February 24, 2009

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