Italian or French?
April 21, 2005 10:25 AM   Subscribe

Should I take a course in Italian, or in French?

My degree plan in college requires that I take a specific number of hours in a certain language. Disregarding practicality - otherwise I'd be taking Spanish or Arabic - I've narrowed my options down to French or Italian.

Is one somehow better than the other? Is there something I don't know about one of the languages that would make me not want to take it?
posted by tepidmonkey to Education (43 answers total)
I dont quite understand. You say you are "disregarding practicality" and then you ask which of these is "better"? What are your criteria exactly? Difficulty? Practicality (or are you still discarding that?)
posted by vacapinta at 10:31 AM on April 21, 2005

Echoing vacapinta - you are not giving us much information to help you with. Are you particularly interested in Italian or French culture? Are you planning to travel to a country where they speak either language in the near future? What in your mind makes one language "better" than another?
posted by keijo at 10:41 AM on April 21, 2005

I was asking for general opinions from people who know more than I do about the merits of one language over the other.

What do I mean by "merits"? Less difficulty and more practicality are two of them. Is there anything else I should know?
posted by tepidmonkey at 10:41 AM on April 21, 2005

Yeah, I second vacapinta (cow bean? cow penis? ... Ha! Too much Arizona slang; it's "cow dot"): what's your goal here?

French is an international "language of diplomacy", it's still spoken in many ex-colonies, especially throughout the Americans and Africa. Many important philosophers wrote in French, if your education is going that way. As far as ease of learning goes, English is basically a mashup of French and Dutch/Flemish*, so you'd be doing pretty well on the vocab already. Good luck with the pronunciation though.

Italian is basically only spoken in Italy (correct me if I'm wrong, folks), though it is known as the "language of love" if that gets your goat. I don't know of any super-important literature in Italian (as distinguished from Latin).

Why did you write off those others, especially Spanish? I took Arabic for a while and I don't know how practical it was, but it's kinda neat that I can actually read the graffiti and signs when they show shots of Iraq on TV.

* just occurred to me, I've been lead to believe this by people on the continent, but I'm no linguist. Is this true? Sure sounds like it, having spent some time in Belgium / Nederland.
posted by rkent at 10:46 AM on April 21, 2005

I've been told that German is, in fact, the closest language to english that exists. If you just want something easy, perhaps you could try it out and get back to us? :)
posted by shepd at 10:46 AM on April 21, 2005

Well, I don't speak Italian but I am a French-Canadian, and can tell you some of the joys you'll have to encounter:

a) There are at least 50 ways to conjugate each verb, and a set of 13 verbs that are major exceptions.

b) Objects have a masculin and feminin, you'll have to know both.

c) There are 3 to 4 different accents for most vowels, and one for the letter c.

d) There are a lot of homophones (ces/ses sont/son).

Not trying to discourage you, but maybe someone who speaks Italian can contrast these points.

On preview, there are somewhere between 40 and 50 countries that list French as their first or second language.
posted by furtive at 10:49 AM on April 21, 2005

Well, French is certainly more widely spoken and understood around the world. All other things being equal, I would think that Italian, on the other hand, would be easier for an English-speaker to learn to speak. But, in the end, it boils down to what you think you will want to do with the language you learn and what you are interested in. For example, if you are interested in the opera, learn Italian. If you are looking towards moving into the south of France at some point, learn French. Whatever takes your fancy!
posted by keijo at 10:52 AM on April 21, 2005

Italian's easier than French (i think), but i'd go with Spanish--far more useful here (and close to Italian).
posted by amberglow at 10:52 AM on April 21, 2005

I should qualify point B) in that I meant to say an object is EITHER masculine or feminine, and you'll need to be able to remember which one it is, without there being a consistent rule to follow.
posted by furtive at 10:55 AM on April 21, 2005

shepd: The closest language to English is Flemish (Belgian Dutch), I believe.

I think Italian is occasionally spoken in parts of North Africa (Tunisia, Ethiopia perhaps) as an echo of occasional Italian spasms of colonialism. But I could be making that up.

Oh, and learn French. ;-)
posted by leotrotsky at 10:55 AM on April 21, 2005

One thing possibly worth considering is whether there are books you'd be interested in reading in the original in either language. That said, I chose to take french because I thought it was useful, sort of international, and I love a lot of french authors, & though I don't regret it, I think it was kinda dumb of me to reject certain other languages that 'appealed' to me more viscerally but which for some reason I thought weren't 'practical' enough. Now I can't figure out why I thought french was more practical than russian, considering more people in the world speak russian, and at least two of my favorite authors originally wrote in russian, but at the time it seemed too esoteric (I think basically because I live in the US where anything besides french, spanish or italian is seen as esoteric).

Which is all to say, if any one language feels more interesting to you, go with that, rather than external factors. Does either culture interest you? Does the sound of either language appeal? Do you like music or literature from either culture? If you like spanish, italian is probably closer to that.

re: 'disregarding practicality,' maybe he meant the times the classes are offered or something... ?
posted by mdn at 10:56 AM on April 21, 2005

Spanish is pretty close to French as well. When I was in Cuba I would fill in missing Spanish words with French and it seemed to go over quite well.
posted by furtive at 10:56 AM on April 21, 2005

You must know your question comes off as "I dont really give a sh** about either of these languages, I just want to fulfill this dumb requirement as easily as possible" which doesn't exactly give the warm fuzzies to people who speak and love those languages.

I'll say, arguably, that if you are planning to learn Spanish later on that Italian is a tiny bit closer in pronunciation and grammar. But, both French and Italian are Romance languages and share those features (along with Spanish, Portuguese etc) that give English speakers a hard time such as the oft-discussed Noun Gender. I wouldnt say that either is more difficult to learn than the other although French phonetics can trip people up.

Also, as others have mentioned, French I think wins out on being more widely useful on a global level if thats a consideration.
posted by vacapinta at 10:59 AM on April 21, 2005

If you like opera, Italian opera is more plentiful and often more significant than French opera (don't get me wrong, I love both). I personally adore French but if you're looking for an "easy" course, Italian probably would be a bit easier just because the words are pronounced a lot more closely to the way they are spelled than they are in French.
posted by matildaben at 11:01 AM on April 21, 2005

This might help: what did you use to narrow your options to French and Italian? (Other than "Not taught at 8AM", I guess.)

One thing I've found with French is that it's much easier if you really know English, like obscure, archaic words. (Whereas German is easier if you know obscure, archaic grammar.)

To another poster, on famous Italian literature: The Divine Comedy and The Decameron. Though probably both are in Olde enough Italian that taking a first class isn't enough to read them (I'm guessing here).
posted by Aknaton at 11:03 AM on April 21, 2005

vacapinta: Oh goodness, that's not what I meant at all, but I see now how it came off that way. The study of languages and languages themselves are among my main interests.

When I wrote about disregarding practicality, I meant that if I was most interested in being pragmatic I'd take Spanish or Arabic, but I'm much more interested in learning a language because I'll love it.

Sorry about my confusing, poorly written question.
posted by tepidmonkey at 11:03 AM on April 21, 2005

*"study of languages" should be "study of linguistics".

I was able to narrow my options down to Italian and French because of all the languages taught at the university, those are the two I'd like most to be able to speak. But I can only pick one for now.
posted by tepidmonkey at 11:09 AM on April 21, 2005

Italian is said to be the easiest of the commonly taught languages to learn. If you are logical, and have a good memory but find the conversational aspect of learning a language most difficult then Latin is an option. It is not easier than Italian, French, German or Spanish, you just do not have to speak it. For your limited purpose you should probably stick with Italian. One other consideration, will there be a lot of native Italian speakers also taking this course to pass the language requirement? If so, go with French.
posted by caddis at 11:13 AM on April 21, 2005

What is the foreign language department for each of those languages like at your school?

I took French at university and was generally disappointed by the disinterested grad students who were teaching the classes in exchange for room and board. Can you check which department has a better reputation? A single good instructor could radically change your experience.
posted by bcwinters at 11:14 AM on April 21, 2005

English is Germanic, and I've been told that its closest relative is Frisian (spoken in Friesland, a province of the Netherlands). English has become kind of fucked-up and speakers of other languages find English difficult because of that, and we find every other language difficult because of it. If you were Spanish-speaking, jumping into French or Italian would be quite easy. However, you can't jump from English to another Germanic language with that degree of ease, and jumping to another language family has its own set of difficulties, which you know already, being a student of linguistics.

French has had a huge impact on English because France held more political power than England for quite a while. A lot of our expressions and words come from the French, and it is still quite influential. I took it quite intensively last year and absolutely love it.

As for running into gender and what-not, that's par for the course in learning any language other than English, pretty much. We're one of the few Germanic languages (maybe the only one?) to have dropped case-marking from everything except pronouns, and we also dropped gender. Hey, at least you're not thinking of learning a language with tones and clicks in it! Given that they're both Romance languages, they're probably quite similar in terms of difficulty, but French is much more dominant, so there would be more resources (books, films, etc) available to you.

Is there a website/livejournal community/something for your school? Find people who have taken these languages and ask about their experiences. Above all else, make sure that your prof(s) will be native speakers (for French, go with someone from France, rather than, say, Quebec) and that they're enthusiastic. Bonne chance!
posted by heatherann at 11:22 AM on April 21, 2005

I've studied both French and Italian at the university level (French also in high school (as well as a bit of German there)), lived in Italy, spent a fair amount of tourist time in France.

I love French. After studying it for about eight years total, I felt very comfortable speaking it in tourist settings, and in some more actual-conversation-discussion settings (that is, debating politics with native speakers). I can understand most songs and some films.

Italian is a blast. After studying it for one year total, I moved to Italy and could make myself understood. I could understand most Italian films (assuming they're not too slangy). After three months *in* Italy, I was doing well; after six months, I was conducting my social life mainly in Italian.

From my experience, I would say: French is more universal and politically "important," in that you'll often find international websites and publications and speeches in French. While I don't think it's any harder to learn than Italian, I think it is harder to understand and to speak correctly, because the accent is very precise, there are many unpronounced letters in each word, and people tend to speak fairly quickly. Something that you recognize easily on paper may take three or four oral repititions to sound familiar.

Italian is less pragmatic, but it's much easier to look at a word and know how it's pronounced (or to hear a word and get a general idea of how it's spelled). Words have enough syllables and pronounced letters that they're easy to understand, even from native speakers speaking at a normal rate. And the accent is more forgiving -- if you screw up a vowel sound or two, you'll still be easily understood, which is not always the case in French.

Also, if your Italian is strong enough, you'll be able to understand a lot of Spanish, and Spaniards will be able to understand you. When I've gotten into situations in Spain where I needed to explain myself beyond hand gestures, I just went into standard Italian and the other people always immediately understood me.

That said, if one culture appeals to you more than the other, go with that. I've noticed that the culture of language classes tends to mirror the culture of the language being taught -- my French classes were always very logical, sophisticated, and fun in the way that going to a museum is fun (a sort of "Oh, isn't this amusing!" way of looking at the world); my Italian classes were like a big extended family aruing and laughing over dinner, a bit more rambling and loud but with much more connection with the other students. (German, for what it's worth, was filled with the friendliest, hippie-est students in my high school.)
posted by occhiblu at 11:24 AM on April 21, 2005 [1 favorite]

You could consider where in the world you might choose to travel at some point in life.

For example, if you hope to see Martinique, Senegal, Tahiti, or the few dozen other Francophone countries our world has to offer, then French would be a good choice.

If you want to go to Italy, or Italy, or Italy, you could learn Italian. I think they speak it in Italy, too.

Don't get me wrong: Italy may be as much reason for you to learn Italian as all the Francophone countries in the world put together are reason to learn French.

Me? I chose French for the girls.
posted by breezeway at 11:25 AM on April 21, 2005

I'm much more interested in learning a language because I'll love it.

Forgive me for wandering off from the French/Italian choice, but does your school offer Brazilian Portuguese? Of the languages I have studied (French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and tourist Italian) Brazilian Portuguese is the one closest to my heart. It is pleasing to the ear and fun to speak.
Studying it will require you to go to Brazil at some point, which isn't half bad either.

posted by ambrosia at 11:30 AM on April 21, 2005

An aesthetic tidbit. Italian has this natural beautiful rhythm to it that few other languages have. Italian, even when spoken badly by an American, can still sound pretty. Its hard to make it sound ugly.

French on the other hand is beautiful too but you must know what you are doing. French with a bad English accent just sounds horrible to my ears. When you put all those English nasal vowels into a language that is pretty much built on vowels like French the result can sound like a great musical piece played on a severely out-of-tune piano.
posted by vacapinta at 11:36 AM on April 21, 2005

I agree that portuguese is one of the most beautiful languages. French sounds a little too snooty and italian & spanish a little too bombastic... but portuguese is just music to my ears.
posted by mdn at 11:46 AM on April 21, 2005

I'm not without prejudice on this one, as I majored in Italian in college. But I speak French also (though not as well), so I can at least give you some perspective.

I must strongly disagree with the poster who said that there is no important literature written in the Italian language. In fact, the amount of literature produced by the Italians is way out of proportion to the size and prominence of that country in history. From Dante and Bocaccio through the epic poets and on into the flowering of modern Italian literature in the hands of people like Italo Calvino and Eugenio Montale, the writings of Italians will stand up well to any other tradition, including English.

Also, compared to the huge changes experienced by the English language at various points in time, it has remained relatively static (we're talking about the Tuscan dialect that became modern Italian), so it is fairly easy to read Dante with only a background in the modern language. Spellings have changed, and Dante's immense vocabulary can be challenging, but I would say that it is easier than reading Shakespeare in English, though Dante wrote much earlier.

French is a wonderful language, with a strong and proud tradition, and is certainly spoken much more widely than Italian, which is pretty much confined to the country itself and a few emigrant communities around the world. So, if you want to travel to the former French colonies as well as France, that is a consideration.

I would guess that Italian is easier to learn for most than French. Both have a highly systematized pronunciation system, so when you get that, you'll be able to pronounce almost anything. But I think the Italian one would be more intuitive for an English speaker.

I think it comes down to the culture that you find most appealing. And keep in mind that since the languages are so similar in vocabulary and grammar, it will be very easy to learn the other once you have mastered the first.
posted by lackutrol at 11:52 AM on April 21, 2005

D'oh. "Systematized system." Oh well, you know what I mean.
posted by lackutrol at 11:56 AM on April 21, 2005

(Whereas German is easier if you know obscure, archaic grammar.)

Could you explain that a bit, Aknaton? Thanks.

Oh, and learn Italian (I'm doing that now.) Pronunciation seems to be easier than French. :)
posted by madman at 12:07 PM on April 21, 2005

>Is one somehow better than the other? Is there something I don't know about one of the languages that would make me not want to take it?

FWIW, Italian and French are lexically very similar, which might or might not make your choice easier. From the entry on Italian at >Lexical similarity 89% with French, 87% with Catalan, 85% with Sardinian, 82% with Spanish, 78% with Rheto-Romance, 77% with Rumanian.

And from the French entry: >Lexical similarity 89% with Italian, 80% with Sardinian, 78% with Rheto-Romance, 75% with Portuguese, Romanian, and Spanish, 29% with German, 27% with English.

There's a lot more than lexical similarity but nine for ten words is a good start point for crossover studies later on. And that, maybe, you can choose based on other features of the languages (such as teaching methods - an excellent suggestion - grammar and phonetics/phonology, as mentioned above).

Populations of speakers is a consideration, too.
>French: Population total all countries: 64,858,311.
>Italian: Population total all countries: 61,489,984.
But point taken, French is an offical/business language in more countries than is Italian. (Also from the ethnologue pages.)

As for Italians speaking Italian, there's a substantial amount of regional variation in Italian; Italian is sometimes seen as more of an umbrella term rather than a single language. I've heard this sometimes causes trouble for travellers. Again, the Italian page: >Regional varieties coexist with the standard language; some are inherently unintelligible (Nida) to speakers of other varieties unless they have learned them... Most Italians use varieties along a continuum from standard to regional to local according to what is appropriate. Possibly nearly half the population do not use Standard Italian as first language.

Disclaimer i: I study French but have never seriously tried Italian.
Disclaimer ii: This depends on how highly you regard
posted by philfromhavelock at 12:10 PM on April 21, 2005

My take: French is more difficult than Italian, in terms of both pronunciation and grammar, and for that very reason you should take it now, when you have the benefit of language lab, fellow learners, enforced practice, &c. If you later on want to pick up Italian, you should be able to do it on your own without too much trouble. Personally, I love speaking French; each language has its own personality, and speaking French makes me feel rational, witty, a bit superficial but radiant with cool. (Both languages have great literatures, so that aspect is pretty much a wash.)
posted by languagehat at 12:26 PM on April 21, 2005

Phil, the regional variations in Italian are rapidly diminishing, mostly because of the influence of national radio and TV. Even in Naples, where the local dialect is strong, I never encountered a person who didn't speak standard Italian. I did encounter people who spoke both a local dialect and the standard variety, though.
posted by lackutrol at 12:31 PM on April 21, 2005

French. It's spoken all over Africa, in Canada and in France.

And it's not too hard.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 2:13 PM on April 21, 2005

English is Germanic
It used to be. Over 60% of it is derived from French now though, thanks, I think, to an occupation ~1100 AD.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 2:18 PM on April 21, 2005

Italian is significantly easier when it comes to spelling and pronunciation. I recall reading a study into dyslexia which showed occurrences of dyslexia were significantly lower in Italy, due to the far simpler rules governing spelling and speech. French, however, is jam packed full of silent letters, and letters which are silent in certain positions, and all manner of things. I say this as a French speaker, not an Italian speaker (although I studied Italian for a brief while). French will be significantly more useful, but, well, Italian is definitely easier to learn, and Italian women.. oh man, :-)

And regarding noun genders.. don't freak out over it. People here seem to be claiming it's really important.. it's not. If you go to France, you will find a majority of speakers constantly make gender mistakes. It's all accepted, unless you're writing for a magazine, to the President, or whatever.
posted by wackybrit at 3:18 PM on April 21, 2005

It used to be.

No, it still is. Language family is determined by history, not vocabulary; it doesn't matter how many French loanwords English picks up (and it's well under 60%), it will always be a Germanic language. (Albanian is Indo-European even though a large majority of the vocabulary is borrowed -- in fact, it was the last IE language to be recognized because its history was so well hidden.)
posted by languagehat at 3:53 PM on April 21, 2005

lackutrol: Point taken. (Migration within Italy also likely contributes to eroding the dialects.) I have no real experience with the dialects, only through reading.
posted by philfromhavelock at 4:47 PM on April 21, 2005

I 2nd languagehat. Use the school's resources to your life's advantages.

Something not mentioned here I think, but it is how I judge the relative 'ease' of a language - which of Italian or French do you have more of an 'ear' for?
We have a tv station here that has many foreign language shows - I love to watch and try and repeat snippets (when alone of course). And there's quite a few languages that I find difficult to 'hear' and reproduce. Others seem more accessible.

Me? I also chose french pour les femmes. Alas.......trail off into future novel
posted by peacay at 10:15 PM on April 21, 2005

what occhiblu said above, they're very wise words

Possibly nearly half the population do not use Standard Italian as first language.

as we say in Italy, "che cazzo dici?". it's a plain wrong statement -- it was -- possibly, if at all -- true until the 1930s when most nonliteral people stuck to their regional dialects instead that rely on Italian proper. what we have now is, we still have regional accents -- if you go to Venice the people's accent will be much much different than the one you'll encounter in, say, Rome or Palermo. but then again, I've been to Boston and to Memphis, and people did not exactly sound the same there as well, even if they spoke the same language. so it's all about regional accents here, not dialects. dialects are in fact dying, because they're not taught in school and people relocating around the country and especially television -- television, even among less literate people, made Italian the national language,m funnily enough.
I guess regional dialects are used in lieu of Italian only among the truly illiterate, a tiny, tiny percentile of the general population.

I speak French and English (and Italian is my native language) and personally, most Italian-speaking Americans I know do a much better job speaking it than the French-speaking Americans I know do with French, but then it's a totally noscientific observation, it's just my experience -- maybe it's instead easier for Americans to master French.

I don't know of any super-important literature in Italian (as distinguished from Latin).

Dante, Cavalcanti, Guinizelli, Machiavelli, Petrarca, Boccaccio, Verri, Beccaria, Pirandello, Montale & a thousand others are coming, with pitchforks, to kick your ass for this statement.

posted by matteo at 2:47 AM on April 22, 2005 [1 favorite]

when most nonliteral nonliterate people

my bad. please work on your Italian more than I did with my English, if you don't want to embarrass yourself like I do.
posted by matteo at 2:49 AM on April 22, 2005

oh, rkent: Italo Calvino and Primo Levi are extremely pissed off, too
posted by matteo at 2:50 AM on April 22, 2005

The Divine Comedy and The Decameron. Though probably both are in Olde enough Italian that taking a first class isn't enough to read them (I'm guessing here).

Not that difficult- they basically set the standard for modern Italian. Chaucer, it ain't.

As to the question - I would say Italian is easy to learn basics (tourist italian), very difficult to learn well. French - not so much. Although it's getting harder to find Frenchmen who speak as clearly as DeGaulle....

(Matteo, watch your language. This is a family forum.)
posted by IndigoJones at 4:57 AM on April 22, 2005

You'll probably have more chance to use French for reading internationally distributed magazines and books, academic papers, etc. However, Italians are much more accepting of bad pronunciation and pidgin Italian when you travel there - and quite honestly, the food is better in Italy. The women are also better looking.

Why limit yourself? Learn Friuli! Man di!
posted by zaelic at 5:29 AM on April 22, 2005

However, Italians are much more accepting of bad pronunciation and pidgin Italian when you travel there

This is exactly why French should be studied under the most favorable and exacting conditions. Trust me, a background of dictées and drilled-in accurate pronunciation and grammar (mais oui, le subjonctif aussi!) works wonders when you actually get to Paris.
posted by languagehat at 6:25 AM on April 22, 2005

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