French Difficulties: The Hardest Things to Learn in French

Bonjour !

You’ll find many difficulties when you’re learning French.

In grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation… The French language will always have a new surprise to throw at you. And it’s OK! You are going to make mistakes, you only need the confidence to keep going anyway.

So here’s an overview of some of the most devious difficulties in the French language. Don’t worry, you’re not expected to master all these tricks! Even French people don’t.

Consider them as an eventual challenge, as a fascinating piece of linguistic trivia, or as a warning: you’ll never speak perfectly anyway. So you’re free to start talking with confidence right now!

Let’s dive in.


1. French Difficulties in Grammatical Gender

Le genre grammatical, grammatical gender, is a strange thing. There are some rules and guidelines, though.

But there’s no real way to skip your homework entirely.
You have to know, for instance, that une table, a table, is feminine, while un bureau, a desk, is masculine.
Or that we say une plage, a beach, but un nuage, a cloud.

These are things that might seem difficult to learn at first, but you’ll get better with practice. As you listen to natural, everyday French conversations or watch French movies, etc., it’ll simply come more naturally to you.

The really difficult part is:
a) When native French speakers make the mistake themselves
-> une espèce, a species or “a kind of.” Féminine.

Avec l’addition, la serveuse nous a apporté une espèce de cocktail étrange.
With the bill, the waitress brought us some kind of weird cocktail.

b) When the words aren’t that well-used in common speech:
Une sphère a sphere // Un planisphère a planisphere (world map)

c) When the rules are strange.
A few French words change gender between their masculine singular and their feminine plural!

Un orgue, an organ -> Becomes feminine in plural usage. Ex: Des grandes orgues, a great church organ.

L’amour, love (masculine) -> Le grand amour, a great love, de belles amours, beautiful loves.

Le délice, delight -> Un vrai délice, a real delight, de pures délices, pure pleasures.

These are all poetic words by the way, so we don’t use them extensively. Which means you might miss the subtlety. Yet it’s also one of the standard “grammatical weirdnesses” that we hear about in school or on quiz shows.

Want all the vocabulary of the lesson ?

2. French Difficulties in Conjugation

La conjugaison, conjugation, is also a great obstacle to speaking French with confidence.

You’ve heard about les verbes irréguliers, irregular verbs, or the present conjugation table or le passé simple, the simple past one.

Special Warning:
Do you want a simple trick to choose a past tense in French? Just use le passé composé! You don’t need “le passé simple” in everyday speech.

But the real difficulties lie in exactly what you don’t need in everyday speech! Fascinating riddles such as:
How can I use le subjonctif imparfait, past subjunctive?
The easiest answer is: “don’t.” But it’s a challenge you might want to dive into one day.

A simpler subtle difficulty is the difference between le conditionnel, conditional, and le futur simple, the future tense.
Conditional is actually used in everyday speech:
Je serais toi, je prendrais le train.
If I were you, I’d take the train.

The future tense sounds close to it, especially when used in the first person, but there’s no s.
Demain, je serai prêt pour le voyage. Tomorrow, I’ll be ready for my trip.

The most hardcore level of conjugation difficulty comes from a few especially irregular verbs, though. Even native French people don’t know their conjugations that well.

Bouillir, to boil
Coudre, to sew
Résoudre, to solve

Great Online Tools for French Conjugation
Le conjugueur is a great online tool you can use, to make sure you’re using the correct conjugation. I often use it myself, when I’m not sure.
You can also use Le Bescherelle, the most famous book for correct French conjugation, and that now has an online version as well.

Bonus Quiz:
Using these tools, what’s the “Subjonctif Imparfait” for the first person (“Je”) of the French verb “Bouillir”? Leave your answer in the comments!

Again, it’s not something you’ll ever use in everyday life, this is more like a French oddity.

3. La Prononciation

Special Warning: Watch the video to hear me pronounce all these words!

Finally, la prononciation, pronunciation, has its own tricks to confuse us!

Of course, there are rules and guidelines for French pronunciation.
Of course, you might have to deal with your accent.

But some words are just difficult to pronounce for foreigners. Things like une bouilloire, a kettle, or la serrurerie, the locksmith shop. Try them both if you dare!

More deviously, some words can have the same spelling but different pronunciations.

A well-known example is:
Les fils du voisin, the neighbour’s sons
Les fils du tapis, the threads of the carpet

Several verbs in the third person singular share a spelling with a noun or an adjective that has a very different meaning and pronunciation.

For instance:
Il est violent. He’s violent.
Ils violent les règles. They’re violating the rules.

Or even:

Les poules couvent souvent au couvent.
The hens often hatch eggs at the convent.

Photo: Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, Jeunet (2001)

Le couvent is a convent, but the verb couver means “to hatch eggs.”

The pronunciation depends on the context, and the sentence grammar.

Finally, there are some other French words that are just weird, and make good trivia questions for language geeks.

Such as Le trappeur a vérifié ses lacs (prononcer: “la”), “the trapper checked his traps”. Un lac is a lake, des lacs are lakes, but des lacs with a silent c, are traps made with nets and nooses.

And they’ll catch anyone out who tries to make sense of the French language!

After all, French isn’t a set of rules, it’s a maze, where it’s a delight to get lost and wander around in.

So, go on and don’t worry about making mistakes! We all do!

Want to read this lesson later ?

Et toi ?

What’s the most difficult element in French for you?

Bonne journée,

Join the conversation!

  • I have problems with words like “tout le monde”, “rien”, “personne” “quelquefois”, “jamais” etc. Est-ce qu’il y a quelque tableau? Merci!

  • Bonsoir Géraldine! J’ai des problèmes avec les pronoms relatifs et les adjectifs possessifs parmi d’autres. Soit dit en passant, j’ai adoré ta pronunciation “The hens often ‘atch heggs at the convent”. Très amusant pour moi ! J’ai dû vérifier plusieurs fois pour confirmer ce que j’entendais. 😉

  • How about the two different French departments Ain et aisne? How are they pronounced differently?

  • Pourquoi est-ce qu’on dit ‘Je serais toi, je prendrais le train’ au lieu de ‘Si j’étais toi…..’? Ce dernier est la formule que j’ai appris a l’école.

  • This is such a nice lesson Géraldine. You make me smile as I remember my school days, and our excellent French language teacher who told us the same things as you’re saying now .. that the French themselves often dodge around the tricky bits of grammar when speaking so that they won’t make a mistake. We all do it .. the English often speak their own language so badly that you’d wonder where they’d learnt it in the first place! Très intéressante, et merci beaucoup ~

  • I wish that I had had you to encourage me when I was in college majoring in French. I felt (and still do sometimes) that if my pronunciation isn’t perfect then I must be a failure (and I am a French teacher!). I love your posts and encourage my students to watch them as well. This one we will watch together in class! Merci, Géraldine!

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