Which language should you learn? That’s not always a straightforward question to answer. If you’re not already settled on a specific language due to your heritage, your field of study, or perhaps various relocation or career-related needs, then you might simply be looking to broaden your world, exercise your mind or add a useful skill to your resume. For many native English speakers, the most obvious choice usually boils down to a dilemma of French vs Spanish.
These are two of the most widely spoken languages in the world, and they also happen to be two of the most accessible languages for English speakers to learn — both in terms of how easy they are, and in terms of how many available resources there are to learn with. In other words, these are both languages where you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck, time and effort-wise. So how do you decide?
French Vs Spanish
How similar are French and Spanish?
French and Spanish are relatively similar on the scale where you might be comparing, say, Japanese to Turkish. They’re both Romance languages, which come from Latin, and they share a lot of cognates (words that sound similar and usually have a common ancestor). Their grammatical syntax is also very similar, and learners of one language generally find it intuitive to switch to the other when it comes to things like prepositions and conjugations.
To some extent, learning one Romance language does give you an easier entry into the others. Within the Romance family, however, Spanish and French aren’t the closest cousins.
Linguists Alina Maria Ciobanu and Liviu P. Dinu of the University of Bucharest attempted to measure the mutual intelligibility of Romance languages, taking into account etymology, cognates and orthographic distances (a measurement of how similar or dissimilar words are based on spelling, usage and a host of other factors). Overall, Romanian was the least similar to the other Romance languages, but Spanish and French are not as close as, say, Spanish and Portuguese, which shared the most similarities.
Ethnologue also came up with lexical similarity coefficients for each of the Romance tongues, or quantifiable percentages that tell you how similar the languages are. Spanish and French are 75 percent similar according to this rubric, but that’s on the low side when you consider that Spanish and Romanian are 71 percent similar, compared to an 89 percent similarity between Spanish and Portuguese, and 89 percent for French and Italian.
What are some of the key differences between French and Spanish?
Where French and Spanish diverge is namely in the external linguistic influences they mingled with historically, as well as in their pronunciation.
A lot of French vocabulary is similar to that of German and English, which makes sense when you consider that France and Germany share a border. This goes both ways. Both German and English have a large number of French loanwords.
Meanwhile, Spanish has a bit more of an Arabic influence that dates back to the Moorish invasion of the Iberian peninsula in 711. Roughly 4,000 modern Spanish words come from Arabic, making it the second most important influence on Spanish after Latin.
Finally, it doesn’t take a linguist to notice that these two languages sound very different. And when it comes to your experiences as a student, you’ll definitely noice that Spanish is phonetic — in other words, what you see is what you get — whereas French pronunciation is much less straightforward. With French, roughly half of what you see is not what you get (or ever hear).
Which language is easier to learn?
Well, it depends on your native language, and perhaps which languages you’re more frequently exposed to. If you’re in the United States, it’s probably easier to learn Spanish because you’re likely to have more exposure to the language.
Both languages come with their obstacles for English speakers. For instance, you won’t get around learning grammatical gender with either. With Spanish, the subjunctive mood tends to be difficult for English speakers to wrap their minds around. With French, adjectives can be tough because we’re used to them going in a certain word order in English.
Babbel actually ranked the easiest languages for English speakers to learn though, and technically, Spanish is higher on that list than French (Spanish came in third, versus eighth for French). This is mostly thanks to Spanish’s easier pronunciation.
Which language is more useful to know?
Again, this is one of those questions that largely depends. There’s really no way to boil down “usefulness” of a language because that depends on who you are and what you plan to do. French and Spanish are both widely spoken languages that will unlock your ability to converse with millions of people and travel through multiple countries around the world.
Technically, there are about twice as many total Spanish speakers as French speakers in the world (543 million versus 267 million), but whether one is more useful to learn largely depends on where in the world you are. Spanish will unlock most of Latin America to you (and Spain, obviously), whereas French will give you an in to many African countries, plus France, Belgium, Canada and Haiti.
If you’re learning to boost your career prospects, Spanish and French are both very useful business languages to know. Whereas Spanish is more widely spoken (for now — the African continent’s rising population could boost global French-speaking numbers to over 700 million by 2050), French is also an important language in international diplomacy, travel, tourism and hospitality. Ultimately, either of these languages can give you a leg up in any number of aspects of your life.