German Vs French: Which One Should You Learn?

Two very beautiful and useful languages, both alike in dignity. How do you choose?
french town in the hills lit up at twilight german vs french

You’ve considered all your other options, and it’s come down to a simple choice between learning German and French. Except the more you sit with this decision, the more obvious it becomes that this isn’t a very simple choice at all. French and German are both widely spoken languages that can make you more competitive professionally, they both come steeped in rich literary traditions, and they’re both medium-ish on the difficulty scale (not overly intimidating, but enough of a challenge to keep things interesting).

There’s no objectively correct choice in this dilemma, as you can probably already guess. There’s probably a right decision for you, though, and you can get there by weighing a few key factors. It might help to get really clear on your baseline motivation for learning a new language first. Then, consider some of the below points comparing German vs French.

German Vs French

How similar are French and German?

French and German are not necessarily languages you would automatically peg as “similar,” mostly because they have a very different sound and vocabulary set. Also, Hollywood tropes have led to stock associations in the American mind, making French the language of romance and German the language of World War II films. Neither of these stereotypes is fair or even necessarily all that accurate, but they probably account for a lot of implicit biases would-be language learners bring with them into the decision process.

But let’s consider how close they really are on the scale of, well, all the languages in the world. They’re both part of the Indo-European family. They both use the Latin alphabet, so if you’re an English speaker, you won’t have to learn an entirely new character system. Both have grammatical gender, so you’re not going to avoid having to master this concept by choosing one over the other. The main difference is that French only has masculine and feminine, whereas German has a third “neuter” gender, too.

Vocabulary-wise, French and German also share a surprising amount of cognates and loanwords (maybe not that surprising, considering France and Germany share a border). German and English both borrowed a lot of words from French, and French has taken some inspiration from German and English. So as an English speaker, you’re not going to be treading over totally unfamiliar territory with either of these languages.

What are some of the key differences between German and French?

Well, let’s start with basic taxonomy. French is a Romance language, and German (like English) belongs to the Germanic family.

You also don’t need a very highly trained ear to tell that they both sound very different. A French speaker would have a hard time understanding a German speaker, and vice versa. French is generally spoken a lot faster and has a more nasal-sounding pronunciation, and German is full of complex compound words that seem daunting at first, but actually follow a pretty straightforward logic.

French and German also use a different word order, with French joining English on team SVO (subject-verb-object) sentence structure. German has a more flexible word order that might throw you for a loop at first, because it allows you to insert the verb or subject in different places in the sentence. Don’t worry, though. There’s a logic to the madness.

German students also tend to become preoccupied with its four noun cases — the nominative, genitive, dative and accusative. French doesn’t have true cases, but you will spend a lot of time with its irregular verb forms.

Which language is easier to learn?

On Babbel’s internal ranking of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn, French was eighth (out of nine), and German didn’t make the list. Don’t let that frighten you, though. German wasn’t on our list of hardest languages to learn, either. Realistically, both French and German occupy a similar difficult level. Whether you find one easier than the other will likely depend on your individual strengths and weaknesses.

For one, French pronunciation is much less straightforward than German’s, and it’s often spoken faster (thus making it harder to understand). With French, you kind of just have to assume that half of what you see is not what it actually sounds like. Meanwhile, German pronunciation is relatively simple and easy to follow.

However, German grammar tends to be difficult, and more complicated than that of Romance languages like French, for a lot of learners. It is consistent in following its own rules, but the problem is that there are a lot of rules, and the rules themselves are rather complex. All the cases and declensions are a lot to get your mind around, but once you get over this initial hurdle, it tends to be smoother sailing.

Long story short, German is easier if you do better with a lot of structure and predictable logic. French is easier if you’re comfortable with a little chaos. French tends to be easier for beginners, though it gets harder as you get into its intermediate and advanced layers. German has a tougher on-ramp for beginners, but gets easier as you go along.

Which language is more useful to know?

“Useful” is in the eye of the beholder. To start, what do you intend to use your language abilities for? If it’s for traveling or relocating, that’s going to depend on where you see yourself hanging out. Due to its colonial history, French is spoken in a lot of disparate regions and is the official language in 29 countries, including France, Belgium, Canada, Haiti and many African countries. Meanwhile, German is primarily spoken in central Europe, in countries like Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Belgium.

If “useful” is about the sheer number of people you’ll be able to converse with, French beats German easily. There are 267 million French speakers in the world, compared to 155 million German speakers.

In terms of career opportunities, French and German are both very in-demand as business languages. Germany has the largest economy in the European Union, and many coveted engineering positions require or prefer some German knowledge. We Forum’s Power Language Index ranks German third in the world in terms of the economic opportunities that it offers, compared to French in sixth place for its economic benefits. French is third overall on the ranking of “power languages,” mostly due to its geographical dominance and importance in diplomacy, with German coming in seventh. The African continent’s rising population could boost global French-speaking numbers to over 700 million by 2050, and French is also an important language in international diplomacy, travel, tourism and hospitality.

All in all, that’s a lot of factors you’ll have to weigh against your true needs and motivations. No matter what you choose, you’ll still be learning a language with lots of practical utility, so you can’t really go wrong.

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