Italian Vs French: Which One Should You Learn?

To mangiare or to manger — that is the question.
view of street in italy with pizzeria awning italian vs french

So you’re trying to decide on a new language to learn, and it’s come down to a choice: Italian vs French. Italian and French are much more alike than they’re not. They’re also two of the world’s most widely-considered-romantic languages (not to be confused with Romance languages, which they also both are). Some of this has to do with the cultural stereotypes associated with French and Italian people. Some of this has to do with the fact that these are both languages many consider to be especially pleasing to the ear.

Either way, it adds up. French and Italian are, respectively, considered to be the sexiest accents in the world (according to a Babbel survey of 15,000 people). So if you’re learning a language to become more attractive to potential dates, there really isn’t a wrong choice here.

Assuming you’re weighing other motivations and priorities, however, there might be a better language to learn for you, specifically. Let’s tackle this question from a few different angles.

Italian Vs French

How similar are Italian and French?

French and Italian are fairly similar. We’ve already covered this, but they’re both close cousins in the Romance language family (meaning they’re descended from vulgar Latin). This means they share many significant traits, such as the fact that they use the Latin alphabet, share many cognates, have similar grammatical syntax, and place a lot of emphasis on grammatical gender and complex verb conjugations. They both also feature an SVO (subject-verb-object) sentence order that will be familiar to you as an English speaker.

In terms of lexical similarity, French and Italian are pretty close. Ethnologue came up with lexical similarity coefficients for each of the Romance languages, or quantifiable percentages that tell you how similar they are. According to this metric, French and Italian are 89 percent similar, which makes them as similar as Spanish and Portuguese. No other language pairings in this family go above 89 percent.

That said, French and Italian are surprisingly not that mutually intelligible, in the sense that a French and Italian speaker would probably struggle to understand each other. This is largely owing to differences in pronunciation.

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

If you want to understand the differences between Italian vs French, you have to go back to the beginning. Even though they both have Latin roots, France originally belonged to the Gauls before it was occupied by Romans. Modern Italian pretty much comes directly from vulgar Latin, but French vocabulary has gone on to be influenced more heavily by German and English loanwords. Long story short, French and Italian share a lot of similar-sounding vocabulary, but, as an English speaker, you’ll probably be more familiar with French words.

Another major difference you’ll notice between these languages is that Italian has much more straightforward pronunciation. Italian has very regular spelling, which means each letter tends to make very predictable and consistent sounds. What you see is what you get. Meanwhile, French is full of silent consonants and irregular pronunciations. It plays fast and loose with the rules.

The nature of the pronunciation is also different. Italian pronunciation is more sharp and defined, and you use intonation and hand gestures for emphasis. French pronunciation is more fluid, and it features distinct nasal sounds and lots of vowel clusters.

French is a little more straightforward when it comes to rules for plural forms, however. In French, you generally just add an “s,” like you do in English. Italian has irregular plural forms that you’ll have to memorize.

Which language is easier to learn?

On Babbel’s internal ranking of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn, Italian ranked in seventh place, and French was eighth (out of nine). All in all, difficulty probably shouldn’t be a major factor in your decision, because they’re fairly equal in that regard. But you’ll probably find that Italian is slightly easier than French.

Grammar-wise, they’re fairly similar in complexity. Most of this discrepancy goes back to French pronunciation being less phonetic than Italian, but that also depends on what kind of learner you are. Italian is often easier to pronounce and understand thanks to its musical intonation and distinct separation between individual sounds, but there’s also less room to hide if you’re not nailing each of those syllables.

Italian also simply features fewer sounds and vowels to wrap your head around. Italian has seven vowel sounds, whereas French has 13 (17, counting nasal sounds).

Which language is more useful to know?

If you’re looking at sheer demographics and geography, French is probably the more useful language to know. There are 267 million French speakers in the world, compared to 66 million Italian speakers. Because of its colonial history, French is spoken in many parts of the world and is the official language in 29 countries, including France, Belgium, Canada, Haiti and many African countries. Italian is an official language in Italy, San Marino, Switzerland and Vatican City, as well as some parts of Croatia and Slovenia.

Generally speaking, French is more in-demand as a business language as well, but the needs of your particular industry will have more weight in deciding which language makes more sense for you to learn.

For instance, French ranks third overall on We Forum’s Power Language Index, and sixth for its economic benefits. It’s an especially important language in international diplomacy, travel, tourism and hospitality, and the African continent’s rising population could boost global French-speaking numbers to over 700 million by 2050.

However, Italian is an important language to know in the fashion, automotive, food, wine and tourism industries as well. Additionally, it might not matter if French has more speakers worldwide if you happen to live in a place with a lot of Italian speakers, or you have Italian family members, or you have your sights set on relocating to Rome.

Ultimately, there’s no wrong choice — only the choice you go with, and that opens the most doors you’re personally interested in unlocking. Besides, learning one Romance language generally makes the rest of them more accessible to you. Starting with either one will pave the way for a slightly easier time learning the next.

Whatever you choose, we've got you covered.
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Steph Koyfman

Steph is a senior content producer who has spent over five years writing about language and culture for Babbel. She grew up bilingually and had an early love affair with books, and, later, studied English literature and journalism in college. She also speaks Russian and Spanish, but she’s a little rusty on those fronts.

Steph is a senior content producer who has spent over five years writing about language and culture for Babbel. She grew up bilingually and had an early love affair with books, and, later, studied English literature and journalism in college. She also speaks Russian and Spanish, but she’s a little rusty on those fronts.