We have already talked at length about how hard Spanish is for English speakers. We’ve seen how long English speakers take to become fluent and which might be the hardest things to learn in Spanish. A few weeks ago, we also discussed just how hard Spanish is for Arabic speakers. What we haven’t really discussed is how hard (or easy) Spanish can be for one of the most spoken languages in the world - French.
Are Romance languages mutually intelligible?
Short answer: no. One of the questions we get asked the most is how mutually intelligible Romance languages are. Lots of people think that speaking one immediately means you understand the other, which is not true! Like we’ve already seen, Spanish is closest to Portuguese - although Portuguese speakers find it easier to understand Spanish than the other way around. So for French speakers, which reach 220 million today, how easy is it to learn Spanish?
Are Spanish and French mutually intelligible?
Again: no. Both Spanish and French descend from Latin, which means lots of words will come exactly from the same roots. Around 75%, to be exact, but this doesn’t make them mutually intelligible. In fact, Spanish and French are quite distant from one another considering such a high percentage of shared lexicon. In their written forms, native or very experienced speakers may recognize the root of each word and get a general sense of the text. But when it comes to listening and speaking, it’s a totally different story.
To the untrained ear, Spanish and French sound absolutely nothing alike. Native speakers will probably pick up a word or two, but not enough to understand a whole sentence. So, in practical, real life terms, Spanish and French are not mutually intelligible at all. Some people are startled by this fact - how can two Romance languages that share a border be so distant from one another? Which brings us to the next question...
Why are Spanish and French so different from each other?
The important thing to keep in mind here is that Spanish and French didn’t really share borders - historically speaking. On the Spanish side, the border falls on the Basque Country, Navarre, Aragon and Catalonia. Whereas on the French side, the border belonged to Nouvelle Aquitaine and Occitane. These are not regions where Spanish and French were spoken: instead, people spoke Basque (a language isolate), Occitan, Provencal and Catalan. These last three languages also come from Latin.
Until recently, French wasn’t the main language in Southern France. And while Castilian has been official in Spain for centuries, Basque and Catalan are still alive and well, with thriving speaking communities. This explains while Spanish and French don’t constitute a language continuum - unlike Spanish and Portuguese, for example. The missing pieces are Occitan and Catalan, which have similarities with both. Occitan is somewhat closer to French. Catalan, on the other hand, shares 85% of its lexicon with Spanish… and about the same with French. Modern day French is closer to the language once spoken in Northern France, which means it also absorbs lots of Gaulish and perhaps even Germanic influences.
What differs the most between Spanish and French?
The first and biggest contrasting difference are the writing rules - and, consequently, pronunciation. In Spanish everything is exactly as it is written. In French, however, silent consonants change the way a certain word is said and 5 vowels correspond to 13 phonemes. So while Spanish speakers might recognize a written word, they would never pronounce it in a similar way.
But there’s something more: French also uses silent consonants at the end of the word (for example, ‘t’). In this case, it doesn’t impact the pronunciation of the word so much as it sets the written form apart from other words. Mostly this happens with verbs, but Spanish verbs will not resemble this at all.
Notably, a study in 1949 concluded that French is most distant from vulgar Latin. Its evolution degree from Latin is 44%, while Spanish’s is only 20%. Ultimately this comes down to France being historically less isolated - unlike Portugal, Spain or Italy, which are all peninsulas - and a more disputed territory, with its current borders settled only after WWII.
So there are no similarities between Spanish and French?
Of course there are! As we have said before, both come from Latin and 75% of our words share the same root. But unfortunately we evolved in very different manners, so modern-time Spanish and French don’t sound alike. You should expect a similar word order and closeness in the written language, but your listening and speaking skills will be null. So while you have some advantage, you should come prepared to study and work hard!