3 Main Difficulties French Learners Face & Simple Solutions

Author: Nicole

Learning French isn’t always a walk in the park. Here are 3 common difficulties French learners face, along with some solutions to help conquer them.

Learning a new language is one of the most enjoyable experiences in the world. However, that’s not to say it doesn’t have its difficulties.

When you are on your French learning journey, it’s likely that you will stumble upon some roadblocks. This is perfectly normal and to reassure you, a lot of people will face the exact same difficulties (I did too!). 

This is because every language has its own set of rules. French is a language that has sneaky little silent letters, gendered nouns, and different types of past tenses, so you can imagine why things can get a little … tricky.

Today I’ve put together a list of 3 main difficulties I faced when I was in the process of learning French, along with some practical solutions to help you overcome them. Maybe you will be able to relate to a few. 

Let’s dive in!

1 – Knowing which gender a noun is

Ahh.. good old noun genders. If you are an English speaker, this concept may be entirely new to you and might have you scratching your head.  All French nouns have a gender (masculine/feminine). Of course, in English this isn’t the case: most grammatical nouns are not gendered (hence the “it”).

The bad news is that you will have to learn which gender each noun is. Learn it by heart.

The good news is that there are some rules which can help you to remember what gender a noun is. Phew!

The Ending Solution

There are ways to determine a noun’s gender just by looking at the words ending.

For example feminine French nouns tend to end in:

  1. -tion, -sion, -son
  2. -ance, -anse, -ence, -ense
  3. -ure, -ude, -ade
  4. -ée, té, ière

And  some common masculine endings are:

  1. -age, -eau, -oir, -ege, -ier , -ou
  2. -ste, -tre
  3. -ble, -cle, -ment

However you need to note that there are many exceptions, so it is a good idea to look in a dictionary to check if you are choosing the correct gender. 

Colour Coding

For me, I have to confess knowing the typical feminine and masculine ending was not much help. When I speak French, it takes too long to check the list.

So, I followed Camille’s advice on how to memorize French nouns gender and tried to associate each French word with its gender from the start: one piece of information for my brain.

I’m quite a visual learner, I used blue and pink flashcards to write down vocabulary words. I also used blue and pink pens / highlights. Blue for masculine, pink for feminine (how imaginative of me, right?).

Now, when I think of a French word, I see the color. Problem solved!

And of course, like Camille says, I always learned the nouns with an article (I favored “un / une” so I didn’t run into the “l’ or d'” problem!)

Follow these tips and with time, you will know which nouns are feminine and which are masculine without having to think about it and it all becomes a lot easier! 

2 – Silent letters in French

Oh my gosh – why does French have so many words with silent letters!? I think this is one of the biggest challenges whilst learning French. I was filled with dread every time my French teacher would ask me to read a text in French out loud in class. I was never sure when there would be a sneaky silent letter waiting to catch me out!

For example in the word ‘beaucoup’ (a lot) the ‘”p” is silent.

The silent -e at the end of words is the most common one you will encounter. 

 -ville , -fille, -collège…

So how can you know when to pronounce the silent letters and when not to?

Understanding The Rules

Studying the rule of silent letters is important so you understand the logic behind them. Many people skip that part and just assume they can deduct French pronunciation. It’s really too bad!

Camille explains all French pronunciation – including modern spoken French pronunciation – clearly in her audiobook “Secret of French Pronunciation“.

Secrets of French Pronunciation

In-depth audiobook covering the foundations as well as the difficulties of today’s French pronunciation

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More Details & Audio Samples

Use Audio!

This being said, I’m going to give you advice I wish I was given when learning French: if you’re learning French to communicate in
French, then you need to listen to how native speakers pronounce words in everyday conversations. French pronunciation tends to be very different depending on the context: formal or casual, and of course the regions, age of the speaker etc…

I highly recommend you start off with some level-adapted French audiobooks because this way you can listen as well as read along, and repeat out-loud. This will help you to notice which words have dropped silent letters or not, and the difference between traditional French pronunciation and everyday French pronunciation.

If your train a lot with audio, it will make the rules you’ve studied sink in.

Other Solutions

For advanced students, you can also listen to French music or watch films in French.

In my opinion, to make sure you get the right basis in French, it’s an excellent idea to work with a native French tutor one-to-one, at least for a few sessions: they can help you to work on your pronunciation of French words, set you on the right path.

Practice, practice, practice is key!

3 – The passé composé vs. the Imparfait: When to use which?

The differences between passé composé and the Imparfait – both past tenses in French – is a big struggle for many French learners. It definitely gave me a few nightmares at times!  

I remember my French teacher gave us detailed explanations on when to use each tense (for example, the  imperfect is used for expressing habitual actions in the past, and passé composé tends to be used for events that started and ended in the past.)

But when it came to actually using them in speaking form, I just couldn’t quite get to grips with it! 

I could understand the concepts on a literal level, but found it hard to put it into practice.

Learn With Stories

Whilst I do absolutely recommend learning the theory behind when to use these tenses, yet, I believe putting them into practice is the best way to fully “integrate” the concepts mentally. 

My best results came from listening to (and simultaneously reading) stories specially written to illustrate the French tenses of the past. It also helped with my pronunciation of the past tenses, in particular with the liaisons in passé-composé.

Stories in Videos

Watching Camille’s videos also helped me tremendously: she first produced a video featuring a story using only passé-composé. Then, in a second video, she inserts comments in the imparfait.

Both videos use the Sims (I love the Sims… Played so much…) so they’re fun to watch… and the concept finally “clicked”.

Now for a word of caution:

Don’t Trust Your French Friends!

If you are practicing French with a French person, don’t assume they can explain the difference between the passé-composé and the imparfait… Most French people just know when to use the right tense, but won’t know how to explain why… and many may just “invent” a reason on the spot (rather than simply admit they don’t know…) and confuse you more than anything.

Some things are better left to professionals: if you want to just practice your French with your friends, great, but if you want someone to correct your French and provide an explanation for your mistake, turn to a tutor!

With lots of practice, eventually the French tenses of the past will become “automatic” and you won’t have to think about which one you need to use and when (and it’s a glorious feeling!) 

So there you have it, 3 common challenges learners face when learning French. Would you add any others to the list?

Author: Nicole


I'm a language tutor and freelance writer from London. I have always been interested in all things language and culture related, so I studied French and Portuguese at University. I spent half of my year abroad in Paris which was amazing! Now I'm spreading my love for languages through writing!

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