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French or Spanish? Which one should I learn? A comparison between phonetics and grammar


One of the most common questions when deciding our son or daughter to start learning a foreign language is what language to choose.

European languages are on the rise in Asia and especially in Hong Kong, where most of the students master Cantonese, Mandarin and English. Among them, French and Spanish are the popular ones, and comparisons between them are unavoidable since they share many facts given their same origin from Latin.

Many things should be taken into account, from objective facts to personal feelings, but finally the decision is to be taken depending on what we think is better for our son or daughter and his/her motivation and interests. French is the biggest expatriate community in Hong Kong, and more are the French companies that are operating their business in Hong Kong too.

Another main different between French and Spanish comes out according to the nationality of the students. While Spanish is chosen mainly by students in European countries, Brazil, Japan, China and the United States, French is an option in Canada –where it is an official language- as well as in many sub-Saharan and African countries with historic links to France.

Attending to linguistic features it is difficult, or even impossible, to make an objective and fair comparison between French and Spanish. Also the grade of difficulty when learning a second language depends on different factors like the mother tongue of the student and other second languages he or she knows. Even though, most of the issues discussed when comparing Spanish and French are related to phonetics and orthography, and here we want to provide you some light into this matter.

Historical Reasons

First, we need to pay attention to some historic facts. It is known that during the Middle Ages in Europe many languages and dialects were spoken because the current countries were still not shaped and different kingdoms coexisted in relatively small areas. Was Alfonso X the first Spanish king that, in the thirteenth century, made the effort to establish a common Spanish language among the different social groups and disciplines –from science to literature- with a great success. He also developed an orthographic reform in order to standardise and simplify the written Spanish, which gain transparency according to its link with phonetics.

Meanwhile, France was living a very different reality. As in Spain, many dialects were spoken in different areas, but in this case not one of them was more widespread than the others. At the same time, German was exerting a strong influence on the language in the northern and eastern territories given the physical proximity. It was not until the sixteenth century that a “standard” French was imposed in the whole country, although it was reserved for the higher strata, while the lower social classes tended to keep using their own dialects. At that time proposals for linking orthography with phonetics didn’t succeed, and was not until the eighteenth century that the current written French started to be managed by l’Académie Française.

As a result of all these events French orthography and phonetics have accumulated much more varied features than Spanish. That's why having French lessons is harder comparatively. French has more richness with 15 different vowel sounds when Spanish just uses five. Along the history, French syllables have experimented first, a tendency to elongate by joining two or three vowels together, and later, the opposite phenomenon of contraction. These processes finally originated a wide range of vowel sounds.

In contrast consonants are more or less same in number either in Spanish and French. French also has a very rich phenomena, called "la liaison". This is a phonetic phenomenon in spoken French where the sound of a final consonant is joined with the one of a starting vowel in the following word. As an example, in the word vous, you (plural) in French, the final “s” is not pronounced; it is neither pronounced in the expression vous faites, you (plural) do, since the second word starts also in consonant and there is not liaison. In contrast, the liaison phenomenon makes that in the expression vous êtes, you (plural) are, the final “s” of vous is pronounced in order to link the sound with the starting vowel of êtes, not being any more a silent letter. This gives French a magic sound when it's spoken.

In French, the accentuation goes by the sentence rather than the word, and even exist some sort of tonal variation between strong syllables and the rest. Given this French has more a musically sound than Spanish.

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