Fashion, food, wine, charme, monuments…Italy and France might be two cousin countries but are also fierce opponents in many different fields. And if the author here is definitely partial to one of them - the one with the best coffee - it’s time to analyze this rivalry from the perspective of language learners and language nerds all around the world.
Italian vs. French is a classic language challenge, one that has fueled a debate full of trenchant opinions and famed supporters for many many years. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, for example, defined French as the younger and less noble sister of the Italian language, while the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi was a huge fan of French, which he loved for his clarity and versatility.
Since the coffee reference above could be enough to trigger a diplomatic crisis - with the respective cheeses taken as hostages like smelly ambassadors - here we’ll adopt the Swiss strategy and remain neutral, limiting ourselves to describing the main similarities and differences of these two equally beautiful and fascinating languages…just don’t forget where the good coffee is.
Italian vs. French: Key similarities
Is Italian similar to French and vice versa? Well, in many aspects the answer is yes. Let’s see the main similarities:
- Italian and French both derive from Latin, and are therefore Neo-latin or Romance languages. But our top language scientist confirmed that this doesn’t make them romantic partners 💔
- Lexical cognates are words that descend from a common ancestor, and are therefore similar across different languages. Italian and French do have a lot of them (we’ll list a few in a little bit).
- Both Italian and French do not have a neutral gender in grammar, meaning that all the nouns are either feminine or masculine. Both languages are also trying creative solutions to become more inclusive towards non-binary people and to challenge the traditional use of masculine plural forms to describe groups including multiple genders. Among these solutions are the iel pronoun in French and the schwa suffix in Italian.
- Another similarity concerns verbs: to form compound tenses in Italian and French, you must use either to be or to have (essere/avere - être/avoir) depending on the main verb. BUT unfortunately this does not mean that verbs that require the use of “to be” or “to have” in French and in Italian are necessarily the same.
- In both languages, verbs are grouped into three categories based on the final letters of their infinitive form. These are -er, -re, and -ir in French and -are, -ere and -ire in Italian.
What are the main differences between French and Italian
Now, let’s talk about the differences between these two languages that, until now, look like having so much in common:
- Pronunciation is probably the biggest difference of all. The nasals vowels and the vibrant r that are so typical of the French language are completely absent in Italian, whose r is pronounced as in Spanish and Arabic and whose vowels do not include nasal sounds.
- Orthography is another element that differs A LOT between French and Italian. While Italian orthography tends to be easier, with a relatively limited use of accents and a general direct correspondence between letters and sounds, French is more complex, with a lot of mute suffixes and a strong use of accents - the latter becoming less and less respected in digital communications.
- While French has a few specific forms for interrogative and imperative sentences, Italian relies almost exclusively on intonation. Example: the Italian sentence “Vai a scuola” might be pronounced as an affirmative sentence (“Vai a scuola.” - “You go to school.”), and imperative (“Vai a scuola!” - “Go to school!”) or a question (“Vai a scuola?” - “Are you going to school?”). In French, like in English, you would have three completely different forms.
- As in English, French verbs are always paired with the corresponding personal pronoun whenever the subject is not otherwise explicated. You say “Je suis” as you say “I am” in English. In Italian, though, the personal pronoun is generally omitted and you just say “Sono” instead of “Io sono”.
Which language is easier to learn, French or Italian?
As we’ve already discussed in another blog post about the easiest languages to learn for English speakers, if you’re coming from English, Italian is easier from a pronunciation and orthographic point of view.
Since there tends to be direct correspondence (with some exceptions) between sounds and letters, and accents are not so widely used, Italian is certainly easier to write and to read.
The Italian r, though, might be trickier for English speakers than the French one.
French vs. Italian: which language will be more useful to learn?
The answer to this question is: it depends on your interests and needs. Do we want to embrace a purely utilitarian approach? Then, with 220 million native speakers in 40 countries worldwide, French is by far the most useful language for travel, business and work.
Italian native speakers, on the other end, are just over 60 million. Nevertheless, Italian is the fourth most studied language in the world, following English, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese and therefore surpassing French. Why?
Well, the answer might be because many people do not always act on a purely utilitarian basis, and simply study what fascinates and attracts them. And that’s great!
French vs Italian in practice
Now, let’s see some examples of the similarities and differences between Italian and French.
Similar words in French and Italian
In the match Italian vs French, the result is sometimes a tie! Check out this long list of noun and verb cognates.
Differences between French and Italian
Are you already thinking that you could just learn one language and be ok with the other? Think again. Let’s dive into the many words that differ completely between French and Italian.
Words that are completely different
|Potato||Pomme de terre||Patata|
|Secondary school||Collège||Scuola media|
False cognates are the archenemy of every language student: words that sound similar but have actually a very different meaning across languages. Let’s see some of those with French and Italian examples:
- Embrasser: similar to the Italian word “Abbracciare” (to hug), it actually means “to kiss”. The number of love misunderstandings caused by this is unknown.
- Riviere: almost identical to the Italian “Riviera” (coastline), it actually means “river”.
- Diplome: while in Italian and English you earn a “diploma” when you successfully complete high-school, in French you have to wait until the end of university, which in English is called “degree” and “laurea” in Italian.
Learning French vs Italian - which one should you choose?
It’s a one million euro question, but only you know the answer. Look into your wonderful heart of learner: if you see an important career in business, multiple travels to Paris or the complete works of Honoré de Balzac, then you belong to the language of the country that invented the baguette.
If, on the other hand, you see yourself on the stage singing Rigoletto like a reincarnation of Pavarotti, or sipping a glass of Chianti in the garden of your newly restored cascina in the Tuscan hills, well you must pass the Alps and study Italian!
In both cases, we got you covered.
Find the perfect French or Italian language course (or both!)
You can even go crazy and learn both! It won’t be easy, but we’ll be on your side. And you can become the glorious peacemaker that will de-escalate the next coffee crisis!