French vs Italian: Main Differences All Learners Should Know

  • Adrien Renault
    Written byAdrien Renault
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French vs Italian: Main Differences All Learners Should Know

If you’re learning French and Italian, or want to learn one of these languages and already have knowledge of the other, it’s a good idea to examine some of their key similarities and differences.

Knowing the differences will not only help you enrich your understanding of each language, but it will also ensure that you know what typical mistakes to avoid when learning them.

To learn about the historical differences between French and Italian, and discover the crucial differences between the French and Italian languages, read on.

French and Italian language origins

One of the biggest similarities between French and Italian is that they’re both Romance languages.

Like Spanish, Romanian and Portuguese, French and Italian have their origins in Latin, which was spoken by the Romans.

Despite this common origin, there are some dialect differences between the two languages, which stems from the historical differences in their roots. Whereas Italy had always belonged to the Roman Empire, France originally belonged to the Gauls. It was later that the Romans occupied France.

French as a language, therefore, developed after the Germanic Wars.

Its many dialects can be noted in different geographical regions of France and other global locations due to France’s status as a subsequent colonial power.

Italy also has a few different dialects, including Florentine and Sicilian. It has always had its roots in Latin, and it is mostly spoken in Italy.

Lexical similarities: How similar is French to Italian?

There is an 85% lexical similarity between French and Italian. Since they’re both Romance languages their roots are incredibly intertwined.

Though the lexical similarity is very high, these two languages are not mutually understood by native speakers. The main reason you might find it difficult to understand French as a native Italian speaker, or vice versa (to understand Italian like a native French speaker) is the stress of each word and the phonetic differences between the two.

Pronunciation: French vs. Italian

Whereas French pronunciation is slightly more fluid, Italian is clear and sharp. You’ll also notice that although French is more phonetic than English, it takes second place when compared to the clear phoneticism of Italian.

You’ll need to watch out for the silent letters in French. These usually come at the end of certain words and aren’t usually pronounced. In Italian, on the other hand, most letters are pronounced.

The French language has the following unique pronunciation features or rules that you’ll have to master:

  • Nasal sounds (sounds created by the nasal part of the voice such as ein or un)
  • Liason pronunciation rules (used to clarify pronunciation and avoid consonants running together)
  • Silent letter h when it comes before vowels and/or at the start of a word
  • Glottal fricatives used to pronounce the letter r
  • Similar sounding but differently composed vowel clusters such as eaux and au (which is why French is not as phonetic as Italian)

Likewise, the Italian language has its unique features you’ll need to perfect:

  • Liaison also exists in Italian with the same intent (to make pronunciation simpler)
  • Double consonants are common, which calls for emphasis when pronouncing them
  • Trilled letter r when doubled, similar to the Spanish language
  • Italian letters are consistently pronounced

French vs. Italian accent marks: What are the differences between them?

The French language has a unique set of accent marks that differ from those of the Italian language.

Here are all of the French accent marks, and keep reading for the Italian ones:

French accent markFrench accent mark name

Some of these accent marks affect the way words are pronounced in French.

The cedilla French accent mark, for instance, means that the letter c should be pronounced with a soft c sound like in the word cent as opposed to a hard c sound like in the phrase world cup.

The trema accent mark is used to distinguish two vowels that would run together. For instance in the word coïncidence, the letters o and i are pronounced separately.

The acute accent is used to show that the letter é is emphasised or stressed; it should be pronounced eh, in a short and sharp style. If you’d like to learn more, this article on French accent marks explains each of these accents in full.

Now let’s take a look at some of the Italian accent marks and how they are used.

Italian accent markItalian accent mark name

As you can see, there’s quite a difference between the list of Italian accent marks and the French ones!

Although the circonflesso and diaresis do exist in Italian, you’ll rarely encounter these.

So the two main types of accent marks to be aware of are the acute and the grave accent.

When you see an acute accent mark, which features above an e or an o, the letter should be pronounced as a closed vowel, (with a short and sharp pronunciation).

The grave accent mark is used in words that have more than one syllable when the last syllable is stressed.

In orthographic (written) Italian, grave accents also show the difference between two equally spelled words, such as da (meaning “from”) and (meaning “he/she/it gives”).

How does negation differ between French and Italian?

Whereas in Italian you simply add the word non to the beginning of a statement and before the verb to turn it into a negative, in French, it’s slightly more complex.

In French, the words ne and pas are required to negate a statement.

Here’s an example of a negative statement in French to clarify how it’s done:

Listen to audio

Je ne pense pas qu’il arrivera à temps.

I don't think he will arrive on time.

In this example, the main verb that is being negated, pense, is sandwiched between the two words ne and pas. Use this approach for all examples where you want to turn a sentence into a negative.

Here are a couple of other examples:

Listen to audio

Je ne suis pas impressionné par votre comportement.

I am not impressed with your behaviour.
Listen to audio

Je n‘irai pas à la fête car je ne connais personne.

I will not go to the party because I don't know anyone.

Now, let’s take a look at these sentences in the Italian language:

Listen to audio

Non sono impressionato dal tuo comportamento.

I am not impressed with your behaviour.
Listen to audio

Non andrò alla festa perché non conosco nessuno.

I will not go to the party because I don't know anyone.

What are the differences between French and Italian subject pronouns?

There are some similarities and differences between French and Italian subject pronouns. Let’s take a look at these differences in the table below:

English pronounFrench pronounItalian pronoun
IJe/ j’Io
He/she/itIl/elleLui / Lei

Did you notice that the Italian language has the same subject pronoun for the word “you” as the French language?

That’s one thing that makes verb conjugations for each of these languages slightly easier, right?

Both languages also have similar subject pronouns that you’ll use for conjugating verbs in the first person form. But if you’re addressing someone formally in French and then addressing someone formally in Italian, remember the differences between these subject pronouns.

French uses the vous form, whereas Italian uses voi for more than one person. Italian also has another form for addressing a man or a woman on their own, which is lui or lei respectively.

French vs. Italian: Direct object pronoun differences

There is also a difference between how the direct object pronoun is used in French vs. Italian. In French, we use the direct object pronoun before the verb. Here’s a quick example of this:

Listen to audio

Je veux l’entendre. Son avis compte.

I want to hear her. Her opinion is important.

However, in Italian, the direct object pronoun follows the verb. Let’s use the same sentence to compare the use of the direct object pronoun to the Italian version:

Listen to audio

Voglio ascoltarla. La sua opinione conta.

I want to hear her. Her opinion matters.

In this case, the direct object pronoun follows the verb ascoltare. It joins the end of the verb, which is frequently seen in the Italian language.

Pluralisation: How does French pluralisation compare with Italian?

Bear in mind that whereas Italian pluralisation can follow some irregular rules, when you pluralise a French word in most cases you simply add an -s and change the article to the masculine form. Let’s use the French word la main as an example. When we pluralise it, the word becomes les mains.

But, to pluralise the Italian feminine noun la mano (which means “the hand” in English), you have to remove the letter -o and replace it with an -i, giving us le mani in Italian.

In Italian, there are even some masculine nouns to which we add the letter -a when pluralizing them. For example il dito becomes le dita.

Subjunctive mood: When is it used in French and Italian and what are the differences?

If a sentence has two clauses, and the main clause contains a verb that describes a hope or dream or wish (or a hypothetical mood), the subordinate clause must use the subjunctive in French and Italian.

But you’ll notice that in the Italian language, the imperfect subjunctive mood is used to describe situations related to hopes or opinions.

This is different for the French language, which still uses the indicative mood in situations like these.

Say you have a sentence with two clauses, and the one clause uses the conditional tense to describe a hypothetical situation, you must use the imperfect subjunctive in the other clause. Here’s an example:

Listen to audio

Se fossi più giovane correrei dieci chilometri ogni giorno.

If I were younger I would run ten kilometres every day.

Note, in the example above, the verb fossi takes the imperfect subjunctive tense, whereas the verb correrei takes the conditional tense.

Let’s now compare this with the French version to see the difference:

Listen to audio

Si j’étais plus jeune, je courais dix kilomètres par jour.

If I were younger, I would run ten kilometers every day.

This sentence uses the imperfect indicative verb tense (j’etais) and not the imperfect subjunctive (je fusse).

French numbers vs Italian numbers: how are they different?

French cardinal numbers can be tricky. If you’re learning the French language as a beginner you might find it slightly challenging if you’re counting upwards from 70 since the numbers no longer follow a regular or easy pattern.

Italian numbers are easier. Continue reading to find out why.

French and Italian cardinal numbers

Some French learners use techniques to remember their French numbers, like thinking of each number as part of a mathematical sum.

For example, you can remember the number eighty by keeping in mind that it’s the equivalent of four times twenty or quatre vingt.

Discover more about French numbers to see the best approaches for learning them.

How do Italian cardinal numbers compare? Well, Italian numbers are easier to remember than French numbers because they follow a pattern.

Although Italian learners (like Spanish learners) have to remember the difference between “sixty” and “seventy” (which are sessanta and settanta respectively), they are much easier than French numbers.

The table below compares French cardinal numbers and Italian cardinal numbers. Take a look:

English Cardinal NumberFrench Cardinal NumberItalian Cardinal Number

French and Italian ordinal numbers

When it comes to ordinal numbers, both languages are relatively straightforward.

In Italian, the ordinal numbers ranging from “first” to “tenth” follow a similar pattern to the cardinal numbers, but they end in an -o. After “tenth” (decimo) they have different endings, so you’ll need to add the suffix -esimo to the end.

French ordinal numbers also have a suffix that you’ll need to add, which is -ème.

And keep in mind that premier is the only French ordinal number that can take the masculine or feminine form.

Check out the Italian and French ordinal numbers to twenty below:

English Ordinal NumberFrench Ordinal NumberItalian Ordinal Number
FirstPremier (masculine) / Première (feminine)Primo

Learn French and Italian at the same time with these four pieces of advice

If you’re about to start learning French and Italian at the same time, you’ll probably be wondering how to do this without any difficulties.

While we’re not saying it’s always going to be effortless, some of the following handy tips will help you become fluent in both languages.

  1. Take part in language exchange meetups when you’ve gained confidence. This will force you to speak exclusively in either language and you’ll correct your mistakes along the way, especially in situations where you accidentally use a word from the wrong language.
  2. Create your flashcards. If your first language is English, use one side of the flashcard for the English version of your target word. Flip the flashcards onto the other side and write your Italian and French words there. Revise the words you’re struggling with and try creating sentences with these words so you don’t forget them.
  3. Play verb conjugation and subject pronoun games with a set of cards. Pick a target verb and assign each of its conjugated forms or subject pronouns a number. Write the numbers one to six on a set of cards and shuffle them. Select a card, and whichever number you select, you must say the conjugated form of your target verb out loud.
  4. Listen to audio recordings to develop your listening comprehension of each language and practice your pronunciation. Listen out for the Italian rolled r sounds and the French nasal sounds mentioned in this article.

Remember, learning about French culture and its similarities and differences to Italian culture is also important as it can help you shape your understanding of each language.

Which tips would you like to share to help others learn Italian and French at the same time?

Add your advice to the comments section below and give others a helping hand!

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
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Lilly Horigan

Lilly Horigan

This was an excellent rundown. I have been learning French for decades and just started Italian. Thanks so much.

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