Spanish vs French: Essential Similarities & Differences
- Written byLara Scott
- Read time16 mins
French and Spanish are closely related but also have major differences.
Many language learners will notice lexical similarity but obvious pronunciation differences between French and Spanish.
This can cause a lot of confusion, especially if you’re learning as a beginner and your first language is English.
Your main objectives will be to get a handle of the pronunciation of new Spanish and French words, and also how to remember key French and Spanish vocabulary in each language.
Oh, and then you’ll need to remember the core grammar and verb conjugations of each.
You need to be aware of their similarities and differences; it’ll help you grasp both languages and stay aware of false friends (false cognates).
So, to master both Romance languages (whether simultaneously or sequentially), take a look at this guide to discover how Spanish and French differ.
Negation: differences between French and Spanish
Let’s start with looking at one simple topic, negation, and how it’s different in French and Spanish.
Negation means turning a statement into a negative.
An example of this in English could be “I don’t understand”, or “I don’t want to exercise this week”, as opposed to “I understand” or “I do want to exercise this week”
How does negation differ between French and Spanish?
Take a look at how we would negate a sentence in French:
Je ne comprends pas.
The French version of this statement features two words that change it into a negation — ne and pas.
These two words envelop the key verb of your sentence, which is comprends in this case.
This is different to Spanish, which would translate as:
To negate a Spanish sentence, simply add the word no to your sentence; no should feature before the key conjugated verb.
This applies in Latin America and all Spanish speaking countries.
In this case, no comes before the conjugated verb entiendo.
In terms of negation, it seems slightly easier to negate a sentence in Spanish, doesn’t it?
Let’s call it Spanish – 1, French – 0 in terms of overall simplicity.
Differences in pronunciation between French and Spanish
A key difference in pronunciation between the French and Spanish Romance languages is how you pronounce certain vocabulary and particular letters.
When you learn French, you might notice the tricky nasal vowels and, by contrast, that we don’t pronounce silent letters.
In Spanish, even though the letter ‘h’ is silent (think of the h in the greeting hola and you’ll understand what I mean), we pronounce every single individual letter in a word.
For instance, ‘b’s and ‘v’s have identical sounds in Spanish, and you’ll not have much difficulty pronouncing them in a word or sentence.
But there are also a few rules to be aware of for pronouncing words in French.
These rules are called liaisons and enchaînement and they don’t apply to Spanish speakers or the Spanish language.
Liaisons in the French language
Liaisons in French is a rule that refers to words that have a silent consonant at the end.
For words like these, when they come before words that begin with vowels, you will sometimes pronounce the silent consonant.
For instance, in the phrase ton amis, you would pronounce the letter ‘n’, even though it’s normally silent.
Some of these consonants change their sound if part of a liaison.
Some of the most common examples that change sounds, in this case, are D, S and X.
- D becomes a ‘t’ sound
- S becomes a ‘z’ sound
- X becomes a ‘z’ sound
Enchaînement in the French language
Enchaînement is a French grammatical rule that applies when a vowel or silent ‘h’ follows a consonant.
As part of this rule, the vowel sound joins or links to the word that follows it.
Example: Avec elle becomes ‘ave kel’
Enchaînement doesn’t apply to Castilian Spanish either. It seems that Spanish is easier for pronunciation. Keeping score?
That’s Spanish – 2, French – 0 in terms of simplicity.
Differences in accentuation between French and Spanish
Don’t get caught off guard by the main difference between French and Spanish accentuation, which is that accentuation in French applies to each sentence, whereas accentuation in Spanish applies to each word.
As soon as you learn Spanish accentuation rules, and the pronunciation rules too, you’ll have no problem knowing how to pronounce unfamiliar words.
In French, this can be a significant challenge.
Let’s look at the Spanish accentuation rules and then see how these compare with French.
Spanish accentuation rules
Accent marks are used in Spanish to help us understand where the stress of the word lies.
They’re represented by tildes, which, in the written form can be found at the top of the stressed vowel (and this indicates the stressed syllable).
Now, there are four main categories of word stresses.
The first is called agudas, the second llanas, the third esdrújulas and the fourth sobreesdrújulas.
Aguadas, llanas, esdrújulas and sobreesdrújulas
In the agudas category, you’ll hear the word stress on the final syllable.
For llanas, which have two syllables, the stress can be heard on the penultimate syllable.
In the esdrújulas category, the stress is heard on the third syllable.
For the sobreesdrújulas category, the stress is heard on the fourth syllable.
When counting syllables in Spanish, we have to start from the final syllable and count backwards.
Using tildes and where they should appear
If a word falls into the agudas category, you’ll need to use a tilde if their final letter is an n, s or a vowel.
Example: Café has a tilde on the final syllable because it ends in a vowel.
If a word falls into the llanas category, you’ll need to use a tilde when they don’t end in an n, s, or a vowel.
Example: Because lápiz does not end in n, s, or a vowel, it has a tilde which we should place on the penultimate syllable.
If a word is an esdrújula or a sobreesdrújula, they will always have a tilde.
Example: Mecánico has a tilde, as does cómetelo.
Other Spanish accent marks
Spanish has two other accent marks you’ll need to know.
One is the diéresis and the other is the virgulilla. The diéresis is used in Spanish for the letter ü when it is part of a diphthong; it indicates that the ü should sound similar to a w.
Some words that contain the dieresis include:
The French Spanish linguistic similarities extend to the diéresis, but it’s called a tréma in French and can be found hovering over the letters e, i or u.
The virgulilla is the line you’ll sometimes see above the letter ñ in certain Spanish words.
It’s used to help you tell the difference between the regular n and the letter eñe. Learn Spanish facts about the enye and the virgulilla via the linked article.
You’ll never see an eñe in French; it’s strictly a Spanish thing.
French accentuation rules
Here are the rules for French accentuation and how they differ from Spanish.
There are five main accent marks in French; these are the acute, grave, tréma, circumflex and cedilla marks.
Some of these accent marks change the way a letter or word is pronounced.
Acute accent marks
The acute accent is used to alter how the letter e is pronounced, but it also alters what words mean.
In terms of pronunciation, when you find the acute French accent above an é, the letter sounds like the letter e in “exactly”.
In terms of the grammatical consequences of the acute accent, it’s used to indicate that a word is written in the past tense.
Il a fermé le livre. Il a fermé les yeux. Il s’est endormi.
But in other contexts, without the acute accent, the meaning of the word ferme can change from the past tense to the present tense.
Il ferme les yeux à trois heures. Il s’endort à quatre heures du matin.
A similar thing occurs in the Spanish language in terms of how words can change their meaning with an acute accent (known as a tilde in Spanish).
Take the words sí and si. With the accent mark, sí means “yes”. Without it, si means “if”.
Grave accent marks
The grave accent mark is used in French to help you tell the difference between equally spelled words.
For instance, two words that are spelled the same but have different meanings are ou and où.
The first word, ou, means “or”, while the second word où means where.
Other instances where the grave accent mark helps you tell the difference between two words are with a and à, meaning “has” and “to” respectively.
For example, can you distinguish the difference between a and à in this sentence:
Elle a dit désolé à son partenaire.
Take note that this accent mark doesn’t exist in Spanish; it’s another difference between the French and Spanish Romance languages — you won’t see it in any written Spanish texts as it’s a French accent mark.
Circumflex accent marks
Circumflex accent marks exist in French but not in Spanish; you’ll never see a circumflex in Spanish texts. But what are circumflexes used for in French?
Well, they’ve got two critical usages:
- To show that a vowel is a long vowel.
- To show the difference between two words that have the same pronunciation but mean different things (homophones).
So, for example, the difference between saying tâche (task) and tache (stain) is made clearer in French texts by the circumflex, as is the pronunciation of each of these words.
Tréma accent marks
A tréma and diéresis are identical in appearance and what you should also know if you’re learning French and Spanish simultaneously, is that they do similar things to the pronunciation of French and Spanish words.
The tréma splits what would have been a diphthong and indicates that the vowel it hovers above should be pronounced separately.
Here are some examples of words that feature the tréma and how they should be pronounced:
- Noël — is pronounced noh-el
- Canoë — is pronounced can-oehy
- Jamaïque — is pronounced jama-ieek
Cedilla accent marks
Cedeilla accent marks do not exist in Spanish, which is another difference to watch out for.
It’s an accent mark used in the French language that you’ll find tucked under the letter c, giving you a “ç”.
Although French and Spanish share some phonetic commonalities in this respect, with the letter c having a hard and soft sound in different contexts, it’s the French language that makes this distinction simpler.
The cedilla indicates that a ç should be a soft “c” sound.
Like the one you hear in “century” or “city”, and not “car” or “carriage”.
There are fewer accent marks to remember in Spanish, but some of the accent marks in the French language make pronunciation simpler…
Let’s call it Spanish – 3, French – 0… but feel free to interject!
Differences in verb tenses and moods between French and Spanish
Good news for French learners: the language has fewer verb tenses when compared with Spanish.
Although you’ll encounter the notoriously challenging subjunctive mood in both French and Spanish if you’re learning them simultaneously, French has three fewer verb tenses and moods.
Of French and Spanish grammar, French is slightly easier.
11 different French verb tenses are used in everyday conversation, and 14 are used in Spanish.
And what’s more, when we compare the Spanish and French subjunctive mood, there are more similarities and differences between these foreign languages.
For example, one difference is that, in French, we tend to use the subjunctive mood mostly after the word que; there aren’t many other words that the subjunctive follows in French.
In Spanish, though, you’ll notice many other words that come before the subjunctive.
As well as que, there’s also como and cuando.
That makes Spanish easier, bringing the score to Spanish – 3, French – 1.
Similarities and differences in subjunctive si clauses
There is a significant similarity between the French and Spanish Romance languages in terms of sentences made up of conditional si clauses; both languages share it. But, watch out!
In French examples, the imperfect subjunctive is hardly used, whereas the si clauses you find in Spanish frequently use the imperfect subjunctive.
For instance, here’s an example of a Spanish subjunctive sentence that uses the imperfect subjunctive in a si clause:
Si caminaras por el bosque todos los días, notaría el entorno natural.
In this example, the imperfect subjunctive tense caminaras is used In French you would expect to use less of the imperfect subjunctive tense when having an everyday conversation with friends.
It only really features in journalistic texts or classic novels.
The frequent use of the challenging imperfect subjunctive, in this case, adds to the difficulty of learning the Spanish language.
Spanish – 3, French – 2.
Differences in subject pronoun usage between French and Spanish
With French subject pronouns, your French teacher doesn’t teach you them just to make life difficult!
Au contraire, they teach you subject pronouns because you’ve always got to use them in spoken French or in writing.
And here’s a key difference between French and Spanish language learning — subject pronouns don’t always need to be stated!
If you wanted to say that you walk your dog four times a day in Spanish, you wouldn’t specifically need to use the pronoun “yo”.
When you learn Spanish, you’ll notice that it’s embedded in the conjugated verb pasear.
Here’s how you could say this:
Paseo al perro cuatro veces al día.
It’s a shorter way of saying yo paseo al perro cuatro veces al día, and the “yo” isn’t required.
But, in a similar way to the English language, the French equivalent of the above example always requires the pronoun:
Je promène le chien quatre fois par jour.
Here we’ve got the subject pronoun je at the beginning of the sentence, and if you were to say “you walk the dog four times a day”, this would translate as:
Tu promènes le chien quatre fois par jour.
It’s faster to use a conjugated verb that has the pronoun embedded inside it, but you might find it easier to use the pronoun when speaking, as it helps you avoid conjugation confusion.
If you speak English, this is similar to the use of pronouns in the English language.
Maybe that makes it Spanish – 3, French – 3.
French and Spanish numbers: the key differences
French numbers can be a bit of a challenge, especially when you reach 70 because they follow an irregular pattern.
What that means is telling the time in French is also a challenge.
Some mathematical sums might make counting in French easier or you’ll just have to commit French numbers to memory.
Take a look at the linked article on French numbers to learn all about them.
Spanish numbers tend to be much simpler.
You’ve got regular ones units, regular tens and regular 100s.
Yes, you do have to remember some irregularities in spelling, and you’ve also got to remember that Spanish numbers should agree with the gendered nouns they’re describing, but they follow a pattern and are simpler to remember.
Both use full stops as opposed to commas when you reach the thousands, but French is more challenging.
So, that’s Spanish – 4, French – 3, without a doubt.
French and Spanish punctuation: key differences
I’ll close this post with a quick note on punctuation.
If you’re studying French and your native language is English, there are plenty of similarities to look forward to.
The only thing to be aware of is the space between the last word in your sentence and the punctuation mark that follows it.
If someone’s shouting that “Spanish and French are equally challenging languages!” in written French, the sentence should feature an exclamation mark and a space before it:
L’espagnol et le français sont des langues tout aussi difficiles !
When it comes to the Spanish version of this sentence, you’re going to need another exclamation mark at the beginning.
It will look something like this:
¡El español y el francés son idiomas igualmente difíciles!
Changing this into a question?
Here’s how it would look in French:
L’espagnol et le français sont-ils des langues également difficiles ?
The space is still there – don’t forget it.
But in Spanish, don’t forget the extra question mark:
¿El español y el francés son idiomas igualmente difíciles?
So, I’d say that for an English speaker, with the extra punctuation marks, that makes the difficulty score Spanish – 4, French – 4.
How can you learn French and Spanish simultaneously?
So, what’s the best way to learn these two languages at the same time?
Here are a couple of tips for learning multiple languages and becoming a confident bilingual speaker:
- Flashcards are ideal. Put the English word on the front of the flashcard and its Spanish and French equivalent on the other side. Test yourself regularly and then, when you’ve gained confidence, try using the vocabulary in different sentences.
- Practice verb conjugations in French and Spanish lessons, and consult verb drill exercises, like fill-in-the-blanks, to practice your conjugations. Knowing Spanish and French verbs will help you become fluent.
- If you’ve learned French and Spanish in a class, practice speaking with an expert tutor (see italki). Put your skills into practice and get feedback on your knowledge and weaker areas. Then practice your weaker areas to grow your confidence.
- Listen to podcasts, YouTube videos and audio to tune your ear to the pronunciation of the two languages. French is difficult to pronounce, so learn from the natives and hone your pronunciation by listening. Spanish might be simpler for English speakers, but the trill of the double rr and the double ll sound in some Spanish words might still trip you up!
Practice regularly to learn Spanish and French.
Consolidate your knowledge of the two languages by learning more about each culture so it’s not totally alien to you; learning Spanish and French can be shaped by your cultural knowledge.
You’ll soon become proficient in both Spanish and French, despite their differences as they’re from the same family (they’re both Romance languages).
Any other similarities or differences between Spanish and French that I missed?
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