How Easy it is for French Speakers to Learn Other Romance Languages?
A French speaker who mentions wanting to learn another Romance language will often hear: “That should be easy for you, since you already know French”. It’s true that knowing one Romance language is helpful when learning another. This is due to their proximity to the vernacular Latin speech of the Roman Empire. If you know French, there’s a good chance you will be able to understand the words “¿Cómo?”, “Come?”, “Como?” or “Pardon?”. These versions of “Comment ?” (“Pardon ?” could also be used in similar situations) in the four other major Romance languages illustrate similarities in vocabulary, spelling, and writing in French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian.
There are, on the other hand, certain difficulties that French-speakers might encounter when learning other Romance languages. The writing might be different, as seen in the punctuation and accent marks in the above examples. The pronunciation might also be challenging – both in conversation and when reading from a text. I remember studying Spanish one summer in high school, looking at the final consonants of words, and thinking what a great effort it was to pronounce them, which I normally did not have to do in French. Rhythm might also be difficult, particularly for speakers who are used to placing even stress on syllables within a word. Gender might also be challenging, especially for those learning Romanian, as the latter is the only one of the five mentioned above to have conserved the neuter gender from Latin.
Romance languages developed from Latin, sharing a good proportion of vocabulary, despite phonological changes that occurred in their development. The point at which Romance languages became distinct from their respective varieties of vernacular Latin is placed between the fifth and ninth centuries of the common era, depending on the criteria used to designate this separation, whether this be a historic viewpoint that takes into account the barbarian invasions into the Roman Empire, which hindered communication, or the textual evidence that points to a distinct form of writing. In addition to the languages cited above, Romance languages include a vast number of related languages that are less widely spoken, such as Romansh, which has official status in Switzerland, Catalan, which is the official language of Andorra, and Occitan, which is spoken in France, Italy, Monaco, and Spain. All Romance languages can be traced back to vernacular forms of Latin spoken in the Roman Empire, with few breaks in continuity, and with rich documentation in written texts that illustrates this.
For some people, the proximity of Romance languages to one another actually poses more of a dilemma than a language that is further away linguistically, as it is easy to make certain assumptions about other Romance languages that prove false. From knowing that the word couleur is feminine, a francophone studying Spanish could assume that color is also feminine when it is really masculine. Similarly, the feminine mer in French is the masculine mar in Portuguese. In this case, remembering that -or is a common masculine ending in Spanish and that consonant endings in general tend to be masculine in Portuguese would help. Knowing when to use what you know from French and when to not make any assumptions is a clever way to approach learning another Romance language.
In addition to many vocabulary words that are similar, the grammar of Romance languages also shares many common characteristics. Such characteristics include the use of gender to classify nouns and anything that modifies them, the variety of conjugations for different types of verbs, and the use of tenses that situate actions with precision in different stages of the past, present, or future (we have the future perfect as well as the future tense, and the imperfect as well as the composite past, for example). In addition, there are modes that are used in Romance languages that indicate mood, such as the imperative, the conditional, and the subjunctive. The degree to which these are used in various Romance languages might differ, as with the extensive use of the subjunctive in Italian, but these do have a definite presence that spans Romance languages as a whole.
Along with these conjugations, tenses, and modes, there are similar structures in phrasing that are used across various Romance languages. Let’s compare French with Spanish and Italian in a phrase expressing your liking for flowers that have been offered to you.
“Ces fleurs me plaisent.”
“Me gustan estas flores.”
“Mi piacciono questi fiori.”
All three languages illustrate a structure in which the thing you like is the subject of the sentence – you can compare this to the English “These flowers please me”, but the Romance language versions sound less stilted, and are much more commonly used. The connotation is also slightly different, expressing more a liking for than being served. Note the inversion of subject and verb that appear in the Spanish and Italian versions.
Other differences between French and other Romance languages include the dropping of the subject of a sentence, which isn’t so common in French. Whereas we can respond to an offering of flowers in Spanish by saying “Te quiero”, we would need to say “Je t’aime” in French. This might be due to the fact that so many conjugations sound similar and saying “aime” or “t’aime” would result in confusion over whether or not the subject is je, tu, elle, il, on, elles, or ils, since the conjugations of aimer for all of these subjects sound the same, and even the spelling is the same for four of these.
The vowel sounds in Romance languages tend to be pure, which is different from the gliding that often occurs in a language such as English. A francophone would easily understand and be able to maintain a vowel sound with a single, unchanged value in the Italian word farfalla, for example. The significance of maintaining the purity of vowels for French speakers is illustrated by cases in which different types of the same vowel constitute different phonemes, changing the meaning of the word e.g., le and les, /lә/ and /le/, the singular masculine definite article and the plural feminine or masculine definite article.
Difficulties francophones might have with the phonetic aspect of other Romance languages include syllables that are stressed within words or sentences. French generally gives even stress to all syllables within a word and the change in pitch is gradual within a sentence, rising gently toward the midpoint of a sentence and then falling again at the end. Learning to speak Italian with the rhythms and cadences of a native speaker would take a great amount of repetition and practice, with few written symbols, such as accent marks, as visual cues when reading. Spanish does provide more visual cues in its writing system, such as a variety of frequently used accent marks, but it is important to remember that one stressed syllable alone can change the meaning of a word, as with paso and pasó, the first person singular present indicative and third person singular preterite indicative forms of the verb pasar.
Romance languages use a Latin alphabet, and diacritical marks to distinguish certain sounds that are otherwise represented with the same letter. The twenty-six letters on which the modern Latin alphabet is based have varied over the course of the development of Romance languages from their Latin vernaculars, with the splitting of certain letters into two distinct letters, such as i into i and j, and the joining of others, such as v and v into w, from where we get the French name double v. The French alphabet indeed uses twenty-six letters, whereas Italian uses a base alphabet of twenty-one, the letters j, k, w, x, and y being used for loan words and foreign words. (There are a few exceptions, such as the city of Jesolo, which hosts the City of Jesolo Trophy for qualifying junior and senior gymnasts.) Like French, Romanian uses twenty-six letters, as well as five special letters ă, â, î, ș, and ț that are adapted to its phonetic requirements.
Early Romanian writing used the Cyrillic alphabet, which might be challenging for those who are accustomed to Latin script. The use of the Cyrillic alphabet reflects Romania’s geographic location and cultural Slavic influences. We see examples of Romanian Cyrillic in texts dating from the sixteenth century and it was not until the late eighteenth century that scholars noted the Latin origins of Romanian and adapted the Latin alphabet to Romanian. 1859 saw a transition to broad use of the Latin alphabet with the union of Wallachia and Moldovia, principalities that later became Romania.
When learning other Romance languages, there are just enough similarities to recognize certain sounds, structures, and turns of phrase, so the moments that are inconsistent with French could seem strange, but they are a reminder of the importance of remaining flexible when adapting to new patterns of language, even the ones you already speak, as these continue to develop and change.
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