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OK, so I'm a native English speaker who learned French as a teenager and I have a friend who is French and learned English as a teenager (so the opposite).

The other day he was telling me how easy English is (in broken English) and how it's so much simpler to learn than French, he even called English "less complex," and said it "lacks sophistication," I'm normally level-headed but that comment made me completely enraged, I didn't even know I had language pride, I speak both, but I probably would have been upset if he was critcizing French. It was just so rude and it all seriously set me off.

Now for the last fews days I've really been wondering if English is actually simpler and "less complex" than French. Can a language be simpler than another especially one that's so similar? I been reading about language complexity and Whorter's thoughts on the topic and I still just do not know. French has a lot of inflections but that isn't only what makes a language complicated, also the English language has changed a lot in the past 50 years, do we included grammar from the past into our current analysis? I don't know?

From my own (probably flawed) personal analysis from both languages:

French verbs can be very difficult. You have to account for gender inflection and verb conjugations which seem to inflect with every pronoun. It starts to feel like math with the ammount of combinations that can be made, one thing that is nice is that French doesn't have as many irregular verbs as English so there is a lot of consistency (just like math.)

English past tense is highly irregular with bizarre conjugations like "sit" and "sat" (Many native English speakers still do not understand the difference between "lay" and "lie" or the difference between things like "hung" and "hanged" (which is actually another word entirely.) and phrasal verbs that you practically need to memorize ("stand in/stand up/stand out" all mean completely different things, "stand up" specifically has multiple meanings.)

French nouns and adjectives conjugate with gender while English adjectives don't (outside of some loan words (fiancé/fiancée) and some remnants of old-English "blond/blonde) which makes the basics of French seem harder. English has more words and synonyms than in French and there seem to be more ways to creatively and specifically express oneself.

I find advanced sentence structures seems to be difficult in English, both have strict and inflexible word order systems but English goes overboard with things like adjective order and the use of when to use articles feels almost random in English.

English has more ways to express possesion ( 'S genitive/Of/Mine) than French.

French's uses reflexive pronouns way more than in English.

(This one may be bias) I have heared better French as second language speakers than English as second language speakers on average. This could be due to a lot of reasons though.

English has a progressive verb tense that French lacks.

Both have difficult subjunctive moods but French's is way more difficult.

Pronouns/prepositions seem to have more compelxity in French but are much harder in context in English, there are so many pronouns in French and they change so often. English's complexity seems to be based on use and deciding the correct context of using a pronoun. It is saddening we still argue about the singular "they" hundreds of years later.

French spelling has its issues but is still much more logical and consistant than English.

English seems to have more ambiguity than French which could be a sign of simplicity (of complexity.)

Both languages have very difficult forms of formality, both are generally pretty similar (light sentence inversion etc.)

I have found that many English as a second language speakers like to flex about how "easy" English is when in reality I personally find that both languages are easy and hard in their own ways.

In terms of learning French is a harder language to start with due to all the gender and conjugations, petty grammar rules and unforgiving learning curve. but I think English is much harder in the later half as it is highly difficult to master and sound native due it's endless ireggularities, rule exceptions, absurd spelling and grammar specifics.

It's truly hard to compare languages as both have many different speakers and dialects as well and it's hard to decide what is truly included in these rankings (Do we use soon-to-be outdated English concepts like "Shall", gendered language etc, or anything in French that breaks away from academie français even if it is popularly used?

Perplexity/complexity and simplicy are very context based and are (maybe?) Subjective. and the difference seems to be all over the place between English and French.

In conclusion, I think English is harder in some areas and French is harder in others. Not sure if there's some actual objective way to prove which language is more complex and difficult (or if it even matters) so should I just ignore it and go on with my day or is he correct... And why is the language's complexity so tied to its worth.

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    Posting as a comment as it doesn't directly address your question, but a more important factor than any difference in complexity between French and English is immersion; a French person typically has far more exposure to English from an early age (through TV, movies, music, politics, and other cultural factors) and more motivation to learn (English being the main international language) than vice versa. A typical Brit learns French only at school. These factors probably go a long way to explaining why your friend thinks English is "easy".
    – JBentley
    Mar 5 at 13:30
  • @JBentley Yes, exactly. You're correct. It's always good to remember that languages don't exist in a bubble. It's hard to accurately compare the difficulty of languages when there is so much context behind their differences. English is a de facto "universal language," so the average french citizens gets way more exposure to English daily than vice-versa. Many English speakers only get French exposure once a week in school, where they learn boring grammar. This can completely affect the persepctive of how easy a language seem in comparison to another. Mar 6 at 15:13

5 Answers 5

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This is a (perhaps surprisingly) complex question. The short answer is that it's a widely-held axiom that no naturally-spoken languages are more or less complex than others, but solid proof of this is lacking.

The earliest mention of this principle I've been able to find comes from Wilhelm von Humboldt in the 1800s, who claimed that "all [languages] contain all that is rigorously needed not only for the correctness, but the perfection of expression". Since then it's gradually spread, reaching the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1955 and now appearing in all the introductory linguistic textbooks I've checked; Chomsky takes this as a tenet of some of his theories (that languages "ought to" have the same budget for markedness even if they spend it in different ways), and that certainly hasn't hurt its popularity. (See Joseph and Newmeyer 2012 for more historical details here.)

A persistent difficulty, though, is defining what exactly "complexity" means. Various studies have tried and generally failed. Shosted 2006 says equal complexity is "a claim that has been, until fairly recently, more a matter of dogma than of science", while Maddieson 2005 suggests that "[s]uch a view seems to be based on the humanistic principle that all languages are to be held in equal esteem and are equally capable of serving the communicative demands placed on them. In rejecting the notion of 'primitive' languages linguists seem to infer that a principle of equal complexity must apply."

Pellegrino et al 2011 conclude that "the assumption of an 'equal overall complexity' is ill-defined" and try to find an alternative. Specifically, they suggest that "[l]anguage is actually a communicative system whose primary function is to transmit information. The unity of all languages is probably to be found in this function, regardless of the different linguistic strategies on which they rely." There are mathematical ways to measure information density, so this is much easier to actually quantify, and indeed Coupé et al 2019 had a striking breakthrough in this regard—they were able to show what Pellegrino et al weren't, that languages do seem to transmit the same amount of information per second, even if they do so in different ways.

But…you've mentioned several things that, intuitively, seem to make a language more complex, and it's easy to see things that cause difficulty for second-language learners. Is information transmission rate really the same thing as complexity? Unclear. Coupé et al's result has been popularly taken as evidence of equal complexity, but studies that try to actually quantify this complexity have generally failed to get decisive results. Studies suggest that infants learn all languages at about the same rate (though I don't have a good citation on hand), but does that actually have anything to do with the complexity of the language? The jury is still out.

Personally, I would say that Coupé et al's information transmission rate results are telling. These results suggest that evolutionary pressures push all languages to transmit information at the optimal rate for the communication channel they use. I suspect if there were really dramatic differences in complexity between languages, these same evolutionary pressures would smooth them out—after all, languages need to be learned in order to be used. But without a good, quantitative measure of "complexity", it's hard to actually put these claims to the test.

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    It's hard to take any claims about language complexity seriously when nearly all the ones I've ever seen seem to have some serious racist undertones.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 5 at 7:46
  • @curiousdannii It’s also especially difficult because few people can escape the bias inherent in their own understandings of language based on their native language. Verb indirection is probably my favorite example of this, to the native speakers of languages that include it as an inherent part of their grammar (such as Hindi and Finnish) that I know, the English requirement for periphrasis to express the same concept seems unnecessarily complex, while most native English speakers I know feel the exact opposite. Mar 5 at 12:55
  • I really enjoyed this analysis. It is incredibly difficult to define complexity let alone compare it so I will definitely try to stop worrying about it for the time being. It is a fascinating subject though that one can think about forever (for example: If languages are more complex than others then does that affect intelligence or expression etc.) Mar 6 at 15:16
  • @curiousdannii Yes, it is strange how these language debates seem to resort to dominance contests that dip into xenophobia/racism territories. I wish we had more research on language pride and how it relates to our identity. Mar 6 at 15:18
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Also the English language has changed a lot in the past 50 years, do we included grammar from the past into our current analysis? I don't know?

Enlgish has not changed much in a fundamental way in the last 50 years (what language has?). It has some new words and some influence from substrates such as AAVE that aren't yet widely accepted as standard. But anyway, no need to complicate the analysis by including historical versions of the languages. :)

French verbs can be very difficult. You have to account for gender inflection and verb conjugations which seem to inflect with every pronoun.

You don't have to account for gender in French verbs, except for participles probably 5% of the time (90% of all statistics being made up on the spot). But yes, you do have to account for number and, in the plurals, you have to account for person. Most verbs have 4 audibly different forms: singular and 1st, 2nd, 3rd person plural.

one thing that is nice is that French doesn't have as many irregular verbs as English so there is a lot of consistency

English irregulars are not very irregular. Usually they have different past participle and/or preterite (e.g. drive/drove/driven). French irregulars tend to obscure the original form, which can be hard for learners, but there are certainly patterns (e.g. in the classic pouvoir/vouloir/devoir series). Funny enough, English and French each have two suppletive verbs and they have parallel meanings: go and be in English and aller and être in French.

English past tense is highly irregular with bizarre conjugations like "sit" and "sat"

Arguably not more bizarre than pouvoir / pu. But it should be noted that in both languages, these are a tiny minority of the verbs.

phrasal verbs that you practically need to memorize ("stand in/stand up/stand out" all mean completely different things, "stand up" specifically has multiple meanings.)

This is a good point; English prepositions do a lot of work. While both languages are very particular about which prepositions are most natural, in English there's a much greater risk of them dramatically changing the meaning.

French nouns and adjectives conjugate with gender while English adjectives don't

One might argue that as long as a language has any agreement, its complexity is at a certain level. English actually has more genders (3) than French (2). But we apply them to very few words; just about all inanimate nouns are neuter. This makes the memorization burden much greater in French.

As Draconis pointed out, one has to define complexity before one can know whether "I have to memorize the gender of 20,000 words, or at very least a dozen endings that allow me to predict most words" makes the language itself more complex; but I would argue that it does add quite a lot to the list of things a non-native speaker has to acquire.

One remark to make in response is that a mistake in gender almost never changes the meaning, whereas number does. Number agreement is present in both English and French, but is actually not marked in spoken French most of the time. That this presents a difficulty can be seen in the fact that French speakers who learn English frequently make mistakes in number.

That also raises a core question about complexity. Which is more complex: If a language has two different forms for two different concepts, requiring the speaker to know how to use both? Or if a language has only one form, requiring the listener to deal with the ambiguity? Is the fact that je serai and je serais are pronounced the same a help or a hindrance to learners of French?

English has more words and synonyms than in French and there seem to be more ways to creatively and specifically express oneself.

Indeed, English has a much larger vocabulary by standard counts. While one can easily communicate with a subset of either language, this variety can make reading more of a challenge.

I find advanced sentence structures seems to be difficult in English, both have strict and inflexible word order systems but English goes overboard with things like adjective order and the use of when to use articles feels almost random in English.

Most of the syntax is surprisingly parallel. Adjective order is not more complex in either language, to my knowledge. One thing that's used more often by English speakers than by French speakers is the passive voice.

I agree that articles can be pretty difficult in English, and like prepositions, they can change the meaning in interesting ways. For example, in French, « Les ours grondent » serves equally well for a statement about particular bears and for bears in general. But in English you need to express these differently: "The bears are growling" vs. "Bears growl". A French speaker in our French SE chatroom remarks that knowing when to use the zero-article in English is a challenge.

English has more ways to express possesion ( 'S genitive/Of/Mine) than French.

True, and we can construct some quite difficult phrases (not always universally accepted), such as "the king of England's territory" where a learner might perceive ambiguity in parsing. That said, you can construct similar phrases in French.

French's uses reflexive pronouns way more than in English.

Real semantic reflexives (translatable by "self") are probably about as common in both languages. But French has a lot of pronominal verbs like se rendre or s'en aller. This is another case where it's not really more complex, because the pronoun is just built into the lexical item like any other verb to a French speaker, but at the same time it poses a problem for learners because the analysis is harder.

(This one may be bias) I have heared better French as second language speakers than English as second language speakers on average. This could be due to a lot of reasons though.

Yeah, that probably is bias. How much more likely are we to notice errors in people speaking our native language than in people speaking our second language?

Also, I find that most native speakers place a lot of weight on accent in their evaluation of someone else's skill, even though accent is a tiny part of learning a language (that is, producing the sounds just right; you certainly have to be able to distinguish them). Accent is also one of the hardest things to perfect and one of the easiest things to be oblivious to in your second language. It takes almost no time for a native speaker to judge someone non-native because of tiny differences in articulation.

English has a progressive verb tense that French lacks.

Yeah, and this also visible in the example with "The bears are growling" vs. "Bears growl". On the other hand, French can insist on progressive aspect with « être en train de » or « en ce moment », which are pretty easy to use, and the English rules for using and conjugating progressive are also easy to explain. (Meanwhile, the difference in meaning between imparfait and passé composé is nigh impossible to pin down!)

Both have difficult subjunctive moods but French's is way more difficult.

Orally it's not too bad. For most verbs, just pronounce the final consonant for je/tu/il or insert an "i" into nous/vous. But combined with other tenses you can get some very difficult ones (which French speakers themselves don't always employ perfectly), such as eusse + participe passé. Also, the English subjunctive is in much greater danger of disappearance. So I think this is more of a challenge in French.

there are so many pronouns in French and they change so often

Another case (no pun intended) where we do at least have the foundations of the distinction being made: he/him vs. il/le/lui and so forth. French does have more unique forms, but the total is still fairly low. I find that after a year, students are more tripped up by the sentence order of pronouns than by the choice of pronoun.

French spelling has its issues but is still much more logical and consistant than English.

Yes, French spelling is much more regular, although English speakers have a hard time with all the silent letters. English is not as bad as people think, as for example in Shaw's "ghoti" joke which only works as a joke because its point is wrong (we all know it can't be pronounced as he says, and we know that because English is regular). The worst thing in English is not cough/through/bough, which are very much a finite and memorizable set, but multi-character vowels with ambiguous readings, like tear/tear/fear/bear, read/read/bead/bread and so on. Extremely few French words or combinations of letters have unpredictable pronunciations; the exceptions, like fils, tous, est, ville, are just that, exceptions.

Both languages have very difficult forms of formality, both are generally pretty similar (light sentence inversion etc.)

Notably, we don't have a tu/vous distinction, which affects a lot of things in every sentence. Remembering to call someone "Mr. Lastname" is technically easier than switching between tu/vous. This is more of a cultural thing, though; a culture could come up with any number of complex ways to use its language to express formality.

the difference seems to be all over the place between English and French.

Yup.

I have found that many English as a second language speakers like to flex about how "easy" English is when in reality I personally find that both languages are easy and hard in their own ways. In terms of learning French is a harder language to start with

This is probably true. To add to Draconis' answer, I think that while we can theoretically argue about the complexity of a language till the cows come home, the question of how hard a language is to learn is easier to answer — if only because Western culture has given us a rich corpus of language tests that provide the criteria for us! But yes, linguists tend to concede that there are differences in ease of acquisition of a given target language based on which source language you're coming from.

And why is the language's complexity so tied to its worth.

Good question, with the possibility of a deep and broad answer looking into attitudes towards language superiority dating from the 16th century onward in the West. The question of expressivity, poeticness, regularity, subtlety, sophistication, etc. has been endlessly asked, and the answer is always subjective and almost always motivated by politics.

This is my own perception as a non-native speaker of French, but: One thing unique to French is that it is one of the most normative languages in the world. If a language is a dialect with an army and a navy, French has a nuclear arsenal protecting it. It has the Académie française; it has draconian language laws in Canada (where restaurant owners have been known to be legally forced to write "poisson cru" instead of "sushi"); it has the organization of the Francophonie; it has comparison to « la langue de Molière », whereas we English speakers don't compare ourselves with Shakespeare when evaluating our eloquence...

The culture of France and many former colonies has been imbued with the idea of the language's perfection and the need to keep it so. What's incredible is how much impact it has in people's self-correction and social correction. While English speakers have similar prescriptivist thoughts, e.g. in Johnson's preface to his dictionary, we don't tend to reach for "sophisticated" as the first way to describe our language (we'd probably prefer "expressive"), and many people regard those who make it their duty to correct others not as people saving the language, but as "grammar Nazis" (to use an outdated term). This difference is corroborated by the Francophone jlliagre's answer.

Similarly, the many accents of England are celebrated as part of its charm (cf. Pygmalion) whereas the Académie worked hard to stamp out the various « patois » of France.

Both languages have plenty of pedants, but French culture normalizes the idea of a correct language in a way that, I think, reaches the average person more deeply than English culture does for us. This probably contributes to your friend's sense that he can get along fine in his broken English, while even minor mistakes in French are flagrant offences.

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  • Not sure about je serai versus je serais because usually the co-text will reveal whether a meaning is future or conditional, won't it? I do think that that normalizing function in French is changing...
    – Lambie
    Mar 5 at 19:51
  • @Lambie Agreed about context. Still, there must be the occasional ambiguous one (if not for that pair, then for some pair of homophones). I was just thinking of Notre-Dame de Paris, the version by Luc Plamondon, where Esmeralda defies Frollo by saying « Dans une heure, je serai bien ! » and one wonders whether she means because Phoebus is coming to save her or if Phoebus were coming to save her. But admittedly even there, the previous sentence is « Dans une heure, tu seras morte » ... :) Mar 5 at 20:04
  • Thank you for your response, this was a fun read. Now I wish I rewrote my post, there is so much I want to change now: like how I totally ignored gender in English and all its nuances/How I made a big deal out of irregular verbs/ and how I went on about how complicated French pronouns were (When English pronouns are equally just as complicated, there has been a centuries long fight over the singular "they.") But thank you, your post was quite informative and helpful Mar 6 at 15:47
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    "That also raises a core question about complexity. Which is more complex: If a language has two different forms for two different concepts, requiring the speaker to know how to use both? Or if a language has only one form, requiring the listener to deal with the ambiguity? Is the fact that je serai and je serais are pronounced the same a help or a hindrance to learners of French?" Interesting. I have actually thought about this concept a lot before. It is a highly interesting question. Mar 6 at 15:49
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Having read the other answers, I hardly dare to add my own one, but perhaps I can offer my perspective as a lay-person.

Coming from a Danish background, I have learnt (or been exposed heavily to) German, English and French in school, and to me English seems by far the messiest. Yes, German and French grammar are daunting at first, but once you get over that hurdle, things are mostly reasonably logical; English, on the other hand, appears to be a collision between at least two languages, which is why you have 'ox' (from Anglo-Saxon) vs 'beef' (from French) etc, and I suspect the middle- to upper classes have relished in importing words and expressions from the colonies of the empire too.

All in all, I think English is in fact a really complex language - it is easy to learn the basics, because it has become the default language of most international communication, but getting near to native fluency is really not easy, and probably a lot harder than doing the same in French.

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  • Yes, I've heard French compared to math (A lot of the language feels like pluggin in numbers for an equation. And math is hard for many so this is still difficult.) English doesn't feel that consistent enough for that comparison, though, sometimes its rules feel so completely random. So both are difficult just in their own ways. Great post. Mar 6 at 15:59
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    That's my opinion of English, too, as a native speaker and a linguist. It's a hot mess. I've never been exposed to French, so can't comment, but it's certainly true that US English speakers never are exposed to real French speech; only written French, which will get you nowhere when speaking. Having taught ESL for 6 years at the beginning of my career, I'm well aware of how hard it is to navigate the arbitrary shoals of the lexicon. OK, there's no endings; but you never know what words to choose.
    – jlawler
    Mar 6 at 18:49
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I'll add a controversial opinion (just to hear people's thoughts). I think it's clear that some languages can be more complex than others, as demonstrated by the extremes of artificially constructed languages.

The basics of Esperanto can be learned in an afternoon – a week is easily enough to read fairly fluently, especially if you're allowed to look up vocabulary. On the other hand, Lojban would take considerable practice to read even close to fluently – it simply has more rules.

As @Draconis' wonderful answer explains, the exact definition of complexity makes answering this question hard, but I'd suggest that any definition of complexity that ranks Esperanto equal to Lojban (or other complex constructed languages, like Ithkuil) fails the common sense test.

That being said, how does this apply to real-world, natural languages? I'm not sure it does, completely. I personally think that the reason that it's so hard to define and study complexity between langauges is because natural languages evolve over time, all approaching some "optimal complexity" to optimize communication. If all natural languages are close in complexity, very few definitions of complexity will provide much insight, and it's easier (and less problematic in terms of racism) to admit that no language is meaningfully more complex than any other – and certainly not better or more elegant. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, in this case.

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  • Just like a pidgin, any conlang which is used productively by a speech community will undergo a process akin to creolisation, and will no doubt adjust in complexity.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 6 at 2:40
  • Yeah, it's very hard to apply it to real world languages. English and French are always evolving. They are so similar and so different too that It feels near impossible to give an actual analysis of the complexities that one has over the other. Mar 6 at 15:56
  • @curiousdannii I agree! On the other hand, the fact that the complexity would adjust over time suggests to me that the answer can't be that all languages are equally complex, but that any overly or underly complex features will be adjusted over time to match human communication, making actually measuring any differences between natural languages impossible, or perhaps just extremely difficult.
    – Numeri
    Mar 7 at 3:05
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One of the reasons French might be perceived to be more complex than English by a French person is the differing attitudes of native speakers of either languages when faced with non-native speakers trying to speak the other language.

Native English speakers are often very lenient when hearing broken English and rarely comment as long as they get most of what is being said. When I asked friends about it, I was told they do not react because they believe it would be rude to do so. Another reason might be there are so many non-native people speaking English that their ears are accustomed to this diversity.

On the other hand, French-speaking people, especially those who come from France, do not hesitate to correct what has been said by non-native speakers (even sometimes by native ones from other countries) and do not consider it to be rude. They (we) just believe we are doing them a favor by helping them to improve their French.

As you noted in your question, it was somewhat paradoxical that your friend said English was less complex than French in broken English. He probably believes he speaks better English than he actually does because nobody tells him the truth...

PS: Feel free to correct my broken English!

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    Tangentially related — just the other day a student told me about a family friend who speaks Canadian French and was visting Paris. He was speaking with a stranger and, intrigued by the accent, asked the man if he was from France or not. The man turned away huffily and said, « En tout cas il est évident que vous ne l'êtes pas ! » Mar 5 at 16:52
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    @LukeSawczak Looks like that person felt offended by the question, but yes, glottophobia is unfortunately typical in France. At least, the stranger's answer wasn't Qu'est-ce que ça peut te foutre ?
    – jlliagre
    Mar 5 at 21:18
  • My friend has a bad case of "dunning-kreuger" effect Mar 6 at 15:53

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