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I'm an American graduate student in international relations, and I would like to study French for professional reasons. I am nearly fluent in both Spanish and Portuguese, and I've studied Polish as well. I'm wondering what is the best strategy for me to learn French, given I know two other romance languages? Any recommendations? I assume that the spelling and pronunciation will be very different but the grammar should be extremely similar.

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In their overall system and structure, French, Spanish, Portuguese etc are essentially "variants on a theme". So, they have ostensibly the same verb system, similar ranges of affixes to derive new words, similar grammar in terms of the "broader picture"-- so e.g. in all of these languages, adjectives and nouns, but not verbs, are marked for gender; they all have a system of clitics, in which verbal objects are marked by putting specially "prefixes" before the verb etc. (In the case of Polish, as you'll probably appreciate, the "brush strokes" are a bit broader.)

So you may well find that you are able to read through a grammar of French and understand things more quickly because you recognise elements of Spanish and Portuguese.

It's important to realise that in some of the broad brush strokes and in many of the details, there are still a huge number of differences, though. For example, just to name a few between Spanish and French:

- French is not "pro drop", i.e. subject of the verb must usually be expressed (Spanish "viene", vs French "il vient", "elle vient" etc)

- many cases where Spanish allows a "bare" noun whereas French requires an article (Spanish "Alemania" vs French "l'Allemagne"; Spanish "hay libros" vs French "il y a des livres")

- in Spanish, the preterite and past subjunctive are normal, productive forms; in French, they are all but obsolete

- French does systematically mark progressive forms (as in "lo hago" vs "lo estoy haciendo"), though of course it has other structures to convey this difference where necessary

- while gender is stable on the whole between the two languages, there have been some shifts, particularly a series of nouns ending in "-eur" (Spanish -or) that denote abstract concepts that have shifted to feminine in French (e.g. "el valor" > "la valeur")

- French has not had regular spelling reforms like Spanish, so that the relationship between spelling and sound has become more more indirect, including notably many instances of "silent" letters in French

There are also cases where lexical differences have emerged (shifts in meaning between the two languages, words which have merged in one language but not the other, shifts in gender/suffix etc) that can be confusing, for example:

- "salir" means 'to leave, go out' in Spanish, but means 'to dirty' in French

- "partir" means 'to leave' or 'to split' in Spanish, but only retains the meaning of 'to leave' in French

- you might expect French "halte" (feminine) to be equivalent of Spanish "alta" (feminine), but it is actually equivalent of Spanish "alto" (masculine)

- "existir" is an -ir verb in Spanish, but not French ("exister"; in general, the -re and -ir paradigms have become much less productive more quickly in French compared to the -er and -ir paradigms in Spanish)

Now, extrapolate these few examples to the hundreds at least that you will come across as you are learning French and you'll hopefully see that the "broad system" will help you to learn French more rapidly, but that you won't be able to just "automatically" most Spanish grammar to French without taking into account a huge number of awkward details.


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