Students who have learned Spanish before learning French have some extra points of confusion they need to watch out for. However, knowing Spanish before learning French can also be beneficial in some areas. Get some tips for teachers on addressing these issues.
I took three semesters of Spanish in college, so I can often help my students who've taken Spanish with the language differences. Here are five common mistakes or things to watch out for (Section I), and also five things that are the same or similar (Section II). If you don't speak any Spanish, you should still be able to make comparisons to help your students who are more used to speaking Spanish. This includes English speakers who have merely studied a lot of Spanish, along with native speakers. Also, many Americans who don't speak Spanish have been exposed to it enough that they make some of these mistakes.
I. Five Things to Watch out For...
It ain't always the same!
1. Finals E's and S's. Yes, that's two things, but they both come at the end of words. They are treated differently in French, and these two give the most trouble. For example, the final -E without an accent is usually considered mute, but it's more of an [ay] in Spanish (like -é). Also, you pronounce the final -S in Spanish, but it's usually silent in French (one exception is "le tennis").
2. Y for And. Spanish speakers often write "y" for "and" instead of "et" as that's what they've gotten used to doing. I tend to see that a lot when I have them write in French.
3. Subject Pronouns. I always bring up Spanish when we cover subject pronouns, as you can often drop them in Spanish but not in French. Unless you're doing commands (the imperative), of course.
4. Gender of Nouns. Unfortunately, words aren't always the same gender in the different languages that also use gender!
5. Different letters, different ways of saying them... This category includes multiple letters and letter combinations, but here are a few to get you started. (The b/v difficulty won't be as much of a problem for students whose first language is English, but native Spanish speakers will have to practice those sounds more.)
a. The letter -J is often like our -H in Spanish but not in French. I liken the French -J to the -S in the English word "treasure."
b. While the double -L in Spanish is usally like our initial "y" (as in yoga), it can be both the "y" sound or similar and an [l] in French--and there is no easy rule to help remember when it's one or the other (fille [y] / ville [l]).
c. The U in Spanish is the "ou" combination in French (vous, nous...), so students may have trouble with the tighter French U.
d. The "ch" combination in Spanish is like our "ch" in "child" / in French it's [sh].
II. Five Things That Help
Luckily, there are things that are the same or similar, and therefore will help the student to pick up French more easily.
1. Articles. Both Spanish and French use definite and indefinite articles (the/a, an) more than we do in English, so Spanish speakers learning French will already be used to this. At times, the articles are required, even though they may not translate. For example, "J'adore la pizza." can simply be that you love pizza in general, but not necessarily "the pizza" (a specific, already mentioned pizza).
2. Word Order. In many cases, for basic Spanish and French, the word order will be the same or similar. Direct and indirect object pronouns, for example, can be tough for English speakers who haven't studied Spanish, but Spanish speakers understand their before-the-verb placement.
3. Working with Gender. Spanish speakers are already used to the idea of learning and paying attention to grammatical gender. They'll already be aware of different ways it can affect other parts of the sentence (like adjectives, for example), as well. Working with gender with states and countries will also be familier. Unfortunately, the genders won't always be the same in different languages.
NOTE: I recommend encouraging your students to always learn nouns with an "un" or "une" right from the start, so they'll have the gender at hand. At first, it's not as easy to guess the gender of nouns when just beginning with French. Over time, students will pick up the patters, commen endings, etc.
4. Reflexive Verbs. This is especially tough at first for native English speakers who haven't studied a language which uses the reflexive pronouns more. Those who've studied Spanish will be more able to get a hang of how they work. Take parts of the body and verbs for taking care of ourselves, for example. The reflexive pronoun takes the place of the possessive adjective, and the definite article is used before the noun. To beginners, it makes "Je me brosse les dents." seem like "I'm brushing myself the teeth."
5. QU. Luckily, at least the "qu" combination in many words will be the same [k] sound. Even French has its exceptions (words borrowed from other languages, for example). Sometimes, the GU will also be a [g] as in French, but not always.
Of course, practice is key, so encouraging your students to use the language as much as possible is still an important part of teaching a language--as you already know. Remind them that the brain often needs to see and hear things many times before it sticks, but that it eventually will. Yes, it really will! Bonne chance!