In the realm of the French language, the distinction between Canadian French and European French is much more than a mere geographic divide; it represents the rich diversity where languages can change and adapt based on cultural and historical contexts.
When businesses, educators, and content creators expand into the French-speaking world, choosing between Canadian French and European French is not just a matter of preference. It is a strategic decision that depends on how well the audience understands the French language and their response to different versions of it.
So let’s look at the various branches of the French language and see which one fits what situation, whether their listeners and readers are in the bustling cities of Europe or the vibrant provinces of Canada.
Quebecois French, the predominant variant in the Quebec province, Canada, has evolved uniquely. Evolving from the French spoken in Paris during the 17th and 18th centuries, this particular French local speech began during the European era of colonization, when French royals sent Parisians to live in “la Nouvelle France” (New France), now modern-day Québec.
French speakers described this variant as more “chantant” (sing-songy), incorporating influences from English and indigenous languages throughout the centuries.
Considered the “French without an accent” for Francophones, this is the variant that most people would acknowledge as the standard for French speakers. It’s also known as the “Parisian French,” despite not every Parisian speaking the same way.
Erin McGann from Lingoda describes Parisian French as “very fast,” often blending and/or swallowing words together in a sentence. Due to its proximity to England, it also tends to use and borrow English words and phrases as a part of the vocabulary. Despite being the “French without the accent,” Metropolitan French used to have a particular accent called “le titi parisien,” once common among those who grew up in some of the poorer neighborhoods of the city.
People in neighboring countries also speak French, not just in their homeland. Belgian French is a variety of the language spoken in the southern parts of the country, near Brussels and other locations called the Wallonia region. Linguistically, Belgium is a captivating location as its citizens can learn three languages: German, Flemish, and French, depending on which part of the country the person is from.
Belgian French differs from Metropolitan (or Standard) French when it comes to pronunciation and vocabulary. This difference is due to the influence of Dutch (which developed into its own unique language, Flemish) in the country.
Another fascinating feature of Belgian French compared to Metropolitan French is its numbering system. People might need to know a little math to say “ninety” (quatre-vingt-dix, four times twenty plus 10) in Standard French, while Belgian French makes it much easier (nonante).
Nevertheless, people from the two regions can still understand each other.
Similar to Belgium, Switzerland is also a land with multiple official languages, French numbering among them. Swiss French is used by around 22.8% of the population, particularly on the western side of the Röstigraben. There is an invisible line dividing the different language regions of the region. Switzerland is a small, landlocked area bordering four other comparatively large countries, which can explain its linguistic diversity.
One defining feature of the variant compared to Metropolitan French is the speed at which it’s spoken. Swiss French uses a “much slower” phase when spoken, unlike Parisian French, as they pronounce syllables more clearly. Vocabulary-wise, Swiss-French also sounds “older,” as it uses words and phrases that modern “standard” French speakers would consider antiquated or obsolete.
Still, like Belgian French, Swiss French is understandable by Metropolitan French speakers, and vice-versa.
Several features of both language varieties set them apart as their own unique tongue.
When the British took over Canada in the 18th century, French speakers in the province of Quebec became isolated from other French speakers. This seclusion caused the Quebecois to retain features from 17th-century French that no longer exist in Metropolitan French.
Canadian French incorporates English words and phrases into its variety, like Parisian French, but in a much larger number. Canadian French also has Aboriginal words in its vocabulary due to the presence of First Nation natives in the area.
Canadian French speakers more often prefer the informal form of the language when speaking, and businesses still use the formal form. The French varieties also use quite different subject and object pronouns (Quebecois “on” vs. Parisian “nous.”). Canadian French also tends to shorten prepositions, for example, saying “s’a” instead of “sur la”.
In terms of pronunciation, Canadian French has a more nasal sound, unlike Metropolitan French. For instance, the “an” in Quebecois sounds like the Parisian word “in.”
Canadian French also retains some of its long pronunciation of vowels, which has disappeared in Metropolitan French. In Metropolitan French, words such as "pâte" and "patte," as well as "maître" and "mettre," sound almost identical. However, this is not the case in spoken Québécois French.
Due to its separation from other French speakers, Canadian French has developed some unique expressions that will sound funny or nonsensical to Metropolitan speakers. These slang and idioms might be the true mark of difference between the two varieties.
For example, the Canadian French word for a girlfriend is “ma blonde,” which might confuse a Metropolitan speaker, especially if you present your girlfriend as having dark-colored hair.
As mentioned, many people widely regard Metropolitan French as the "standard" French form. Schools worldwide typically teach grammar rules, pronunciation, and vocabulary, which French speakers across the European Union generally understand. The question of whether it is sufficient for this audience will depend on the context:
When connecting with French speakers in the EU, consider the Parisian accent. It's the most common, ensuring smooth communication and avoiding potential misunderstandings.
If the topic of communication needs to resonate on a deeper, more personal level, consider using more regional variants. In cases such as traveling, locals would appreciate and better understand attempts to connect using their variety of French.
Professionals prefer Metropolitan French in more formal settings due to its standardized nature. Documents such as legal papers, academic publications, or official communications often require a more formal format.
While French speakers in France and the EU understand Québécois, its informal nature makes it shine in more friendly or relaxed settings. However, depending on the situation, using Canadian French might be more of a faux pas:
Quebecois French isn't just acceptable. People appreciate its raw authenticity and distinctive cultural perspective for literature, cinema, or music compared to other French varieties.
In business and marketing, which audience is the product or service for? In such cases, Metropolitan French is usually more appropriate since using Quebecois French can sometimes lead to misunderstandings or a lack of resonance due to its unique expressions and terminology. Unless, of course, the lack of resonance or the misunderstanding is entirely the campaign's purpose.
Metropolitan French is often preferred in France and the EU, considering its status as the standard form of French used in educational institutions. Canadian French and other varieties of French are often more used in usual, day-to-day conversations.
Choosing between Canadian French and European French can be a journey through rich cultural and historical terrains. Ultimately, the decision to use a particular variant of French should align with the specific goal you have in mind. Is it a business meeting? Are you making a song? Where are you traveling?
Whether it's the standardized swiftness of Metropolitan French, the slow eloquence of Swiss French, the simpler, Dutch-influenced Belgian French, or the distinct flavor of Canadian French, each variant opens doors to unique segments of the Francophone world, enabling more relatable and deeper connections with its native speakers. Understanding when, where, and how to speak French will make you more appealing to French speakers and help you appreciate the language more meaningfully.
Raphaella Funelas is a creative writer who graduated from the University of the Philippines Diliman with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Studies, specializing in Language. She likes learning about anything new in any field, and has pursued that interest through a writing career. She always has an ear on the ground for any exciting topics, and an enthusiasm to share any newfound knowledge through her words.