Debunking Some Myths
Let's pretend for a moment that you don't speak English. Who would you pick to teach you (let's use some wild stereotypes to paint a picture of the extremes): a pearl and diamond wearing lady from Oxford, a tattooed man from the Bronx, a blonde dude from Australia or a cute Irish lass with a leprechaun hat on her profile? Do you think that it's going to impact the way you will sound?
Lots of people say "at my level, it doesn't matter where my French teacher is from." This line of thinking implies that, because the student can't hear accents yet, they will be immune to them. With this misguided thought we can end up with a student who wants to immigrate to Canada speaking with a Marseille accent, while another might develop a rather exotic accent when all they want is to blend into Paris.
Other people seem to believe that because they only learn from written sources, they cannot possibly pick up an accent. Again, this is wrong. This is because accents are not just about how we pronounce things; they are also about what word we choose from the ocean of synonyms. Let me give you an example with the English language. Do you say "lift" or "elevator"? Do you wear “trousers” or “pants”? The same divisions exist in French. For example, because I was born in Canada, my house usually comes with un salon (a living room), while my colleagues from France usually have une salle de séjour. Even benign words can be geographically challenged!
Now, here are some truths about the French language:
Truth # 1: There is no such thing as "standard French."
I've heard the expression "real French" many times, and to be honest, those two words are like daggers to me. While I’d wager a bet that it would rub any French speaker born outside of France the wrong way, it's especially true for the Quebecois (pronounced [KAY-BAY-KWA]). This group of people are the inhabitants of Quebec, Canada, of which I am one.
Truth # 2: Nobody speaks like they do in classic books.
Truth # 3: Normal people don't sound like they have memorised a dictionary either.
There is huge gap between formal French (as taught in school) and informal French (as spoken in the school playground). Even informal French varies massively according to factors such as:
- Geography (both around the globe, as well as within France itself)
- Level of education (doctorate student vs. high school dropout)
- Social class
- Mobility (exposure to accents within a country and abroad. Remember: people who never move have the strongest accents).
- Generation (cool teenagers vs. pensioners. Obviously, these two groups might express themselves differently).
When you think about it, you realise it's just a mess.
Truth # 4: What is "cool" here (vocabulary-wise) is probably perceived as just "plain weird" in other places.
Truth # 5: Picking up an accent happens really quickly and it's hard work to "correct it" (should you want to) later.
Now, I don't think it's a fatal mistake to learn from a teacher that doesn’t come from your target country. I, for one, learned a lot of English while watching The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and my English "ain't so bad," even though my British husband might have preferred it if I hadn't. I just think it's important to be aware of the differences early on, so that you can make an informed decision before it is "too late."
On the Origin of Accents
Why do we have pronunciation variation across the globe? Some of it is because people chose to colonise faraway lands and so they weren’t able to keep close contact for centuries. Others suggest that it was the original blend of people that created the particular local “twang.”
In the case of the Quebecois, it all started in the 16th century, when select groups of adventurous men were sent to Canada. I was not able to find out who they were (and admittedly, lots of them died shortly after arriving), but we have records of 800 girls (aged 12 to 25) who were sent between 1663 and 1673 to boost the local population. They were nicknamed the "King's Daughters" (as their trip was paid for by Louis XIV). It is believed that they were mostly from urban regions: 50% from Paris, 16% from Normandy and 13% from Western regions.
The rest came from other European countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom and Portugal (one can speculate that they probably didn't speak French when they left). It's also worth noting that some men married Native American women. Anyway, this motley crew was then left pretty much to their own devices until France lost Quebec to England in 1759 in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. In a nutshell, that's how it all started.
But why do we still have accents today, despite television and internet allowing us to communicate instantly with the entire French speaking community (called the Francophonie)? Part of it is because there is not actually that much of a language exchange going on. Canada does not import many TV series/films from France (they prefer American ones) and France does not import many things from Quebec (apart from a handful of singers who ditched their native accents in a bid to get global success, alienating potential fans in Quebec in the process).
From what I can see, French has not yet begun to standardize itself. On the contrary, French speakers now write books "like they speak," ignoring grammar rules for an "authentic" style. My guess is that this is done in the name of a search for “Truth” (a sort of “Identity Quest” if you will, partly prompted by mass immigration) and a dislike of what is perceived as phoniness. But this is just my own speculation.
French speakers from all around the globe use the same dictionaries because, after all is said and done, Quebecois is not its own language. My favourite dictionary is available online, and it’s called le Larousse.
For verb tenses, I like to use Ortholud.com. And for those of you who are interested in Canadian slang, you might like this unofficial glossary.
In France, good French language practices are decided by l’Académie Française (and its forty members, known as "Immortals"). In Quebec, we rely exclusively on the Office québécois de la langue française (Look out for the Grand dictionnaire terminologique tool on their page).
Keep in mind that all French speakers are influenced by their neighbours. For example, French from France has picked up the Spanish "Si!" (meaning "yes") and it is used to say "but yes!". The Quebecois, on the other hand, have picked up some Native American words such maringouin (meaning "mosquito").
English words have also slipped into the language both in France and Quebec. However, the two regions do not use the same words! For example, it's not rare to to hear the words "challenge," "email," "parking" and "shopping" in France, while in Quebec we have imported concepts like "toaster," "switch" and pretty much every word related to car parts. Be aware of these differences as some English words are frowned upon in other parts of the Francophonie. For example, don't use the word "challenge" with me: it's défi and nothing else, and I don't care if the English word has been accepted into the French dictionary (Languages can be emotional subjects and not every stance makes sense. Anyway, moving on...).
Another interesting thing to note is how these English words are pronounced. In France, there is little effort to stick to the original pronunciation. One time, I heard a French couple ordering chicken in the US: they asked for [SHI-KAn]. The Quebecois, on the other hand, find it cooler and a bit more "manly" to make an effort to mimic the English accent as best they can. By the way, both people from France and Quebec struggle with the English letter H, but that's hardly news.
Spotting the Differences
Pronunciation-wise, I find French from France to be more "stressed" (the inside of the mouth is rounder and more pouty) and Québécois to be more "relaxed." However, that could just be because one is natural for me, while the other requires a conscious effort on my part. Right or wrong, it has been said that the French spoken in Canada sounds more like the medieval peasant French from France and that the French from France sound more snobbish (aaaand moving on again...).
However, it’s in the vowels where differences are more noticeable. The tell-tale syllable is in. It's more nasal and elongated in Québécois. In the French from France, I find it softer and (dare I say it) cuter. For example, vin (wine) is pronounced [VAaaain] in Quebec and [VAn] in France. I aim for a compromise between the two.
The sound en (or an), on the other hand, is also a bit different. I'd say that in France, the mouth is stretched vertically (in an exaggerated O) with a lot of pinching at the lips, while the sound is stretched horizontally in Quebec (in a wide flat grin). I'm sorry if that sounds bonkers.
Another sound that stands out is un. That's even harder to explain. To me, the French pronounce the word “brun” as [BRAn], whereas Quebecois stick more to the spelling (but that's just my humble opinion).
Due to these basic differences, students will subconsciously pick up their teachers accents, even in the early stages of their learning.
Vocabulary-wise, I could teach you a long list of words used only in Quebec, but what I find most interesting are the words that do not have the same meaning within the French community. For example, a bleuet is a cornflower in France and a blueberry in Quebec. Another funny one is gosse. In France, in means "a kid." In Quebec, it means "a testicle."
However, the thing that confuses the most people are the names of the daily meals. In France, they have un petit déjeuner in the morning, un déjeuner at lunch time and un dîner in the evening. In Quebec, we start with un déjeuner, we then have a un dîner at mid-day and we finish with un souper (at about 5 o'clock in my case). Just as an aside, eating times in France drive me mad! No, I don't want to sip a beer at the bar until 8 pm, thank you very much!
Expressions (idioms and such) can also vary massively. A whole book could be written about that. In fact, many have attempted to write one. I, personally, have only read Parlure et Parlotte québécoises illustrées by Brigitte Ostiguy, which was OK. However, I can't vouch for the others.
Interestingly, swear words are quite different too. France likes to talk about sex, and putain, meaning whore, is a common naughty word. On the other hand, Canada prefers to talk about blasphemy in its swear words. Câlisse is one example. This word is a bastardisation of calice ("chalice" in English), which is a vessel used for communion in church.
Now, this little guided tour is nearly over. However, before I finish, I would like to stress that this subject is highly sensitive and can even be controversial. Many times, I felt hurt by a student's ignorance (which was perceived as insensitive) on the subject of "standard French." As a result, I have tried very hard to draw what I perceived to be a realistic and fair portrait. However, if I've hurt anyone in the process, I do apologise. I also apologise for not writing more about the rest of the French speaking world and about the 2.8 million French speakers spread throughout Canada who get even less recognition than the Quebecois (other writers, please fill in the blanks!) Finally, please keep in mind that this portrait is a bit one-sided, as I didn't ask any French speakers from France to contribute to it either.
Comments are most welcome, but please remember that this is not an invitation to start a war. If you felt that this text was enlightening, please hit the *like* button before you leave.
- Hero Image by Nicolas Raymond (CC BY 2.0)
- All other images by the author