By Hagen Weiss
While the French and their French-Canadian cousins speak the same language, the differences in accent and vocabulary are so flagrant that, to an external ear, they sometimes sound unrelated.
Why Is French Canadian Spoken in Canada?
The French language made its way to Canada when Jacques Cartier first claimed the land in 1534, and more definitively when the first permanent settlers traveled from Paris to the province of Quebec, or what was then called New France, in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Over the years, the language has developed to become its own dialect, Canadian French, strongly influenced by its melting pot of cultures and proximity to English-speaking communities.
Where Is French Canadian Spoken in Canada?
Canada has two official languages: French and English. However, French is mostly spoken in the province of Québec, where more than 85% of the population is French-speaking (while 21% of Canadians have French as their mother tongue) and where French is the official language. For that reason, this is the “Canadian French” that we will be discussing in this article.
There are also other French-speaking communities throughout Canada, mostly in New Brunswick (Acadian French), where it is the mother tongue of 32% of the population, but also in Ontario (Franco-Ontarian) and Manitoba, as well as in smaller pockets of Alberta, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and Saskatchewan.
Major Differences between French Canadian and French
Accent & Pronunciation
That’s a given: as with every language that is spoken in more than one country, there is a variety of French accents (even in Canada, from one region to the next).
Some would say that the French, especially Parisians, have the purest accent and, for someone that has learned French as a second language, this would probably hold true, as it is often easier to understand.
However, Quebecers would certainly take offense at such a statement, as Americans would if they were told that the British have a superior accent. French speakers in Quebec do tend to not pronounce words as distinctively as the French do, often merging pronouns and verbs, which makes the comprehension of their spoken French more challenging for non-native speakers and can take some getting used to.
This is usually where translation mistakes are made – and why you should do business with a translation agency that is familiar with the differences between French and Canadian French.
A Frenchman would have trouble understanding what you mean by “je suis tanné”, a popular Québec expression which means that you’ve had enough of something and that would instead read as “j’en ai marre” in France.
Same goes for “ma blonde”, which is frequently used in Québec and translates as “my girlfriend” – in France, one would say “ma copine” or “ma petite amie”.
There are hundreds of examples such as these which can cause some confused faces when visiting each other’s countries.
Verbs & Vocabulary
While French speakers from both countries will most of the time have no problem understanding each other, some commonly used words do differ.
For example, a cellphone in France is referred to as a “portable” while it is a “cellulaire” in Canada, a birthday is an “anniversaire” in France and a “fête” in Canada, and an email is also an “email” in France but a “courriel” in Canadian French.
Some goes for verbs; surprisingly enough, French from France sometimes uses the English versions of verbs that have been translated and adapted in Quebec French.
For example, “I’m going shopping” would be “Je vais faire du shopping” in France and “Je vais magasiner” in Canada – magasiner is a verb that simply does not exist in France.
Which French Should You Choose for Your Translation?
Unless you are targeting a specific audience, we usually recommend using what we refer to as a “neutral” French when translating more standard or formal documents (corporate documentation, information booklets, technical specifications, etc.).
As a general rule, written French, including grammatical rules, sentence structure, and vocabulary, in both countries is pretty much the same, except for a few local expressions that can easily be avoided. That is because “standard” French is taught in schools and universities across both countries, basically rendering a French textbook indiscernible from a French-Canadian one, and is used in governmental, corporate, and official publications.
However, if the text that needs to be translated specifically targets a French (France) or French (Canada) audience and that the dialogue or information contained is more informal in nature, we would suggest translating and localizing the project for that specific market. This is typically the case for video games or apps, for example, which are usually written in a more conversational manner and tend to incorporate local slang to better engage with the end-users. That is actually common practice when it comes to subtitles in most famous Hollywood movies; a French-speaking viewer usually has the option to choose between French (France) and French (Canada) subtitles.
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