“Regarde cette vidéo!” (Watch this video!) a friend from Quebec told me, holding up her phone. “Tu vas rire!” (You’re going to laugh!)
But I didn’t laugh. I didn’t understand a word of what was being said, even though the people on the screen were speaking French. The problem was, they weren’t speaking the French I’m familiar with.
Most of us learn what’s called standard or metropolitan French – that is, essentially, French as it’s spoken in Paris. But there are countries and regions around the world that consider French an official language. The accents and vocabulary from these places can come up in surprising ways, as my friend from Quebec inadvertently reminded me.
How many countries speak French?
Often, we’re so busy learning a language that we don’t really pay attention to who’s speaking it. Although most of us learn standard French and tend to focus our cultural studies, reading, etc., on French-based media, French is the fourth-most spoken language in the world. There are French-speakers on every continent.
With most of us being focused on France, what might be the most surprising thing you learn about French is that there are more French-speakers in Africa than in Europe (France included). If you look at individual countries, Democratic Republic of the Congo has a larger Francophone population than France itself.
Of course, as this fascinating source point outs, in many places where French is spoken, it may be a second language or lingua franca.
Still, these forms of French are part of everyday life for millions of people.
Twenty-nine countries consider French an official language. Here’s a handy list of them, in order of population of French-speakers:
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Central African Republic
Additionally, there are eleven territories, dependencies, and regions whose official language is French:
Wallis and Futuna
Saint-Pierre and Miquelon
Add to these lists places whose official language is not French, but where there is a significant population of French speakers – for example, the various speakers of French dialects in the United States, or French speakers in certain regions of India.
How did French spread around the world?
Some countries, like Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland, speak French essentially because of spillover; their borders with France weren’t always fixed. Other places, like Quebec, had a large number of French settlers a few centuries ago.
Other French-speaking countries, on the other hand, got that way for a sadder reason: The French or Belgians took over their territories and colonized them. This is the case for African French-speaking countries, as well as island territories like New Caledonia.
Why are there different French accents?
French is a Romance language (i.e.derived from Latin), with influences from early languages spoken there, like Gaulish and Frankish.
Although French became the official administrative language of the country in 1539, common people didn’t just give up their local dialects. Amazingly, it’s estimated that just before the French Revolution (1789), only a quarter of the French population spoke standard French – even though by then, this language was spoken in royal courts throughout Europe!
That’s why in France today, you’ll encounter accents like the famous ones from Marseilles and the north of France. Those with a delicate ear will also pick up on more subtle differences. For example, my in-laws are originally from the north of France and often talk about the Charentais accent, which they hear where they live now. I personally have a much harder time picking up on the latter.
How different are French accents in France?
Although it wasn’t the case until recent centuries, unless someone has a very thick local accent or is using a lot of words exclusive to their dialect, it’s easy for French people to understand each other.
Still, accents within France itself can be very distinctive and may cause at least a little confusion from time to time if someone isn’t used to them. For example, this summer we were traveling with my French husband’s family. One of them is a little three-year-old named Aurelien. One night, a woman with a very heavy southern French accent was introduced to him and said, “Bonjour Aurelien”. Aurelien looked confused. “No,” he told her, “my name is Aurelien, not Aureli-ing!” Although we adults knew that people in the south of France tend to add a “g” to the nasal “-en” at the end of a word, little Aurelien obviously did not.
You can watch this video to get a good idea of what the different French accents in France sound like.
What are the differences between the types of French?
As you now know, there are many different accents and dialects of French in the world. Since this is a relatively brief article, I won’t go into detail on every single variant of French, but I will give you some advice for how to learn a lot more about a particular one that might interest you a little later one.
First, here are some basic differences between the more common French accents and standard French.
Sometimes you’ll see that I’ve grouped them by region/part of the world, rather than country, since French accents don’t usually differ dramatically across borders, and often have similar influences. That being said, if you want to know more about a specific country or region’s dialect, an online search will pull up lots of information, not to mention videos that will let you hear native speakers.
Now that we’ve cleared that up….
If you use standard French as a base, you could say that:
Belgian French is very similar to French spoken in France, especially in the north of France. The “r” ’s tend to be more guttural. There are also some common differences in frequently used words. For example, in our post about French numbers, I thanked the Belgians for being much more logical by saying septante and nonante for seventy and ninety, respectively. Belgians are also known for using s’il vous plait as “you’re welcome”.
Vocabulary aside, though, for a non-native speaker, even one who’s lived in France for a long time, it can be very hard to notice a difference between the two (trust me on this). It’s a bit like the difference between standard American English and standard Canadian English.
You may have spoken with a native speaker of Swiss French and not even known it. That’s definitely happened to me! It’s said that Swiss French is sort of the ideal French; it’s pronounced pretty much identically to standard French, and its speakers tend to speak more slowly and clearly.
North African French
If you come to France, one of the accents you’re most likely to hear is a North African one. That is, one from someone from Morocco, Algeria, or Tunisia. These countries were colonized by France in the 19th century and although they’ve been independent for a long time, French is still an official language spoken and taught in each of these places.
Naturally, the French spoken here is heavily influenced by Arabic, which is the true native language of a majority of the population. That means that some sounds tend to be more guttural and harsher, and the intonation tends to be more marked than standard French.
You’ll also often hear some Arabic words mixed in with the French ones, especially if you’re visiting one of these countries. It reminds me a bit of how New Yorkers tend to know a few Yiddish words. Here in France- or, at least, in Paris – most people know what phrases like Inch ‘Allah (God willing) and a few others mean.
Keep in mind, though, that some North African French speakers have barely any noticeable accent at all. These people usually went to an international or French school, rather than local one, growing up.
Central African French
As you can see from the list at the beginning of this article, many countries in central Africa include French as an official language. Generally, the French spoken in Central Africa tends to be a bit staccato.
Some African French speakers will also have a more “w” sound for “r” ‘s. But do not try to repeat this – in France, it’s considered a racist caricature, a bit like how Chinese immigrants in America were mocked for pronouncing “r” like “l”.
“Creole” is a collective term for dialects of French that are spoken in places influenced by colonization and the slave trade. These languages are a mix of French, other European languages, and local or tribal languages. Haitian French is the most widespread form of Creole, with 12 million speakers today.
Note that because of their distinct mix of influences, not all Creole accents are the same. If you’re interested in learning more about a form of Creole, do a specific search for videos and discussions about that one.
I used to think that there was only one kind of French spoken in Canada, but it turns out that there are actually three. The most commonly heard throughout the world is Quebecois – not only because this region has the largest French-speaking population in Canada but also because many entertainers like international megastar Celine Dion, or singer and French pop culture figure Garou come from here.
As you can tell from what happened when my friend from Quebec tried to show me that YouTube video for locals, it can be very hard to understand Quebecois if the person speaking isn’t doing it to be intentionally understood by foreigners. Francophones from Quebec tend to sound more nasal, talk quickly (or at least the ones from cities do), and draw out and pronounce vowel blends differently. In addition to the accent, there are many expressions that aren’t common to any other French-speaking country, and many words that have been retained from older forms of French.
I often laugh at how hard it is for me to understand Quebecois (and I’m not the only one – shows and movies from Quebec are often subtitled even in France), since many Americans like me, whose accent has become less flatly Anglophone, but is still…something, often get mistaken for French-Canadians.
How can I learn different kinds of French accents?
This article is a hopefully helpful introduction to the many kinds of French spoken around the world. After you read this, the best way to really hear, understand, and learn about a particular one in-depth is to do an online search.
Type “[country/region] French” or “difference between [country/region] French and standard French” into your search engine. Even for lesser known accents, you’ll find resources like Wikipedia articles, forum discussions, YouTube videos, and often in-depth articles, as well.
If you have a more advanced level of French, you can search for these terms in French to get even more resources.
What do the French think of other kinds of French accents?
Like any culture where speakers have accents, whether they’re all in one country or spread around the world, Francophones may have certain idées reçues (generally held ideas) about different French accents. Here are some of the most common:
For the French, the Quebecois accent is sort of funny, but also charming – perhaps a bit like how Americans think of Southern accents.
Belgian accents aren’t extremely different from northern French accents, but Belgians have a reputation for being a bit odd, and the French also have a friendly pretend rivalry with them, a bit like Americans and Canadians, so those thoughts might spring to mind when a French person hears a Belgian person speak.
Accents from north and central Africa may cause some French people’s prejudices to come out. The immigrants from these countries, and, worse still, their children who are born in France, often face massive obstacles related to centuries of racism and decades of tension in the French banlieues (for a good introduction to this, check out the movie La haine or one of my favorite French books, Kiffe kiffe demain).
Of course, not all French people feel this way. You’ll also find that even those who might be prejudiced often still love the many comedians, musicians and other entertainers with African origins and accents (this is similar to the situation of African Americans in the US).
People with Caribbean/Creole accents may face prejudice, as well, since some people in France may perceive them as being “on island time” – lazy.
How do Parisians perceive French accents from other parts of France?
Parisian French, as I’ve said, is the source of the standard pronunciation that most people learn. There’s an old French saying, “When Paris coughs, France catches a cold,” because so many political movements, revolutions, artistic movements, inventions, fashions, and so on, started in Paris. I have to admit, it’s sort of true (but then again, I’m a proud Parisian transplant). With this kind of mentality, it’s normal that Parisians would notice other French accents even in their own country and have opinions about them.
But they’re not the only ones; you’ll find impressions and stereotypes about different French accents within France, anywhere you go, especially as things like movies and TV shows have helped to popularize or foster these (take, for example, reality series like “Les Marseillais” and “Les Ch’tis”).
A few common impressions: Most French people consider southern French accents a sign of warmth, maybe even excessive emotion. People with northern French accents tend to be considered a bit trashy – think of it like a New Jersey accent (but much, much less harsh-sounding…and I say this as a New Jersey native). A lot of exploitative reality and true crime shows often take place there. People with an accent from Auvergne are often considered salt-of-the-earth, country types.
All that being said, not all Parisians think this way – in fact, many of them actually came from those regions to begin with! And usually, their opinions are mostly good-natured, not genuine prejudice.
Which kind of French should I learn?
Although most people learn standard French, there is no “right” kind of French to speak. Personally, I think that if you have a particular French-speaking place you want to visit, study, or live in, being familiar with that one’s accent and vocabulary is an excellent idea.
In most cases, speaking with that accent when you’re in that area could also be good, although in some cases you may have to be careful. In places like Africa, where speakers may have experienced prejudice because of their accents, be sure that you don’t seem to be mocking or mimicking. In this case, you may want to speak standard French, and gradually incorporate the sounds and expressions you hear locally, as you get accepted by the people you get to know.
On the other hand, people in Quebec are fiercely proud of their way of speaking, and tend to encourage, if not downright prefer, for people staying there to speak that way, so if that’s your target destination, you may want to learn to speak with that kind of pronunciation.
If you still aren’t sure, the good thing about learning standard French is that no matter where you go, people should understand you. Well, most of the time….
What should I do if a French-speaker and I don’t understand each other?
No matter how good you get at French, you might find yourself in a situation where you and another French-speaker do not understand each other because of your accents. It may seem embarrassing or frustrating – after all, you are speaking the same language, right? But remember that even in your native language, there may be accents and dialects you have a hard time with (boy, am I glad that Scottish films are subtitled here!).
It’s only natural that your foreign accent, which alters standard French pronunciation and rhythm, and the other person’s accent, which may involve a cadence, stress, and even vocabulary you’re not familiar with, could seem like they just can’t flow together.
Here are some things you can do:
Speak more slowly. A French teacher I worked with once told me that for many people with a pronounced accent, speaking slowly causes them to enunciate more, and allows the listener a little bit of time to figure out what they’re saying. If a French speaker doesn’t understand me, slowing down is the first thing I do, and most of the time, it solves the problem. If you’re unable to understand a fellow French-speaker, politely asking them to slow down, too, may help.
Think about your vocabulary. Try to avoid any words or phrases that you know or suspect might be particular to the type of French you each speak. Use words that most French-speakers are familiar with. For example, standard French often borrows English terms when it comes to fields like technology and business. So, I might say something like “Il travaille dans l’IT.” (He works in IT.) If the person looks puzzled, I’ll try saying it in French: “Il travaille dans l’informatique.”
Repeat after them. Repeat what you think the person in front of you said, as a question. For example, if I think I hear Il ne veut pas venir, I would ask, “Il ne veut pas venir ?” You may feel like this will make you seem dumb if it’s not what the person said, but it’s actually the perfect way for both of you to realize that you really didn’t understand them, and it will allow them to clarify.
Try writing. If all else fails, if the person is literate, try writing down what you’re saying. You can either do this right then and there, with a pen and paper or your phone, or ask them to send you an email or text message. Or, if you’re the one who isn’t being understood, tell them you’ll send an email or text.
The main thing with all of these strategies is to remember that while it’s frustrating not to understand each other, it’s something that happens, and it’s no one’s fault. Always stay polite, and if it’s appropriate, you can even laugh a little at how confused you both are.
Accents and other differences within a single language show that we can be so similar, but also so different. They may make mastering French more challenging, but they also open a new world of learning and discovery. What kinds of French are you familiar with? Are there French accents that you find especially hard to understand?