International Francophonie Day: Some particularities of Canadian French

Posted in : Blog
Posted on : March 20, 2023

March 20 is International Francophonie Day. It celebrates the French language across the world and cooperation among French-speaking nations and groups. According to the Observatoire démographique et statistique de l’espace francophone, there are approximately 321 million speakers of the French language in the world, as of 2022.

Of course, French is one of Canada’s official languages. According to the 2021 Census, 29.2% of Canadians can speak French. Moreover, 11.2% of Canadians speak only French of the two official languages, and 18% of Canadians speak both English and French. Interestingly, a greater proportion of Canadians who speak both English and French at home have French as their first language. Indeed, in 2021, 47.6% of Canadians with French as a first language also spoke English, while 9% of Canadians with English as a first language also spoke French.

I have worked as a French as a Second Language (FSL) teacher with folks who have English as a first language, or other languages as their first language. I have heard firsthand how difficult learning French can be for some folks, especially when it comes to practicing the language with first-language French speakers in Canada. So, to celebrate International Francophonie Day, I would like to share some tips to speak French with French Canadian speakers that folks might not learn in classes that teach “standard” French.

Canadian French has particularities stemming from centuries of history and presents variations based on geography – it is not a monolith. In Canada, French is often spoken in ways that are not considered “formal” or “proper” French, and hence, might not be taught in the classroom. This can make it difficult for FSL learners to understand the French that is actually spoken every day around them, especially in the familiar register, when it is different from what they are learning. Here are four characteristics of spoken Canadian French for FSL learners in Canada.

Please note that I will make generalizations about Canadian French in this text. It is completely possible that they do not apply to every Canadian French speaker. They are meant as tendencies or “typical” characteristics of Canadian French speakers. Moreover, these tips are not useful for formal communication – do not use these in a school essay or a work report!

1. Closed questions and the redundant “tu”

You may have learned that there are two ways of transforming a statement into a yes/no question in French:

  • Reversing the subject pronoun and verb: “Tu aimes le chocolat” becomes “Aimes-tu le chocolat?”
  • Adding “Est-ce que” in front of the statement: “Tu aimes le chocolat” becomes “Est-ce que tu aimes le chocolat?”

In informal conversation, we seldom use the first method in Canadian French. We are more likely to use the second. While we will understand what you are asking if you use the first method, it might sound a little bit “off” to us. Moreover, there is a third method used in informal Canadian French.

  • Change of inflection (with or without the redundant “tu”): “Tu aimes le chocolat” becomes “Tu aimes le chocolat?” with a higher inflection at the end of the sentence. Also, French Canadians often add a redundant “tu” pronoun after the verb, regardless of the grammatical person of the subject. For example: “Tu aimes-tu le chocolat?”

Other examples:

  • “Ça va-tu bien?” [“Are you well?” - literally “Is it going well?”]
  • “Il est-tu gentil?” [“Is he nice?”]
  • “On mange-tu au resto ce soir?” [“Are we eating at the restaurant tonight?” It could also mean “Should” or “Could we eat at the restaurant tonight?”]
  • “L’examen, je l’ai-tu passé?” [The exam, did I pass it?]

This can be particularly confusing for FSL speakers when the subject of the sentence is not the second person singular. The “tu” is added for emphasis or to mark the informal tone of the question. It is not the subject of the question.

2. Using “on” instead of “nous”

If you are learning French, you might have encountered the pronoun “on.” “On” conjugates in the third person singular, like “il” or “elle.” It can have a few different meanings.

  • “On” is sometimes an impersonal pronoun. It does not refer to any specific person. It might be used to make general statements, and can be equivalent to “it” or “one” in English. For example:
  • “On ne connaît pas le résultat de l’élection” [“The election result is unknown” or “Nobody knows the election result.”]
  • “C’est en forgeant qu’on devient forgeron” [“It’s by smithing that one becomes a blacksmith” – an idiomatic expression akin to “practice makes perfect”]
  • “On” can refer to an unknown person, not the speaker or the person spoken to. It can be equivalent to “someone” in English. For example: “On cogne à la porte.” [“Someone is knocking at the door.”] French Canadians are more likely to say “Quelqu’un” (“Someone”) instead of this meaning of “on.” As in, “Quelqu’un cogne à la porte.”
  • In informal language, “on” can take the same meaning as “nous” – the first person plural, a group including the speaker. To note, even when it means “nous,” “on” is still conjugated in the third person singular. For example: Instead of “Mon ami et moi, nous aimons le café.” – “Mon ami et moi, on aime le café.” [“My friend and I, we like coffee.”]

French Canadians tend to use “on” instead of “nous” in informal or spoken communication. It can be challenging to determine which meaning of “on” is being used. Pay special attention to the context of the statement or ask follow up questions.

Moreover, it can sound odd for Canadian French speakers to hear someone use “nous” in an informal context, as many are more used to hearing “on”.

3. Using “futur proche” instead of “futur simple”

In a formal French class, you may have learned the “futur simple” verb tense to describe the future. “Je serai”, “tu auras”, “il ira”, etc. That tense is mostly useful for formal conversations and in writing. In every day informal conversations, Canadian French speakers are more likely to use the “futur proche” tense (literally, “near future”). “Futur proche” uses the verb “aller” (“to go”) in the present tense, followed by an infinitive verb, like “Je vais être”, “tu vas avoir”, “il va aller”, etc. It’s akin to using “going to” to indicate the future in English.

Both “futur simple” and “futur proche” are used to express something that will happen in the future. They are often used interchangeably, but there can be a slight difference in meaning, where “futur proche” is usually more definitive, the plan is already in action, or it is more sure to happen.

For example:

  • “Elle soumettra son rapport à sa gestionnaire” [“She will submit her report to her manager” – as in, when the report is ready, she needs to hand it to her manager; that is how the process is supposed to go.]
  • “Elle va soumettre son rapport à sa gestionnaire” [“She is going to submit her report to her manager” – as in, the report might already be completed, and she will hand it over very soon.]

Canadian French speakers often use “futur proche” for either meaning in informal conversations. What’s convenient, too, is that, for “futur proche”, you only really need to remember the present tense conjugation of “aller”, instead of the “futur simple” conjugation of every verb. It’s similar to English in that sense.

Again, if someone were to use “futur simple” in an informal conversation, that might sound odd to a Canadian French speaker. We will likely understand the meaning but might be confused by the formal tone.

4. Detaching the subject with added pronoun

In French, much like in English, it is common to detach the subject (or sometimes the object) from the sentence, isolate it at the beginning or end of the sentence with a comma, and add a corresponding pronoun in the original sentence. We often do this for emphasis. For example:

  • “Ce projet, il est très difficile.” [“This project, it is very difficult.” Here, the subject is detached and repeated.]
  • “La diversité, c’est le mélange de différentes identités.” [“Diversity, it is the mix of different identities.” Here, the subject is detached and repeated.]
  • “Je la connais, Annie.” [“I know her, Annie.” Here, the object is detached and repeated.]
  • “Moi, j’aime ça, les jeux de société.” [“Me, I like that, boardgames.” Here, both the subject and the object are detached and repeated.]

French Canadians tend to detach elements from sentences and repeat them with pronouns pretty often. If, in a formal French class, you learn basic sentence structure as Subject, Verb, Object, which is correct for the most part, it can be confusing when there are added elements in everyday speech. Listen carefully and try to identify the added pronouns. The things they replace are often right next to them in the sentence.

Practice makes perfect!

Learning a new language is never easy. Many experts will tell you that the best way to learn a language is to practice it every day and engage in conversations with other speakers. Be open to learning things outside of a formal classroom setting – since you will most often use the language outside of the classroom anyway! Hopefully, the tips I provided will help you understand Canadian French a little better.

On International Francophonie Day, we celebrate all variations of the French language. If you are learning French, you are a Francophone, too! Take some time to celebrate!

Joyeuse journée internationale de la Francophonie!

 

Sources: (Click here to review the sources)

International Francophonie Day, Unesco, n.d., https://www.unesco.org/en/days/francophonie

Tu, Je Parle Québécois, n.d., https://www.je-parle-quebecois.com/lexique/definition/tu.html

La phrase interrogative, Alloprof, n.d., https://www.alloprof.qc.ca/fr/eleves/bv/francais/la-phrase-interrogative-f1138

On, L’oreille tendue, 2013, https://oreilletendue.com/2013/01/30/on/

Le futur proche, Office québécois de la langue française, n.d., https://vitrinelinguistique.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/index.php?id=24122

While English and French are still the main languages spoken in Canada, the country's linguistic diversity continues to grow, Statistics Canada, 2022, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/220817/dq220817a-eng.htm?indid=32989-3&indgeo=0

Langue maternelle selon les réponses uniques et multiples portant sur la langue maternelle : Canada, provinces et territoires, divisions de recensement et subdivisions de recensement, Statistiques Canada, 2022, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/fr/tv.action?pid=9810018001&request_locale=fr  

321 millions de francophones, Observatoire démographique et statistique de l’espace francophone, 2022, https://www.odsef.fss.ulaval.ca/actualites/321-millions-de-francophones

La phrase emphatique, Alloprof, n.d., https://www.alloprof.qc.ca/fr/eleves/bv/francais/francais-la-phrase-emphatique-f1140

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