How to speak French like a Quebecker – Le québécois en 10 leçons

As you all know, I’m a huge fan of Quebec and especially of its French dialect (here’s a video of me in French, interviewing a Quebec girl about the differences) and the wonderful people there.

Because I genuinely tried to speak like them while living in Montréal, rather than rigidly sticking to the French I had learned in Paris, I was warmly welcomed and had one of the best summers of my life! La belle province is definitely among my top five most favourite places on earth.

So this is why I’m happy to have a guest post today from a Quebecker, who has just published what looks to be the go-to-guide for anyone who wants to truly finally get their teeth into this wonderful dialect.

Alexandre Coutu (aka arekkusu or alexandrec on language forums) is a polyglot, translator, language coach, course designer and occasional interpreter. He just published a course on spoken Québec French called Le québécois en 10 leçons. Today he’ll share some of the most prominent features of the dialect, and we’ve included audio samples so you can get a true taste for the how it truly sounds, as spoken by Quebecers!

Over to you Alexandre!

Why is French different in Quebec?

For most of us, the first encounter with a language happens in a textbook. This cold and clinical introduction sometimes leads people to believe that languages are set in stone, when in fact, it’s quite the opposite: just like glaciers that are made of ice, yet fluctuate and change shape constantly, languages are liquid and continuously evolve.

One long term effect of that evolution is that languages that are spoken over large territories or in distant countries tend to evolve into different varieties that can sometimes cause the speakers — and the learners — to have problems understanding each other.

The case of French in Québec provides us with an interesting example. Over 400 years ago, when the first French settlers came to what they called “La Nouvelle-France”, most of these settlers came from regions North-West of Paris, such as Picardy, Normandy and Burgundy. The French spoken in these regions was considered to be the purest, and most resembled the King’s French.

However, political changes in France caused Paris’ dialect to become the country’s prestige language variety; it’s that dialect that eventually formed the basis of today’s standard French. Meanwhile, the French spoken in what was later to become Québec continued to slowly evolve in its own direction.

The close ties that France and Québec have shared to this day have allowed the two linguistic communities to continue to understand each other, particularly in writing and in their respective standard forms, but there is no denying that a large number of differences in the informal language sometimes make mutual comprehension a struggle.

There are people who have the rather elitist vision that we should all speak the way we write and who wish Québécois didn’t exist. Unfortunately, many French language teachers hold similar views, and as a result, students are often left unable to understand “the man on the street”, even after years of study. This presents a particular challenge for students. As unbelievable as it sounds, many French classes in Canada use material geared towards France rather than Québec. So much for national unity.

A lot of beginning students of French are curious to know just how different Québec French is from France French. Some have likened the degree of difference to that of British vs. American English. This comparison could be considered valid if we only took the written standard language into account, but it is too weak an analogy when it comes to the spoken language.

Visitors with a good level of standard French will no doubt be understood in Québec, but without any knowledge of Québécois French, they will continue to be viewed as outsiders.

Most Québécois will try to use standard French with you, but it may feel a bit awkward and tiring for them. However, the Québécois will quickly warm up to anyone who shows an interest in their language. The origin of the visitor is irrelevant, it’s the interest the person has in the Québec culture and language that will really open doors.

This is a point many English Canadians or other visitors often fail to understand. If you can use a bit of their language, they will immediately feel at ease, relieved that they can let their guard down, speak naturally and be genuine, and many will take you under their wing and try to help you learn.

Example dialogue, using real Quebec French

To give you a general idea of the kinds of things you hear in Québec, let’s imagine that you are visiting Québec City. You are on the streets of le Vieux-Québec, looking lost. A stranger stops his car and asks:

J’peux-tu t’aider, mon gars?