You step off the plane at Montréal-Trudeau International Airport.
But, when you step onto the bus headed for downtown Montréal, you notice the language and vocabulary sound a little different from how they did in your French lessons back home.
I’m here to rescue you by teaching you everything you need to know about Canadian French.
Aweille! (Let’s go!)
- Why Is Canadian French Different from Standard French?
- Can European and Canadian French Speakers Understand Each Other?
- 15 Important Features of Canadian French
- 1. Tu is way more common than vous.
- 2. Sometimes, t becomes ts and d becomes dz.
- 3. Vowels tend to sound a bit different.
- 4. Asking Questions is a whole different ball game.
- 5. Canadian French uses words influenced by English, but not how you’d think.
- 6. Get ready to use contractions.
- 7. French Canadians say on, not nous.
- 8. Là is used liberally as an informal marker.
- 9. Ben is a really useful word.
- 10. Fin has many more meanings in québécois.
- 11. Bienvenue is way more common than you’d think.
- 12. Mealtimes have different names in québécois.
- 13. Getting on and off public transport requires different words.
- 14. Being sociable sounds a bit different also.
- 15. There are different money words than in European French.
Why Is Canadian French Different from Standard French?
Great question. To explain it, we need a quick history lesson.
Settlers from provincial France brought their language to Canada when they settled the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries. The British conquered soon after, bringing with them their own language and isolating the French settlers from Metropolitan France.
Surrounded by English speakers in Canada and the USA, the classical French spoken in the New World evolved in isolation.
Back in France, the French Revolution took place, bringing with it a linguistic revolution. Classical French phrases such as à cause que (because) and mais que (but) were replaced with parce que (because) and mais (but) in France but were never replaced in Canada. This “old-fashioned” way of speaking still found in Quebec is a key feature of québécois (French spoken in Quebec).
New concepts and inventions also evolved differently on each side of the pond. The invention of the car merited a new word—la voiture (car)—for the French whereas Canadian French speakers continued to use the existing le char (chariot) and apply it to the new concept.
Being surrounded by English speakers meant that Canadian French also borrowed a bunch of vocabulary from English, like with some of the following words.
mon chum [mon ami] (my friend)
marier [épouser] (to marry)
l’appointement [le rendez-vous] (appointment)
ça fait du sens [c’est logique] (that makes sense)
(N.B. For comparison, European French equivalents are written in [square brackets] after the québécois examples.)
All of this adds up to a huge difference in the vocabulary used by French speakers in France and Canada.
Can European and Canadian French Speakers Understand Each Other?
French Canadians understand European French speakers with relative ease because Canadian French speakers can adopt more formal language in official and business situations. The formal language they adopt is pretty close to Metropolitan French.
Informal québécois—the most prevalent form—has many pronunciation differences and uses a distinct vocabulary from European French, which makes it difficult for non-Quebeckers to understand.
When writing, French Canadians use the same language as metropolitan France, so people on both sides of the Atlantic can understand each other, no problem.
15 Important Features of Canadian French
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1. Tu is way more common than vous.
First things first: the minefield that can be working out whether to call someone tu (informal you) or vous (formal you) is not a huge problem in Canada.
Unlike in France, French Canadians are far more likely to use the informal form in non-business transactions—for example, ordering drinks at a bar or speaking to a supermarket cashier. However, if in doubt, use vous (formal you) and follow the other person’s lead.
2. Sometimes, t becomes ts and d becomes dz.
A really distinctive feature of québécois is the way that, before the letters i and e, the consonants t and d are pronounced differently. T becomes ts, and d becomes dz.
So, dîner (lunch) might sound like “dzîner.”
Or, canadien (Canadian) might sound like “canadzien.”
A lot of words that you may not instantly recognize suddenly become more obvious when you know this tip!
3. Vowels tend to sound a bit different.
One of the key differences between Canadian French and standard French is the pronunciation of vowels. Québécois retains many of classical French’s original pronunciations, which no longer exist in France.
Here are some examples:
- Moi (me) is pronounced moé
- Toi (you) sounds like toé
- Oui (yes) becomes ouais
This can take some getting used to!
4. Asking Questions is a whole different ball game.
Questions in spoken Canadian French sound miles apart from the questions you learned in French class. Here are two key differences:
Tu, the first person singular pronoun, becomes a question particle that appears after the conjugated verb.
This is a really common feature in informal Canadian speech, and most people will use it on a daily basis.
T’as-tu fini? [Tu as fini?] (Have you finished?)
What’s more, the tu suffix doesn’t even need to agree with the person or object you’re asking about. It is always tu. For example:
Il va-tu venir? [Il va venir?] (Is he going to come?)
Il a-tu faim? Il veut-tu manger? [A-t-il faim? Veut-il manger?] (Is he hungry? Does he want to eat?)
The word que (that) disappears completely from the qu’est-ce que… (what is…) question format.
Here’s a question you’ll hear all the time in Canada:
Qu’est-ce tu veux? (literally: what is it you want?)
Did you spot what was missing?
Okay, the above note probably gave it away, but the word que (that) vanished from this question!
In Metropolitan French it would normally be qu’est-ce que tu veux? (literally: what is it that you want?) This qu’est-ce (what is it) question format without the que (that) is pretty standard in Canadian French.
5. Canadian French uses words influenced by English, but not how you’d think.
French is full of loanwords from English. Here are just a few examples:
le parking (parking lot)
le shopping (shopping)
These work perfectly fine in France, but in Quebec, loan nouns and adjectives are not tolerated as well.
In the 1960s, a movement to protect Canadian French appeared, headed by the Office québécois de la langue française (the Quebec Office of the French Language), also known as OQLF. They monitor the use of Anglicisms in québécois and publish suggestions of French alternatives to replace them.
Here are a just a few:
courriel [email] (email)
pourriel [spam] (spam email)
le magasinage [le shopping] (shopping)
un stationnement [un parking] (parking lot)
diffusion pour baladeur [podcast] (podcast)
Have you seen the famous French-language stop signs in Canada? The OQLF is responsible for those, saying the standard “stop” was too English.
The pressure to avoid importing English words leads to American phrases being translated directly into French, which leads to vocabulary specific to Canada. These are called calques, or loan translations. Here are a few:
Coca diète [Coca light] (Diet Coke)
la fin de semaine [le week-end] (weekend)
Je suis tombé en amour avec elle. [Je suis tombé amoureux d’elle.] (I fell in love with her.)
être dans le trouble [avoir des problèmes/avoir des ennuis] (to be in trouble)
6. Get ready to use contractions.
In conversational Canadian French, many words are shortened, and some disappear altogether!
For example, il (he) and ils (they) are often simply shortened to y.
Other common words and phrases include:
tsé [tu sais] (you know)
pi [puis] (and then)
sa [sur la] (on the)
dins [dans les] (in the)
ses [sur les] (on the)
Two typical Canadian French phrases that use contractions are:
sa coche [sur la coche] (right on the mark, or “bang on” in some varieties of English)
Notice the sa [sur la] that we mentioned a moment ago?
par amp [par exemple] (for example)
Note: Par exemple also has a second meaning in Quebec. As well as the literal meaning, “for example,” it can also replace par contre (however).
7. French Canadians say on, not nous.
The impersonal pronoun on (one) replaces nous (we) in pretty much all informal Canadian French conversations. On (one) is followed by the third person singular of the verb.
On est à la plage. [Nous sommes à la plage.] (We are at the beach.)
8. Là is used liberally as an informal marker.
Là literally means “there,” but in québécois it appears at the end of many sentences as a marker of emphasis or an exclamation. It’s like adding “eh” or “yeah” to an English sentence.
Here it is in action:
Là, là, ecoute-moé, là? (Listen to me, yeah?)
Comprenez-vous, là? (Do you understand?)
Moi là, je pense que… (Personally, I think that…)
9. Ben is a really useful word.
Ben (really) is a great word in Canadian French, and you’ll hear it all the time in informal speech.
It comes from the word bien (well), and here are some examples of how you might hear it:
C’est ben loin, là. (It’s really far.)
C’est pas ben beau. (It’s not very nice.)
10. Fin has many more meanings in québécois.
In France, the word fin (noun: end; adjective: fine or thin) is used literally, but in French-speaking Canada, it takes on another meaning.
It describes someone’s personality as kind, similar to the French word sympa (nice). So, if you hear someone talking about you and they say, “Elle est ben fine” (“She is really nice”), that’s a true compliment!
11. Bienvenue is way more common than you’d think.
In Canada, after you’ve said merci (thank you) to someone, you’ll probably expect to hear je vous en prie (you’re welcome) or de rien (you’re welcome), as you would in France.
Instead, the person will reply with: bienvenue (welcome, as a greeting).
They haven’t had a memory lapse and thought you’ve just met. Bienvenue is the normal way to say “you’re welcome” in Canada!
That’s right—this is another loan translation from English.
12. Mealtimes have different names in québécois.
Some say that food is a universal language. And, while you’re sure to find delicious food on your visit to Montréal, making dinner plans is much easier when you know the correct words!
- Le déjeuner [le petit-déjeuner] (breakfast) is eaten before midday.
- Le dîner [le déjeuner] (lunch) is eaten between midday and 5 p.m.
- Une collation [un goûter] (a snack) is eaten between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.
- Le souper [le dîner] (dinner/evening meal) is eaten from 7 p.m. onwards.
13. Getting on and off public transport requires different words.
Quebeckers use the words embarquer [monter dans] (to get on) and débarquer [descendre de] (to get off) when using transport.
This is interesting because in France, these words are only used in the maritime world, but in Canada, they’re applied more generally. They’re thought to have been inherited from the French settlers, who arrived by boat when they first came to the continent.
14. Being sociable sounds a bit different also.
When you’re making plans with your new friends during your stay in Montréal, you’ll need to know the following to help decipher who and when you’re meeting!
- Une date [un rendez-vous] is the word for “a date” (romantic or platonic).
- Quebeckers never use the word mec (guy). They use gars instead, but it has the same meaning.
- Une blonde (a blonde) refers to a girl or girlfriend. And, it doesn’t matter what color her hair is, she’s always une blonde!
- Sortir en gang (to go out with friends) is less scary than it sounds! The French equivalent would be sortir avec mes amis.
Here are some more words to listen for in general conversation:
Aweille! [Allez!] (Yeah!)
You’ll hear this a lot. It’s similar to the Arabic yalla! or Spanish ándale! and it’s used to inject passion and energy into a situation.
C’est beau. [C’est bon.] (It’s all good.)
While in France, c’est beau (it’s beautiful) is only used to call something beautiful, in Quebec, it’s interchangeable with c’est bon (it’s all good). Another Canadian French way to say “it’s all good” is c’est correct [c’est bon] (it’s all right).
De même [comme ça] (like that)
This one can be confusing for European French speakers! Here are some examples:
Ça marche tout de même? (Does it work like that?)
Pourquoi tu pleurs de même? (Why are you crying like that?)
Here’s another word you might hear:
Voyons (literally: let’s see)
This is used to express surprise and sometimes frustration, as in the example below:
Voyons, y marche pas ce téléphone! (Agh, this phone isn’t working!)
C’est de valeur. [C’est dommage.] (It’s a shame.)
15. There are different money words than in European French.
Money: it makes the world go round, eh? And, as with most languages, French has a ton of slang words for all things cash. Here are some that are specific to Canada.
L’argent (money) in France is called le bacon in Quebec! That’s right, this false friend is another loanword!
Le débit is the Canadian French name for la carte bleue/carte bancaire (bank card), and if you do pay with bacon (cash), you can count the change [monnaie] (change in coins) in your pocket to get the correct amount.
So, now you can go shopping in Quebec without fear!
And there you have it!
Now you have tons of hints, tips and vocabulary to make sure your trip to Quebec is a success. See you in Montréal!