The French language is a linguistic powerhouse.
En fait (actually), before WWII, French was the lingua franca (main language) in world politics, diplomacy, economics and culture.
This global dominance, backed up by the spread of French in the European continent and France’s several colonial holdings until the ’60s, has taken the language to five continents, making it an extremely dynamic language indeed!
If you’re a French language learner, you may have mostly heard standard French (when you listen to the radio, for example), which, for better or worse, adheres to a francilien, or Parisian metropolitan accent.
However, a short venture across European, African and North American borders will not only expose you to several Francophone communities but also to the different types of French spoken in the world today…et il y en a plusieurs (and there are many)!
French belongs to the Indo-European language family and is derived from Latin and Greek but also Germanic languages, English being its closest Germanic family member.
So what does this all mean for you?
Well, as an English speaker, you’re more than capable of becoming an excellent French speaker—the two languages are old-time relatives!
It also means that whether you’re just curious about the French language or have already begun learning it, you’ll benefit from educating yourself about all the different kinds of French out there. Depending on your interests, your career ambitions or where you want to travel, you may even want to focus on a particular kind of French.
But before we dive headfirst into this language pool, let’s take in a short historical overview of the roots of the French language in its birthplace, the heart of France, better known as L’Île-de-France, or the modern day Parisian area and its surroundings.
Roots of the Modern French Language
Back in the day, French was but one of the several local languages spoken across modern day France. To be precise, it was strictly spoken by the francilien elites residing in the Île-de-France Paris area. French existed alongside other common languages such as Basque and Catalan spoken (and still spoken) in the South, Breton spoken in the West and Alsatian spoken in the East on the German border.
It’s important to note that although all these local languages continue to be spoken in France today, the number of native speakers is meager, as French exists as the sole official language of France according to the constitution, and as such is the language of instruction at school.
This is because at one point, the political and economic elite, mainly the Parisian monarchy, decided that it was time to exert their power beyond Paris, but found that one of the main hurdles to this was indeed the linguistic barriers in France. Shortly after, a royal decree gave official recognition and status to their language (the then langue francilienne) in order to extend its influence all over France.
However, French really became the national language of France following the French Revolution. This aimed to create a national identity and also instill the values of the new French republic in the national education system. During this time, individuals who spoke regional languages were severely punished in efforts to promote the exclusive use of French.
Over the centuries, French speakers set up communities around Europe outside of francilien borders, namely in modern day Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg. But French also went overseas.
The French Language Goes Overseas
The French language began spreading across the five continents alongside French colonialism. The first settlement of Francophones outside of Europe was Nouvelle France (New France) in Eastern Canada in the 1500s, where French remains the official language today. Oddly enough, at one point in history, French may have been more widely spoken in Nouvelle France than in France, due to the linguistic battle waged for French dominance against other local languages.
Apart from the settlement in Nouvelle France, French made its biggest linguistic footprint on the African continent where currently French is spoken in many countries and where an estimated 80% of Francophones will reside as of 2050.
As French colonial rule extended over a century on the continent, French took a tight grip at the expense of other local languages, and today French continues to be the language of the administration and government in several African countries.
Although it’s difficult to give an exact number, the Francophonie estimates French is spoken by approximately 274 million globally, primarily in Western Europe, Eastern Canada and North and Central Africa. The history of the French language is well-researched and pertinent to present day politics (read more about its history here and also about the French and the evolution of their language).
Alright, now put away the history books and get your headphones out. With all this French-diversity talk, how do all these types of French differ, exactly? Here’s the deal: If you’re a beginner, all these types of French may sound about the same to you, i.e., mostly foreign and incomprehensible. If you’re an upper-intermediate or advanced learner, however, you may have an easier time hearing the differences.
Either way, we’re going to get you used to hearing the different sounds that exist across the Francophonie today, and take a sort of tour of the French language! Let’s dive right in, shall we?
Say Bonjour to 7 Different Types of French Spoken Today!
Let’s get started by taking a listen to a fun video that explores the many shades and colors of the French language across borders. This is a video of a French sister and brother who attempt to imitate different accents in different situations from regions in France, including Bretagne and Marseille, as well as Francophones outside of France, including Belgians, Quebecois and Swiss. As an extra treat, they also do foreign accents in French, including Italian and American (at 13:07)! These two are quite talented, and in the beginning of the video say that their intention is never to insult accents but rather to explore the many ways we can hear French spoken around the world.
Now that you’ve gotten a short comedic taste of global Francophone accents, let’s start getting specific, starting with none other than the birthplace of the language itself.
1) French from France
When we say French from France, most people refer to the Parisian accent, but really, French from France is diverse and colorful in and of itself. This video displays 28 different accents in French from France and many French comedians use this range as material for skits, to the amusement of the Francophone public.
France itself is a very centralized country and as such, the type of French spoken in Paris and its surroundings is important for you to recognize as a French speaker. This video will give you a sneak peak into typical Parisian expressions.
Take note of these three in particular:
- la meuf (the girl/chick)
- le mec (the guy/dude)
- mais c’est énorme ! (it’s fantastic!)
In Paris, you’ll hear them partout (everywhere)! You’ll also notice two features of Parisian French: It’s fast and it’s very expressive. Some even argue that it’s a bit over the top. Everything is génial, énorme, trop bien (great, fantastic, really great) and so on!
Now check out the same Parisians, this time at work. If you watch this video, you’ll immediately notice the intrusion of English words in everyday work language:
- la deadline
- un feedback
- un brainstorm
Lucky for you, if you ever end up going to work in Paris, you’ll already know half of the words!
Now let’s take a little detour and head to the South of France, to the city of Marseille, where a different type of French, or marseillais, can be heard. This type of language is often cited by the French as a Southern accent and is characterized by its unique tonality and open rhythmic intonation.
Marseillais is also spoken very quickly and, to the untrained ear, very difficult to understand, for Anglophones and Francophones alike! This young Marseillais is passionately expressing his opinion on the Parisians that come to Marseille and complain that it’s too hot. You’ll notice that many of the words are mangés (literally “eaten), or have their ends cut off, and that the expression eh is added at the end of phrases.
Going back up north and leaving France, let’s visit its nearby Francophone neighbors, namely les Belges (Belgians).
2) French from Belgium
Around 45% of the Belgian population speaks French, and so it comprises a major European Francophone country. As such, it has its unique way of speaking the language!
This video claims to cover 10 different Belgian Francophone accents. You’ll notice immediately that they’re firmer-sounding than the type of French we hear in France: This is mainly due to the influence of Dutch, also spoken as an official language in the country. Generally speaking, the Belgian accent is still very similar to the French accent from France because of the sheer proximity of the two countries.
Par contre (however), they do have different vocabulary and also a different way of counting.
Perhaps one of the most curious words in Belgian French is une chope, which translates to a beer or drink. Interestingly enough, the verb chopper in Parisian French means to grab or to get, making this easy for you to remember!
3) French from Switzerland
Switzerland is a polyglot’s heaven where French, Italian and German are official state languages. Native Francophones comprise about 20% of the Swiss population. Similar to the country’s political stance in the world, the Swiss accent is quite neutral, as in, there’s no marked difference. Many linguists claim it’s standard French, i.e. what you hear on the radio.
Take a listen to this young Swiss girl who sounds remarkably similar to a young French girl, but does discuss the many different expressions used in Swiss French. You’ll also come to appreciate that Swiss Francophones tend to speak a bit slower than their French counterparts, giving a more relaxed tonality.
OK, now grab your bags, because we’re heading far and right into the world of diversity and immigration, the Americas! To kickstart our tour in Francophone America, let’s go to the first French settlement on the continent, La Nouvelle France, i.e., Eastern Canada (mainly the province of Quebec).
4) French from Eastern Canada
French has been spoken in Eastern Canada from the early 1500s and is currently the mother tongue to about 95% of Quebec’s population along with some of the population of the bilingual province of New Brunswick on the Atlantic coast. These variants of French don’t differ in grammar or written expression from their European counterparts, but do they ever at the spoken level!
Perhaps the most well-known and cited accent from Francophone America is the Quebecois accent, possibly because of its pleasant and charming tonality. It’s often argued by linguists that French from Quebec is indeed a cultural treasure for the Francophonie because it retains much of the syntax and phonetics of old French.
Listen to this young girl talk about the Quebecois identity along with common expressions. If you find it a bit too difficult to follow, you can take a look at this “Québécois pour les nuls” (Quebecois for dummies) video to get the hang of things.
Another interesting type of French that developed in Eastern Canada in the province of New Brunswick, located on the maritime coast, is Acadian French. Acadian French has a marked Anglophone tonality and oftentimes the two languages are mixed together. First, take a listen to the Acadian accent (tip: switch on your subtitles), and if you find this type of French interesting, listen to these two young Acadians explain the history of their language.
You’ll notice the influence of English in Quebecois French, as in the words:
- blonde (girlfriend)
- chum (boyfriend)
- c’est cute (it’s cute)
- c’est le fun (it’s fun)
Note: Never use the word meuf (girl) in Quebec as you would in France, as it’s considered quite vulgar when referring to a female—better to opt for la fille.
Now, we can’t leave the Americas without highlighting our Francophone friends to the South, les Haïtiens (Haitians)!
5) French from Haiti
Haitian French is commonly referred to as Caribbean French and, as you will see later, its intonation is similar to West African French because of its mix with African languages and dialects, although it’s hard to pinpoint these linguistic roots, due to the history of slavery on the island.
French is the official language of Haiti, but if you ever visit the country, you’ll quickly notice that Haitian Creole, a mix of African languages brought over during colonial rule, Spanish, French and more, is definitely the go-to language on the streets.
Take a listen here to a speech made on Haitian radio. If you’re curious about Haitian Creole, take a listen and learn here. You won’t be able to understand completely, but you’ll pick out the French vocabulary from the sentences immediately.
Speaking of those African roots in Haitian French, let’s get to the root of the root, the African continent itself, where French is official in more than a dozen countries. It’s impossible to go into complete detail about African French in this one post, considering the depth and sheer diversity. However, let’s explore two countries that speak two sub-groups of French in Francophone Africa.
First, let’s consider the Maghreb, or North African French, spoken in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and even Egypt. To give you an example of this type of French, let’s take a closer look at Algeria, the biggest country on the continent.
6) French from Algeria
Algeria is inextricably linked to France by a century of colonial rule and the Algerian War of Independence, waged with France during eight years (1954-1962). As a result, the French language has left its influence.
Perhaps the most marked feature of Maghreb French is the effect of Arabic on pronunciation and also the use of Arabic words in French sentences, and vice-versa.
Take a listen to this interview to judge for yourself. Many also say the guttural phonetics of Arabic have a distinct influence on North African French.
7) French from the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Another important type of French is that spoken in Central Africa, brought over by Belgian colonization, namely in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The type of French spoken in Central Africa is quite different from the type of French spoken in Northern Africa, which makes sense considering that Arabic is not spoken much in these countries.
Perhaps the cradle of Central African French is another large country called the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a very Francophone country indeed.
Many describe the French from the Congo as a bit choppy, not messy, but rather cut short. The sentences naturally follow a different flow, explained by the evolution of French alongside other local languages in the area. Today, the official language in the Congo is French, but it coexists with approximately 242 local languages…so you bet some mixing is going to happen!
The Congo is considered a very important Francophone country in Africa as along with Gabon it has one of the highest proportions of Francophones on the continent.
To further explore the many accents and types of French on the African continent, check out an interview where comedian Omar Defenzu offers his interpretation of various types of African French!
Is your head spinning?
Maybe you would have never imagined all this diversity in the Francophone world, but to be honest, this is only the tip of the iceberg!
You’ll notice that accents, slang and the ways we speak the French language can change when we simply turn a corner or get off at a different metro stop…there’s no limit to the types of French that exist today and that will exist tomorrow.
Hopefully this overview has served as a friendly and accessible framework for a few of these different types of French spoken around the world today, and hopefully it has sparked your interest and trained your ears in new ways.
À la prochaine fois les amis (until next time friends)!
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