Learning Canadian French

Rachel Hanson
Old Montreal

French is the official language of Québec, one of the places in Canada where French is spoken. Learning Canadian French takes a bit of work if you've only been exposed to what is commonly called 'Parisian French'. In American high schools, and most universities, the focus lies on the French that is spoken in France. While French sounds different in Canada, it is still the French language. It should also be noted that if you speak French that you learned in school--Quebecers will certainly understand you. It might take you awhile to understand them, however!

Learning Canadian French Vocabulary

While it may seem that learning the vocabulary should be a big challenge, it is not the most difficult component of mastering Canadian French. In most common contexts, the words used on both sides of the Atlantic are the same. Verbs are almost always the same, and nouns are most often the same, with a few exceptions. A few important words from the Canadian French lexicon are good to know, such as that l'addition ('bill') in France is called la facture in Canada.

Understanding Spoken Canadian French

While learning new vocabulary is pretty asy, the biggest barrier to learning Canadian French is understanding what is said to you. The phonology of Canadian French is very different from the French spoken in France. Sometimes, the accent is so thick that visitors from France claim to not understand the French spoken in Canada. While it's true that the pronunciation is different, don't let this deter you from learning and understanding the French spoken in Canada.

The biggest phonological differences between standard French and the spoken French of Canada are the z that is added between specific sounds combinations, and the tendency to diphthongize certain vowel sounds. These two phonological differences can be a barrier to understanding Canadian French (if you already speak standard French), and therefore learning to speak it yourself. If you don't speak any French, Canadian French is just as easy to learn as standard French.

Diphthongs

Diphthongization is best described as two vowel sounds combining into one phoneme. Diphthongs are often referred to as "vowel blending" such as in the word boy. Theoy makes one phoneme but is two vowels. While standard French has a few diphthongs such as roi, or huit, Canadian French has many diphthongs. The diphthongs in Canada can take some getting used to, but they are completely rule-governed, so once you start recognizing them, you will understand in no time.

The Infamous 'Z'

There are four sound combinations that trigger an extra 'z' to be added into a word. These 'z's' are not in spelling (Canadian French spelling is the same as standard French dictionary spellings), they are simply a sound that is added in specific contexts. Just like the diphthongs, it is overwhelming at first, but because it is completely rule-based, you will master it in no time once you figure it out at the beginning.

The sound combinations that take a 'z' are the combinations starting with 'd' or 't' and ending with 'i' or 'u'; so the four combinations are 'di', 'du', 'ti', and 'tu'. Of these combinations, some are extremely frequent; for example, the combination 'tu' is the pronoun for 'you' in French. This frequency makes it an important feature of Canadian French to recognize.

In France, the pronoun 'tu' consists only of the sounds 't' and 'u'; in Canada, the same pronoun has three sounds: 't', 'z', 'u'. The pronoun is pronounced 'tzu' in Canada. Likewise, words like 'petit' and past participles that end in 'du' get an additional z: petzit and vendzu'/'mordzu. Again, this may seem odd, but the four sound combinations always get the additional 'z', there are no exceptions to this rule, which makes it easier to learn.


If you'd like to really learn French the Canadian way, you can study in Canada or just go to a French-speaking place and live and work there. In addition, you can watch Canadian French television programs (Channel TV5 has French from all around the world) or download Canadian French singers' music. If you are planning to live, work, or study in Canada, make sure to choose a place where French is the primary language, and not everybody speaks English; otherwise, you could end up learning less than you ideally wanted to learn.

Learning Canadian French