Varieties of French around the world

Varieties of French around the world

The French language is the fifth most spoken language in the world with around 274 million native speakers. It is also the second most widely learnt language after English and one of the very few languages spoken on all continents. French is the third most important business language in the world after English and Chinese, and according to the British Council, considered the second most useful language in trade after German and ahead of Spanish for companies in the UK.

Above all, the French language has a high economic potential since France and French-speaking countries contribute significantly to the world economy, accounting for around 20% of world trade in goods. And this figure is only expected to grow in the coming years as the French-speaking population is estimated to reach 770 million by 2050, which would make French-speaking countries the fourth largest geopolitical area in terms of population. As such, French is definitely an attractive language for business and therefore a language to be reckoned with.

French as an official language

The following chart shows the 29 countries where French is either the only official language or co-official language.

french speaking countries

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French variants and dialects

Unsurprisingly, due to the extensive reach of the French language there are many regional differences, including many distinct variants and dialects.

Tell me how you count, and I will tell you where you’re from

Here’s a riddle for you: you run to the bakery shop for a breakfast meeting on Monday morning. Your colleagues are all starving so you buy 20 croissants, 20 brioches and 20 baguettes. The lady at the counter says “huitante, s’il vous plait”. Where are you?

Not in France or Canada as they use soixante-dix (60+10) for seventy, quatre-vingts (4×20) for eighty and quatre-vingt-dix (4×20+10) for ninety. Nor in Belgium because they say septante and nonante for seventy and ninety respectively, while they say quatre-vingts for eighty. You’re in beautiful Switzerland! The Swiss make their lives even easier than their French-speaking fellows and say septantehuitante and nonante!

Differences in French Counting

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We will dedicate the remainder of this blog post to the differences between the French of France and Canadian French – the two French variants that we are most frequently asked to translate into!

Differences between the French of France and Canadian French

So, back to Canadian French. It is sometimes quite different from the French of France. This is partly due to historical reasons and the influence of English.

For instance, when French people « se promènent » on the boulevard, Canadian people « prennent une marche ». You can easily recognize the English influence of to “take a walk” in the Canadian French. Funnily enough though, it also works the other way. A French person in a business environment would send out an e-mail or a mail while his Canadian colleague will answer with a courriel.

To add to the confusion, some terms are feminine in one variant and masculine in the other. For example, you would say une job in Québec while French would talk about un job. « Couple » is masculine in France but it is also feminine in Québec in an expression like « une couple de semaines » (“a couple of weeks”). Fortunately, there is a simple rule that you can adopt: if an English loan word is feminine in Quebec, chances are that it will be masculine in Paris. And vice versa!

Some differences exist on the punctuation side too. In France, the use of an unbreakable space before interrogation or exclamation marks, semi-colons, colons and French quotation marks is an absolute must. French Canadians do not use this unbreakable space.

What if you need to dub a video in French? Accents and pronunciation are important. French people sometimes have a hard time understanding their Canadian cousins’ accents, while the Canadians find that French people speak in a high tone of voice.

How to spend your translation budget

So, what if you tackle both the French and Canadian markets but have budget to translate only into one language? Just make sure you instruct your French translator to try to use a French that is as neutral as possible, i.e. a “French” the guardians of the language at the Académie française would be happy with.

Why do the French count so weirdly?

As for the bakery bill, how come the French count so strangely? Opinions vary about the origin, but what we do know is that the French counting system is called a vigesimal system, so based on multiplications of twenty. For Europe, this is an originally Celtic system and might have influenced the French from the North. Why then the Swiss and Belgians apply a decimal system instead is still unclear as of today. Ah, the mysteries of language!

Do you speak French? Share with us your favourite french local expression/term and where does it come from in our comments section below!

If you liked this piece of information on French, why don’t you also check out our blog posts on the varieties of EnglishSpanish and Right-to-Left Languages. 

If you love languages, you would no doubt agree that languages should be kept alive and celebrated. Learning about them is the best way to achieve this. TakeLessons has put together an infographic that is full of language facts that are as fascinating as the world’s diverse languages themselves. Read on to be inspired!


By | 2018-04-16T10:09:19+00:00 June 20th, 2017|Blog|

About the Author:

Project Manager Damien has been living in Barcelona, Spain since 2010. With 12 years experience in the localization industry as a Project Manager, he is French and speaks English and Spanish fluently. Adaptable and flexible, he is able to keep his cool in fast-paced and dynamic environments.

One Comment

  1. Noel Rodrigue August 30, 2017 at 7:50 pm - Reply

    OK, I’m from Canada, the province of Québec, the city of Gatineau to be precise. When you say: “the guardians of the language at the Académie française would be happy with.”, does that include words such as ‘parking’, ‘shopping’, etc.? Because we don’t use these in Québec, we use ‘stationnement’, ‘magasinage’, etc.! So, you may want to please the Académie, but you still need to be circumspect.

    While talking about movies, there’s not just the tone that counts, the vocabulary choice is also important. We can generally tell if a movie was dubbed in France or elsewhere in the first three sentences simply from the word choices and expressions used. And it has a lasting effect for the entire movie, though one will eventually ‘get over it’ … temporarily.

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