Hi Frugalistas! I take regular French lessons but don’t have a lot of opportunity to practice speaking French in Australia. One of the things I was excited about doing was speaking French in Quebec on my recent trip to Canada. I hadn’t been to a French speaking country since I was in Paris in 2014. I knew my French had improved a lot – especially my accent. But I knew speaking French in Quebec was somewhat different to speaking French in France and that the people of Quebec speak French somewhat differently to the French………
Not speaking French at all
Spending the beginning of my trip to Canada in Vancouver, I saw or heard very little French. Of course Canada is officially bilingual, so public signage is in both French and English. But English is definitely the lingua franca in Vancouver. At the conference I was attending there were many Francophone colleagues to meet, but the conference was in English, and their English was utterly flawless. I didn’t get to speak French in Vancouver.
Travelling on to Ottawa, suddenly there was more French. Partly because it is much closer to Quebec and the cradle of Francophone Canada. Partly because it is the seat of government. I heard people speaking French in the street. I saw more French written down. But it was still very, very English.
But then I got on the train to Montreal before heading onto Quebec City – two cities that speak French……..
Suddenly everything around me was French
My first impression of speaking French in Quebec
On the train everything started to be different. Most of my fellow passengers were Francophone. Up till now bilingual messages were in English first, then French. Now, it’s French first. The VIA Rail staff speak French first, then English.
Things go well on the train. I speak French with some fellow passengers and speak French to the rail staff. I understand, and am understood.
Arriving in Montreal, I’m confident and thinking this Quebec French vs France French is not an issue at all. After all, all I need to do is check into my hotel – easy for me in French, I think. I’ve done it multiple times before……
At the reception I exchange pleasantries with the young woman at the desk. She finds my reservation, and confirms that I’m a guest of Quebec Tourisme. So far, so good. But then I hear something that sounds like “chchichchchhi?” I feel like I’m on another planet. Requesting a repeat, it sounds exactly the same. I know it’s a question because of the inflection at the end of the sentence. But I do not understand her Quebec accent. Of what should be basic tourist French….. And all she wants is my credit card and a form of photo ID. It’s a question I’ve heard and understood many times before.
But not this time. I’m worried.
Getting used to speaking French in Quebec
Over the next five days in both Montreal and Quebec City I start to learn Quebec French and learn about speaking French in Quebec.
I do speak French. In fact I speak a lot of French. I’m understood well and am complimented multiple times on my comprehension and speaking skills. My accent fascinates them, and is even labelled “cute”. I start to understand much better (especially in Quebec City).
After five days in Francophone Canada, I certainly don’t consider myself an expert. But I have learned a few things:
I found the Montreal accent much harder to understand than the Quebec City accent. Especially when young people were speaking. I find teenagers in France hard to understand too, and it was no different in Quebec.
My “French” French, with my Australian French accent was easily understood. I was happy. My teacher was proud and delighted. Who knew I was cute when I spoke French?
In noisy places like restaurants, it is much harder to hear properly, and therefore to understand. I apologised in French, then asked if they minded speaking English so I could hear properly. I received excellent service, with a smile, in English.
Don’t worry if you don’t speak French. In Montreal and Quebec City you don’t need to. Just speak English or ask to be spoken to in English and all will be well.
People will be happy to speak French with you if you initiate the conversation in French, particularly in Quebec City. Because Montreal is 50/50 English and French speaking I found I was spoken to in English as soon as they heard my accent.
French television is basically the same as French television in France. I found I could understand it about the same. If you find someone speaking French on French television hard to understand there are plenty of English channels.
Written French is basically the same as written French anywhere else. You can buy newspapers and magazines for practice. There are a few words that are different though. On menus, drinks are often labelled breuvages rather than boissons. Le weekend does not feature prominently – it’s le fin de la semaine. My teacher tells me this is because Quebec French is more traditional and contains far less Franglais generally.
The Quebecois accent is definitely different. In Quebec City I was waiting for the ferry across the St Lawrence River. I listened intently as a father spoke to his young son as the ferry inched in to dock:
– on avance, on avance… (it’s coming in, it’s coming in)
– doucement, doucement…. (gently, gently).
Except, instead of doucement (pronounced doose-mon) it sounded like doo-smen. Which sounded like deux semaines – which means two weeks!! I don’t think the ferry was arriving in two weeks somehow…..
The other big difference I could hear was the pronunciation of the common French sound wu (with a short u as in up). So in Quebec moi (me) becomes moy instead of mwu and toi (you) becomes toy instead of twu. To make it even more confusing, the ultra common oui (yes) becomes way instead of we. Common words, but very confusing!
My most important lesson came on my very last day in Canada in Montreal. The young Francophone waiter in the restaurant where I had lunch spoke to me in English when he heard my accent. But he couldn’t understand my Australian accent when I replied in English. He spoke to me in English, and I replied in French and all was well. Even in a cosmopolitan city like Montreal, my French was better understood than my English!
Do you have to speak French in Quebec? While it’s not necessary to speak or understand French to enjoy Montreal and Quebec City, I did find plenty of opportunity to speak, and listen to French. If you are in North America and want to practice, don’t hesitate in Quebec. Having said that, speaking English in Montreal, or speaking English in Quebec City is also easy if you don’t speak French.
There are many places in the world with regional accents. How have you managed speaking a foreign language with a regional accent?
Quebec trip planner:
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Author’s note: In Montreal and Quebec City I was a guest of Quebec Tourism (and they understood my French too!)
Nice to hear that you were understood and that everyone was helpful. I traveled in and out of Montreal and Quebec City for about 9 years, representing an English book seller. Initially my French was terrible. I’m from Nova Scotia, and we don’t speak much French. Most of my customers were bilingual, so that was a blessing for me. However, I did learn to speak French, and am now sad to say that I have not used it in years.
Quebec City has gotten much more English friendly over the years. I remember the first time I went there on business (almost no French at that time), and left literally in tears. Very few would communicate to me in English, and I was left wondering why any company would hire someone who spoke no French. I persevered, learned French, and eventually came to love my clients in Quebec City, as much as those in Montreal. In fact, at one point I was representing a Francophone publisher!
What a great story Nancie. Quebec City is still definitely Francophone, but everyone I met was very happy to speak English. I wonder if part of your experience was to do with the separatist movement that seems quite dormant now?
Duke Stewart says
If you can decipher a Montreal from a Quebec City accent, I think you’re an expert Jo! Appreciate the humility though, and bet you can pull it off after going between France and Quebec. I bet the differences are difficult to manage sometimes, as you write.
It’s interesting that you mention your Australian English accent as “difficult to understand.” That is something similar that happens in my digs in Korea, as people can struggle with non-American accents in my town. In Seoul and the more cosmopolitan cities, I imagine it’s different. I have a few students who studied in Australia and have found their English accents to be a strange mix and a bit hard to understand sometimes.
I’ve lived in Japan and Korea and can certainly attest to regional dialectical differences. Where I live in Korea is considered the countryside and I’ve heard many stories of people here going up to Seoul and changing their accents to fit in. The same goes for Japan and people from Osaka or other places visiting Tokyo. I guess you’ve got to practice the accent-franca to get anywhere in those places.
I think maybe that’s a thing in the U.S. but very rare if so. I think people should keep their accents for as long as possible. It’s a bit of a window into your life story and background, in my opinion. People say I don’t have an accent and that sometimes bums me out.
I wonder if people where you live in Australia ever have to do that when visiting Sydney or the other cities.
Duke Stewart says
Btw, thanks for the awesome post! It made me think quite a bit, as you can see lol.
I wouldn’t say I could tell the difference Carl, but one was definitely “easier ” to understand than the other!
There is a small, subtle difference in Australian accents but it’s not huge – it’s more a question of how strong the accent is. I don’t have a particularly strong Australian accent, but if people aren’t used to Australian accents it’s strong enough to confuse!
Bethaney - Flashpacker Family says
Interesting read Jo. We are in Ottawa at the moment and headed to Montreal next week. I’m already noticing, in the French I hear spoken on the street here, that there are difference. I have definitely noticed that “oui” sounds more like “way”. We have a good comprehension of French, having both learnt it at school, but I’m not confident at speaking it. I should definitely work on my courage to at least try though as we’re spending 7 weeks in Montreal. 🙂
I suspect if you try in Montreal Bethaney they’ll reply to you in English anyway. My French is much better than school French and I still got spoken to in English (but I did find taxi drivers a bit different). I have heard “way” instead of the traditional “oui” in regional France, but it seems much more pronounced in Quebec. Have a wonderful time – I hope you are getting to Quebec City too.
Kelly @TravelOptimist says
How nice to read the perspective of a tourist in my hometown! We have to meet up next time you are in Montreal!
Don’t worry Kelly, I’m already plotting my return!
I loved reading your post. We were in Montreal last year and we had a similar experience as you, when it came to the language: one moment we felt we were doing really well speaking French (ours is not as strong as yours I suspect, but reasonable) and the next moment we were completely lost, not a word we could identify! But everyone was really nice about it: people seemed happy that we were trying, to an extent I never experienced in Europe. My husband is Irish but we speak Italian with the kids, so maybe they thought is was either French or nothing and endured our efforts!
I’m so glad I’m not the only one who went from great to not understanding a word in the space of a sentence!
Annie Parisé says
I’m from Quebec (south shore of Montreal actually) and I was happy to read your post! We love people who come in Quebec and try to talk in french! It is always a pleasure to help them!
Notre français est peut-être un peu différent de celui des Français, mais c’est ce qui le rend si riche! Nous essayons d’y inclure le moins de mots possible venant de l’anglais (comme weekend ou shopping par exemple qui sont remplacés par “fin de semaine” et “magasinage”) afin de protéger notre langue complètement entourée d’anglais (le reste du Canada et les États-Unis). In fact, we have a law to protect french in Quebec. It’s the Loi 101 if you want to check 🙂
Merci Annie! Je suis tres contente que vous aimez mon post de blog (excusez-moi pour le franglais!)
This is too funny.
I am québécois living in Germany and I have met a few British that learned French , as well as traveling to French speaking countries like switzerland, Belgium and of course France. My accent has always taken people aback. They aren’t sure what to make of it, I don’t think they find it cute though. Lol. My British friend went to Quebec for a few months and she was telling me her experience with “quand”, when. She says it prime and proper like France and the look on her face when my pronounciation leaked out of her mouth… It sounded like a dying cat. But that’s how we say it. I’m glad she is not alone in her troubles.
I didn’t pick up on “quand” when I was there. Everyone’s accent is different. I know my Australian one isn’t Oxford English, but it says a lot about who I am and my heritage, and I see the Quebecois one as being the same – it tells a story.
Jill at Reading the Book says
I was in Montreal in 2010 and I had a real problem with the accent – I’m British but speak fluent French, so it was really embarrassing how often I had to ask them to repeat themselves! But I’ve noticed in the last few years how many Québecois words are sneaking into French French – fin de semaine instead of weekend, courriel instead of email… it’s nice to see!
I found their accent difficult at first too Jill, but got used to it quickly.
Hi there – great read. Just wanted to add a bit to the whole Oui vs. “Way”. As I’ve heard both used as well in France. I lived abroad for a while with a French family with children. When ever the children were asked a question, if they responded with a “way” the parents would correct them to respond “oui”. I asked and they said it was equivalent to Oui – meaning yes and “Way – meaning Yeah, much less formal of course.
Visiting Quebec and Montreal this weekend for a week and super excited. Maybe I’ll get to practice my rusty French.
I’ve heard it a little in the same context in France too Monica – but in Quebec it is very common, and I’ve never heard the “oi” words pronounced like they are in Quebec. Have a wonderful trip