Whether we come from France, Belgium, Switzerland, or even Canada (and I could go on like that), we all speak French, that’s true. But sometimes, we can actually hear or read French words that we don’t even understand or that we know of but find obsolete or « out-of-date », even in our own countries. It can sound strange for foreigners, who actually think that wherever they learn French (this difficult language with all its tenses and grammar exceptions), they will be understood everywhere French is spoken. But this is a fact. Even I, as a French person, won’t understand much of what a person from Québec tells me if he or she only uses typical Québec expressions.
The list of differences is infinite and could never be completed as new expressions constantly come along, and examples of differences are numerous. This might be difficult to translate into English and get to my point, but I will try to use a few examples and typical expressions. Just have a look.
What is the main difference between Belgium and France when it comes to speaking French? Well, first of all, expressions, and then again more expressions.
But what I would like to point out and which is very obvious for us, French people, or at least me, is how Belgian people count. Have you ever tried understanding a Belgian person giving you his or her phone number with their number system? Me, I did, and well, it sounded like Chinese for me. I know foreigners think that French people’s way of counting doesn’t make any sense. But since we are told this way, it sounds quite normal to me.
Here is how you would read out a phone number, both ways:
06.90.70.17.80: Belgium : zéro – six – nonante – septante – dix-sept – octante
06.90.70.17.80: France : zéro – six – quatre- vingt- dix – soixante-dix – dix-sept – quatre-vingt
Here is one easy example showing how you could actually end up getting lost in Africa.
In France, and in any other country I guess, we use the expression “Ask for directions” when we are lost or trying to get to a place we don’t know the address of. Well, then, be careful if you want to practice your French skills when visiting African countries where French is the main language. You might not end up getting the right answer.
The reason is simple. In Africa, and especially in Burkina Faso, if someone asks you for directions (“demander sa route”), he won’t be meaning that. He is simply asking you if he can take leave from you.
Although Québec is very far from France, well, they all speak French. Or I could say they actually speak “Québécois”. The French language from Québec has known a great influence from Canadian English, and this is why they have become professionals in the field of “Frenglish”.
They mix French, English, and Québec expressions altogether. You can then imagine how difficult it is for foreigners to actually understand what they are saying. And I won’t start talking about accents.
One example I could think of is the expression “Souffler un tire ». If you ask me, I would never have guessed the meaning of this expression. You can see it’s French but then comes in the word « tire »; which is not even a conjugated form of the French verb « tirer », no. It’s actually the word « tyre » written the US way. In “correct” French, we would say “gonfler un pneu”.
Switzerland is a multi-cultural country where German, Italian and French are spoken. But still, they have their own national applications of those languages. This is especially true when it comes to Swiss German. But Swiss French does not actually escape this rule.
You might not always find what you were searching for in Switzerland if you use “standard” French expressions or words. For instance, if you want to buy some cheese but do not know where the Cheese dealer is, well never ask them for a cheese dealer because they might give you wrong directions or you might get to another shop.
Why? Well, because in Switzerland and in French Swiss, a cheese dealer is not always called a cheese dealer (“fromager” in French) but a “fruiterer” (“maître fruitier”). It might sound strange but if you go to Switzerland and want to buy their lovely cheese, ask for the Fruit merchant and you will see if you find what you were looking for.
France and its regions
You have seen several examples of how misunderstandings could happen in all the French speaking countries depending on which part of the globe you are in. But, there is no need to go that far to see the differences in speaking French. French people are very proud of belonging to one specific region and as such, do not want to see their own dialects disappear. Therefore, you might sometimes meet people talking a mix of standard French and local dialects. This is especially true for such regions as Brittany, the Basque region in South of France, Alsace, and so on.
But lately, one dialect that has become famous is the “Ch’ti “dialect. Never heard about it? Well, it comes from the North part of France. They do not only have a very particular dialect, but also have a very strong accent and a special Ch’ti culture. Therefore, when everyone else in France will use the word for trousers “pantalon”, they will use the word “maronne”.
Have a look at this small video, which is an extract of “Bienvenu chez les Ch’ti”, a movie that nearly jumped at the top of most popular French movies from the past 50 years. And if you want to have an idea of what this could give in English, well, Will Smith bought the authors’ rights to produce an American version!