Speaking French outside of France: Get to know the Belgian, Swiss, and Canadian idioms!

Speaking French outside of France: Get to know the Belgian, Swiss, and Canadian idioms!

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Just like English and Spanish, the French language can be very different from one country to the other. This article is here to help you understand how French can be different in other French-speaking countries such as Canada, Belgium or Switzerland. Get acquainted with the most used words or idioms and understand some funny bickering between France and other French-speaking countries!


Why is French different…

In Quebec?

If you know your geography well, you have probably noticed that Quebec is quite far from France (compared to Belgium or Switzerland), and that just as the United States it was colonised. Quebec is not a country, it’s a province that belongs to Canada. Canada has English and French as its official languages. In 1534, the explorer Jacques Cartier claimed the land in the name of King Francis I of France, and thus New France (the former name of Quebec) was born. In 1763, after losing a battle, the French empire was forced to cease its land to the British empire, and from then on the language evolved differently. Something funny about the Canadian language is that it seems to be closer to the French language of the 17th century. Indeed, before that, the French from France and all the settlers that came to New France spoke exactly the same French. That is to say, they did not pronounce every syllable of the words. After the 17th century, France decided that the French had to pronounce every syllable and Quebeckers continued to speak French as they used to!

In Belgium?

Due to the proximity of both countries, the French language always influenced the languages in Belgium throughout the centuries. In fact, Belgium and France have had a great deal in common since 57 BC, when Julius Caesar conquered a part of Europe, called Gallia Belgica, along with France itself. It explains why the French language had such an influence on Belgian languages. Contrary to the province of Quebec, not all Belgians speak French, some parts of Belgium rather use German or Dutch. The specificity of Belgium is also that they have several dialects that mix French, Dutch and German, such as “wallon” or “flemish”. All these different languages explain why French has evolved differently over the centuries.

In Switzerland?

Not the whole country speaks French. Only four cantons in Switzerland speak French. Why? Because they are the closest to France. The rest of the country speaks mainly German, and Italian in the South. Just like Belgium, Switzerland and France belonged to the same people during antiquity, they were of French origin. Belgian language and Swiss language have similarities because they were both influenced by the Francien language (the French dialect), so you’ll see in the following parts how some of their idioms are alike.

The influence of English in all the idioms

I don’t think you’ll be surprised if I tell you Canadian French was influenced by English. Of course in Canada people speak English, so Canadian French was throughout centuries influenced strongly by English. Something really interesting about Canada is that you can easily notice how code switching is present in people’s daily life.

What is code switching? Code switching means to alternate between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation. Quebeckers use English words all the time, words that would not be accepted if we were in France, here are some examples :

  • cheap would be abordable in France
  • a joke would be une blague
  • a tip would be un pourboire
  • watcher (to watch) would be surveiller

As you can see from the last word, Quebeckers have also adapted and turned some English words into French words, “er” and the end of a French word is usually the sign of an infinitive verb, here “to watch” became “watcher”.

Another thing worth mentioning in Canadian French is the use of loan translation or calque, that is totally forbidden in France. Here is one example: to have a bun in the oven (to be pregnant) would be in Canadian French: avoir un pain au four. No one from France would know what that could mean except its literal sense, whereas it would be totally understandable for a Canadian French.

On the contrary, you’ll be kind of surprised to find out Belgian and Swiss French also have English influences. Of course, French itself has English influences. In France we say “football”, “weekend”, “marketing” and so on. But something really interesting is that Switzerland has English influences that French doesn’t have, such as:

English

Swiss French

French

hot water tank

un boiler

un ballon d’eau chaude

tea-room

un tea-room

un salon de thé

a tracksuit

un training

un jogging (also a word from English)

post office

un office de poste

un bureau de poste

Some Belgian words taken from English exist as well, such as posteposer which means “to postpone” in English and that doesn’t exist in France.

Similarities between these idioms

As I mentioned before, Belgian and Swiss were both influenced by the Francien language, and it’s funny how these languages have things in common that French doesn’t have. For example mealtimes, you’ll get easily confused by those terms that Belgian, Swiss and Canadian French use; here is a table to express this idea:

 

English

Swiss, Belgian and Canadian French

French

breakfast

déjeuner

petit-déjeuner

lunch

dîner

déjeuner

dinner

souper

dîner

Other words that are different from French are the numbers, especially 70 (“soixante-dix”) and 90 (“quatre-vingt-dix”). Swiss and Belgian use septante for seventy and nonante for ninety. Believe me or not, these words tend to exasperate French people a lot. French people are proud of their language and so are Belgian and Swiss people. Switzerland even pushes it to the extreme and uses huitante for eighty, an easy way for a French to be confused when talking to a Swiss.

Pay attention to which country you are in. You can encounter the same idiom in different countries but it may have a different meaning depending on the country you are in, for example, “remettre l’église au milieu du village” has 3 different meanings:

  • In France, it means “ensure that traditions are respected”
  • In Belgium – “to keep a cool head”
  • In Switzerland – “to give as many details as possible”

Four different words for the same thing

Things can get complicated if you want to learn French idioms from different countries. Something funny about the French language is that different words might be used to talk about the same things, depending on which country you are. Let me give you examples and try not to get them mixed up!

 

English

Canadian French

Belgian French

Swiss French

French 

a mobile phone 

un cellulaire 

un GSM 

un natel

un téléphone portable

an indicator

un flasheur

un clignoteur

un signofile

un clignotant

It’s freezing!

Il fait frette!

Il fait caillant!

Il fait cramine!

Il fait très froid!

a mop

une mope

un torchon

une panosse

une serpillère

Getting used to the accent

The accent can change everything in a language, if you are a native English speaker I’m sure you can distinguish an American from a British, from an Australian or a Canadian, etc.

For French, it’s basically the same, except that Canadian can have such a strong accent that it can be hard for a French person to understand sometimes what is said. I advise you to look on the internet for videos to understand how different pronunciation can be. If you already know some French or if you’ve already been in France, I can assure you that the accent can seem really funny when you’re not used to it. In fact, Canadian French, stresses some syllables French people never stress. On top of that, sometimes, Quebeckers don’t even pronounce every word of a sentence. One example to illustrate what I said: Est-ce que tu t’es habillé? (Did you get dressed?), will be Tu t’es tu habillé? in Canadian French.

In Belgium and Switzerland there is a strong accent as well, but much more subtle than in Canada. Look for videos and make up your mind on which accent is the easiest to understand or to reproduce! The main difference between Belgian/Swiss French and Canadian French is that Canadian people pronounce every word differently whereas only some words are pronounced differently in Belgium and Switzerland.

French language and bickering, choose your side

As I already mentioned, French people can be really proud of their language, but you know what’s even more important to them? Food, French food.

Combine the two, and start a war.

Most of the French people will say pain au chocolat. In the South, some of them will say that it’s a “chocolatine”. French people seem to disagree on that since ages. Quebec has chosen its side: Quebeckers say “chocolatine”. In Belgium, they say “couque au chocolat”, another word for the same thing! Eventually, in Switzerland, they seem to say “pain au chocolat”. Everyone in France and outside of France seems to disagree on that, it’s funny how some people can take it seriously! This pastry is just an example, of course, the more words you’ll know, the more you’ll be able to discuss this kind of matter with natives and see how many variations one language can have!

In a nutshell, if you want to know more about French idioms and decide how the pastry above should be called, just take a look at our course and learn the most used Idioms from Quebec, Belgium, and Switzerland and their French equivalent!

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