Bonne fête! Today marks the 50th anniversary since bilingualism in Canada became official. On July 7th, 1969, the House of Commons in Ottawa approved the Official Languages Act and made French an official language of Canada, alongside English.

French is mainly spoken in Quebec, but also in New Brunswick, Ontario, Western Canada and New England. In 2011, the number of Native French speakers in Canada was nearly 7.3 million with 7.9 million regularly speaking French at home.

You probably know that the French spoken in Canada is a little different to the one used in France, but do you know its history?

Modified Canadian flag to symbolize the dual nature/bilingualism in Canada.

Why French is spoken in Canada

Between 1534 and 1763 an area of North America was colonised by the French and named ‘New France’ (Nouvelle-France, in French). Those who settled in New France came from both rural and urban areas of France. For this reason, Canadian French has retained traces of French regional dialects, such as Norman, Poitevin, Gallo, or Saintongeais.

It is important to note that Canadian French and Quebec French are not quite the same. Indeed, Canadian French covers all the regional varieties of French spoken around Canada (in New Brunswick, Newfoundland or Manitoba, for example), while Quebec French is the popular French form spoken in Quebec, particularly in Montreal.

However, when people speak of the French language in Canada, they are generally referring to the latter, the best known and most common, which is called ‘Joual’ in Quebec French.

Differences to the French language

The Canadian French accent is also very marked compared to the French of France, with the “r” often rolled in the former. A French speaker from France can easily single out a Canadian French speaker, but it is interesting to note that for foreign multimedia programs (eg, TV or film), Canadian French dubbing generally avoids all accents, using a more “international” French.

The same can be said for Canadian French singers performing their songs - for some of them, the accent almost disappears when they sing.

Moreover, movie titles and dialogue is more literally translated in Canadian French than in France, where titles are often not translated at all. Pulp Fiction for example, wasn’t translated in France, but became Fiction Pulpeuse in French parts of Canada.

To most French-speaking people of France, Canadian French people have a very strong English (or rather Canadian-English) accent when, in a conversation in French, they quote an English word or proper noun.

An endangered language?

Though a large number of Quebec and Canadian French people promote and defend the French language in Canada, it is endangered by English because of a larger English-speaking territory.

In a 2017 survey, 70% of French-speaking people were said to be worried about the future of the French language and bilingualism in Canada, whereas 34% of English speakers considered it a minor issue.

Ice hockey graffiti in French colours in Canada.

There are differences of opinion between English and French speakers, but most of them agree that for Canada bilingualism is an asset that makes “the understanding between all the Canadian people” easier and is a big advantage to find a work.

Sometimes French-speaking people argue that Anglicisms are too present in the Canadian French vocabulary so they try to erase them, however, as previously mentioned, literal translations and transfers from the English language are still prevalent in Canadian French.

Canadian French in pop culture

French people have a curiosity and interest in the Canadian French language, and some Canadian pop culture outlets are very big in France too, particularly in the comic domain.

The Têtes à Claques humorous web series, presenting the adventures of various clay-model characters speaking with a strong Canadian French accent, have been successful in France.

Furthermore some Canadian comedians such as Rachid Badouri or impersonator Veronic DiCaire also have a certain notoriety in France.

Canadian French movies are also popular, such as Xavier Dolan’s 2014 film Mommy, which was ironically subtitled in French theatres and on video because of the very marked accent and typical Quebec terms used by the actors.

People in France and other French-speaking countries sometimes scoff at the Canadian French language and accent and often try to imitate it. But this kind of mockery is merely a by-product of the fascination for a people across the ocean who share a language yet speak a version belonging to another era.

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By Timothee Poulard, Wolfestone intern