English students often ask why the language spoken in shows like Downton Abbey sounds so different from the one spoken in Friends or Sex and the City. Of course, you can dismiss such questions by saying that Downton Abbey is a period piece and people spoke differently in the past. But this is hardly the whole truth. The real reason why Dame Maggie Smith and Jennifer Anniston sound so different is that they speak different varieties of the same language —British and American —, which, of course, complicates things for students.
Luckily, you might think, not all languages present such nuances and complexities. French, for example, only comes in one form. Right?
Well, let's put it this way. If we were to make an all-encompassing article, we would be looking at a 30-item list, including varieties, accents, and dialects.
However, we don't want to scare you. That is why we have reduced our list to the 5 most important French accents from France and the world.
It would be hard to write an article titled “Where is French Spoken?” and not start here, in Paris. Like the British standard, Received Pronunciation for English learners, Parisian French is seen as the standard French variety. As such, it is the type of language that you are most likely to be taught at school or language academies.
One of the characteristics that set Parisian French apart from other dialects is the number of borrowings from English that can be found in everyday conversation.
If you ever work as an intern in a Parisian company, you might hear things like le deadline, un feedback, and un brainstorm.
Parisian French also tends to be spoken faster than other kinds, and it uses many enthusiastic expressions such as génial (great), énorme (awesome), and trop bien (excellent).
French from Belgium
It's estimated that around half of the population in Belgium are French speakers. Although this accent is quite close to the Parisian one, you might perceive that some of its sounds are harder. That is because this variety is influenced by Belgium's official language —Dutch.
Belgian French also presents a few differences in vocabulary. The number 70, for example, is soixante-dix in the standard variety, but septante according to Belgian speakers.
One of the best ways to get acquainted with an accent is to find a celebrity that speaks that accent and study the way they talk. The celebrated novelist Amélie Nothomb, for example, is a Belgian speaker of French, so you can watch one of her highly entertaining interviews to get familiar with the sounds of this variety.
South of France
Those who travel to the South of France usually say that this variety has a strange musicality that is difficult to imitate or explain. If we were to describe the Marseille accent, we could say that it has very open articulations and a unique sing-songy intonation. To untrained ears, however, this variation might be the most difficult to understand, as the Marseilles accent is spoken more quickly than any other accent.
Another big difference between the Marseille variety and Standard French users is that the former pronounce the final -e in words such as “France”, which gives the impression of hearing a tonic stress on the penultimate syllable for this type of word.
When asked “Where is French spoken?” not many people would immediately say North America. However, early forms of French can be traced back to Eastern Canada for around five centuries, and it has since become the mother tongue to almost 95% of Quebec's population. The Québecóis variety is quite similar in grammar and lexis to its European counterpart, but it does present some interesting differences at the spoken level.
Known for its pleasant and charming tones, the Québecóis accent has a nasalised sound and a lax pronunciation of vowels i, u, and ou in closed syllables.
Another big difference between Metropolitan and Québecóis French is that the latter has maintained a few long pronunciations that the standard variety has lost over time. For example, words like pâte and patte, maitre and mettre have the same length in Parisian French but not in spoken Québecóis French.
French from Haiti
Haitian or Caribbean French is a combination of European French and African languages and dialects whose origin is hard to trace due to the history of slavery on this island. And if this sounds too complex already, you should know that the variety spoken in Haiti is just one of the 17 distinct types that can be found on the Caribbean and in the North American continent.
The most salient difference between standard French and the type spoken in Haiti is intonation, i.e., the music you hear when you talk to a Haitian speaker.
In this video, you will learn some of the most prominent differences between Caribbean and Parisian French.
As it happens with different varieties of English, French accents tend to be mutually intelligible and, in general, they don't pose comprehension problems for students of other varieties.
However, being able to identify regional differences will increase your awareness of the historical and cultural implications rooted in the language and, as a result, you will be able to communicate more effectively and empathetically.
At Listen & Learn, we work with French teachers from different areas that can teach you everything there is to know about Francophone cultures and their different accents.
Contact us now and we'll get back to you with a tailor-made course designed to suit your cultural interests and current language skills.