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Is Québécois French more difficult than other varieties of French?

Is Québécois French more difficult than other varieties of French?

Maybe no and maybe so.

By maybe no,
I mean that learning Québécois French is inherently probably just as easy or just as difficult as learning any other variety of French. I’m sure this point can be argued — maybe you’ll disagree by saying that spoken Québécois French has more colloquial contractions than other varieties of French. This may be true, but the good thing is that contractions can be learned.

You can learn that sur la often contracts informally to s’a in colloquial Québecois French in the same way that de le contracts to du in all varieties of French. The finer points of the pronunciation of Québécois French may also make it more difficult for some people than other varieties, but I don’t think I’d qualify the differences as exceptionally more difficult.

I can accept that Québécois French may be inherently somewhat more difficult, but not to the extremes people sometimes suggest. If you’re enthusiastic about learning the French of Québec, you’ll probably find the mechanics of it more or less equally challenging or equally breezy as any other variety of French.

By maybe so,
I mean that the Québécois make learning French more difficult than it has to be. What I write here may sting, but I believe it to be the truth. If Québécois French feels much more difficult to learn than other varieties of French, the Québécois themselves play a role in this.

A learner of French once asked me if the French (the ones from France) and their refusal to accept the validity of other varieties of French were to blame for the absence of good quality learning materials for Québécois French.

No, I’m afraid the French have nothing to do with it. It would be convenient to place the blame on the French, wouldn’t it? But the Québécois are free to publish whatever they like without having to consult with the French first.

I’m sure there are different reasons for the lack of good quality learning materials for colloquial Québécois French — publishers may not consider it lucrative, for example, to produce materials for a smaller variety of French (Québécois) than for a much larger variety (so-called international French).

Then there is the resistance to teaching what some Québécois themselves consider to be an inferior form of French. The colloquial register (or level) of Québécois French is what the Québécois use when they speak amongst themselves, but many Québécois are reluctant when it comes to explicitly teaching that register of French to non-francophones.

In French courses in Québec, the colloquial register of Québécois French is generally not taught to non-francophones. Students are taught the standard form of Québécois French (the register used in the media, for example). It is of course essential that students be taught this register of French, but equally essential — and probably much more immediately practical — would be to teach colloquial Québécois French, words like pogner and niaiser, and how the Québécois ask yes-no questions with tu, immediately come to mind.

As a learner of French and more specifically Québécois French, you are not a helpless bystander. When learning Québécois French, the best thing you can do for yourself is to cultivate persistence. Continue to speak French when the opportunities arise, work on improving your listening skills, model your spoken French on that of the Québécois, and refuse to let certain people convince you there’s something wrong with what you’re working towards.

You may have had to deal with a teacher who disapproves of Québécois French, a commenter online who’s “warned” you against learning Québécois French because it’s “too different,” a speaker of another variety of French who believes Québécois French to sound rural or, sadly, a Québécois person who believes foreigners should not speak like the Québécois. Listen to what they have to say, then move on. There are many Québécois who will support you in your choice to speak Québécois French. Don’t let the ones who try to stand in your way stand in your way. If I did that whenever I heard a negative comment, there’d be no OffQc.

Back to the original question — is Québécois French more difficult than other varieties of French? Probably. But I’ll end with this:

If you learn to understand and speak like the Québécois, you’ll have stood up to many challenges, such as a lack of learning materials, people who’ll try to steer you off course, and bilingual francophones who’ll switch to English on you. Someone who learns Québécois French has learned a lot more than “just” French along the way — patience, persistence and staying on course despite the challenges, to name a few.

Isn’t that impressive?

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passage pour piétons

passage pour piétons

Not all intersections in Montréal have them, but the white strips in the image above indicate where pedestrians should cross the street.

In Québec, the white strips, or lignes blanches, make up what is known as un passage pour piétons. The strips may also be yellow.

un piéton
une piétonne
a pedestrian

un passage pour piétons
a crosswalk

Pour traverser la rue, j’ai utilisé le passage pour piétons.
I used the crosswalk to cross the street.

brigadier scolaire

brigadier scolaire

At intersections near schools, there is often a person who ensures schoolchildren cross the street safely.

If this person is male, the name for him is un brigadier scolaire. If the person is female, she’s called une brigadière scolaire.

une intersection
an intersection

un brigadier scolaire
une brigadière scolaire
a crossing guard

un écolier
une écolière
a schoolchild

Le brigadier scolaire a fait traverser des écoliers.
The crossing guard helped some schoolchildren to cross.

Traffic lights are known by two words in Québec: les feux and les lumières.

The first word, feux, is the standard usage in Québec. The second word, lumières, is the way you’ll often hear it said colloquially.

flèches vertes

flèches vertes

A green light may in fact be a green arrow, une flèche verte.

Here are some French examples related to traffic lights, using a mix of the words feu and lumière. Remember, lumière is an informal usage.

La lumière est jaune. The light is yellow.
Le feu a tourné au vert. The light turned green.
J’ai brûlé un feu rouge. I went through a red light.

Shit, tu viens de passer sur la rouge!
Shit, you just went through a red!
Colloquially, sur la rouge may sound like s’a rouge.

Le conducteur a tourné sur la lumière rouge.
The driver turned on the red light.

À Montréal, il est interdit de tourner à droite quand la lumière est rouge.
In Montréal, turning right when the light is red is not allowed.

Some out-of-province visitors to Montréal don’t realise that it’s not permitted to turn right on a red light. This is true for the entire island of Montréal. Yes, Montréal is on an island — that’s something else some visitors don’t realise!

It’s always kind of amusing when visitors from the US honk at a car waiting at a red light in an attempt to get them to turn right…

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Un gros bec sur le front

gros bec sur le front

Just when you thought you’d already see it all, along come 7 new words used in Québec appearing on OffQc for the very first time! (Or at least I think it’s the first time; even I can’t keep track of what’s on OffQc anymore.)

The French in this entry comes from Ah shit, j’ai pogné le cancer (tome 1), written by Maude Schiltz. If you’re reading this, Maude, I think I’m gonna have to rename this blog Ah shit, je parle québécois! Thanks for the great examples, as always.

Here are the 7 words, which we’ll look at in more detail below:

1. boules, boobs
2. fitter, to fit
3. chnoute, shit
4. down, down (duh!)
5. booker, to book
6. raqué, worn out, sore
7. bec, kiss

In her book, Maude lists the leading causes of breast cancer, like heredity, being overweight, smoking, stress, alcohol, etc. She explains that she doesn’t fit the typical profile (most of the causes don’t apply to her), but she developed breast cancer nonetheless. She says: Je ne fitte pas dans les statistiques. La morale dans tout ça? Si vous ne fittez pas non plus, checkez-vous les boules pareil. I don’t fit the statistics. Moral of the story? If you don’t fit the statistics either, check your boobs anyway.

Boules is a feminine word. The English word “tits” seems too vulgar a translation for boules (or at least here, it does), and “breasts” doesn’t convey the informality of the word; “boobs” seems like the best way to render boules in English.

Maude reminds us of the importance of eating well, not smoking, and avoiding the sun and products like cheap perfumes that are pleins de parabènes en particulier et de chnoute en général, full of parabens in particular and crap in general. If you heard someone say c’est de la chnoute when talking about a product, the person is saying that it’s crap, shitty, a piece of junk, etc.

At one point, Maude tells us that her chum was having a hard time accepting her cancer and that he was feeling down. She says: Chrystian a pogné le creux de la vague. Chrystian’s feeling really down. It’s a longer, more descriptive way of saying être down, which Maude also uses in her book. We can probably liken the French expression pogner le creux de la vague to the English expression “to be down in the dumps.”

Maude explains that she and her chum never feel down at the same time though, which is a good thing: La bonne chose, c’est qu’on n’est jamais down en même temps, alors il y en a toujours un pour essayer de remonter l’autre, tout n’est pas perdu. The good thing is that we’re never down at the same time, so there’s always one of us to help pick the other back up; all’s not lost. A similar expression is pogner un down, for example: Moi, chui méga frue et j’ai pogné un down. I’m frustrated big time and I’m down in the dumps. Fru and frue are informal shortforms of frustré, frustrée.

When Maude had to cancel her appointment with her tattoo artist for health reasons, she was very saddended by it. She tells the tattooist to give her appointment to someone else: J’ai eu beaucoup, mais beaucoup de peine en disant au tatoueur de laisser tomber et de booker quelqu’un d’autre à ma place. I was very, and I mean very upset when I told the tattooist to forget it and book someone else instead. Booker is pronounced bouker.

Maude’s happy to learn later on though that her doctor says she can indeed get a tattoo done. She manages to land a last-minute appointment: Les tatoueurs de chez Imago m’ont fait une place à la dernière minute pour demain, eux qui sont bookés tellement d’avance. The tattooers at Imago, who are always booked so far in advance, booked me in at the last minute for tomorrow. Maude uses the verb booker yet again when she talks about how her schedule fills up quickly every day: Mon temps se booke vite. My time fills up fast.

You know how you feel after a strenuous workout? You can describe that worn-out and aching feeling as being raqué. In a different part of the book, Maude describes her state of health: Je suis raquée, ça me pique partout et j’ai encore mal à la gorge et à la peau. I’m sore all over, it’s prickling all over my body, and my throat and skin still hurt.

And finally, a word you might not know but will surely like to learn: un bec. A bec isn’t a juicy, sloppy wet kiss: that’s un french. A bec, for example, can be a little peck on the cheek (petit bec sur la joue) or a big kiss planted on someone’s forehead, like when Maude thanks her tattoo artist by saying: Hugues, gros bec sur le front : X! Hugues, big kiss on the forehead: X! The expression donner un bec à quelqu’un means “to give someone a kiss.”

Well, I said 7 words, but there’s actually a lot more than that here, isn’t there? Here’s the main stuff again, simplified in list form:

Je ne fitte pas dans les statistiques.
I don’t fit the statistics.

La morale dans tout ça?
Moral of the story?

Checkez-vous les boules pareil.
Check your boobs anyway.

plein de chnoute
full of shit, full of crap

C’est de la chnoute.
It’s crap. It’s a piece of junk.

Chrystian a pogné le creux de la vague.
Chrystian’s feeling really down; he’s down in the dumps.

On n’est jamais down en même temps.
We’re never down at the same time.

Moi, chui méga frue et j’ai pogné un down.
I’m frustrated big time and I’m down in the dumps.

booker quelqu’un d’autre à ma place
to book someone else in my spot

Ils sont bookés tellement d’avance.
They’re booked so far in advance.

Mon temps se booke vite.
My time fills up fast.

Je suis raqué.
I’m worn out, sore all over.

Gros bec sur le front!
Big kiss on the forehead!

un petit bec sur la joue
a little kiss on the cheek

donner un bec à quelqu’un
to give someone a kiss

_ _ _

French quotes written by Maude Schiltz in Ah shit, j’ai pogné le cancer (tome 1), Éditions de Mortagne, Boucherville (Québec), 2013.

Page references: boules 200; fitter 200; chnoute 204; down 190; booker 54, 55, 63; raqué 73; bec 62.

You can find all the entries on OffQc related to Maude’s book Ah shit, j’ai pogné le cancer here.

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Lettre d'une boulimique [Urbania]

Lettre d’une boulimique [illustration by Catherine Potvin]

In an interesting text called “Lettre d’une boulimique,” written by an anonymous author and published on Urbania, we read about the struggles of one person with bulimia, called la boulimie in French. A person who suffers from bulimia is un or une boulimique.

To help out a little with understanding the text, here’s a look at some of the vocabulary used in it.

The author begins with:

On a tous déjà pris du poids, à un moment donné dans nos vies. Ceux pour qui c’est pas le cas, vous êtes chanceux, mais j’vous emmerde un peu.

We’ve all put on weight at one point or another in our lives. For those of you who haven’t, you’re lucky, but you can also kind of go to hell.

The expression prendre du poids means “to gain weight.” Its opposite is perdre du poids, “to lose weight.” The expression à un moment donné is used frequently in French. It means “at some point.”

The expression je vous emmerde (and je t’emmerde) can be translated with varying degrees of strength, depending on the context. It can mean “fuck you,” but because I felt this was too strong for the example above, I’ve rendered it instead as “you can go to hell.” It can also mean “screw you.”

The author continues:

La balance, quand on regarde ça objectivement, c’est juste notre rapport avec la gravité. No big deal, comme y disent. Sauf que comme vous le savez tous, dans la société où on vit, c’est quand même pas mal un big deal.

The scale, when looked at objectively, is just a measure of the force of gravity on our bodies. No big deal, as they say. Except, as you all know, in the society we live in, it is a big deal though.

There’s that expression pas mal again. Remember, pas mal isn’t a negation. It’s an intensifier. We can often translate pas mal as “pretty” in English. T’es pas mal jeune or t’es jeune pas mal means “you’re pretty young.” Other times, we might need to use other words in English to translate it, like “really” or “quite.” Using the expression big deal from the text:

C’est un big deal.
It’s a big deal.

C’est pas mal un big deal.
It’s really a big deal.

C’est quand même pas mal un big deal.
It’s really a big deal though.

When you say pas mal, those two words are said together:
c’est / quand même / pas mal / un big deal.

In the next bit of text, the author uses the verb pogner.

Regardons la réalité en face. Si on est mince, on pogne plus, on n’a pas à se sentir jugés quand on prend une poutine au resto, pis on risque de plus se faire engager si on a un beau body que si on a un surplus lipidique.

Let’s face it. If you’re thin, then you’re more attractive, you won’t feel like you’re being judged negatively if you order poutine at the restaurant, and you have more chances of being hired if you’ve got a nice bod instead of a surplus of fat.

We’ve seen the verb pogner a lot recently, especially in the book title Ah shit, j’ai pogné le cancer, written by Maude Schiltz. The informal verb pogner is used in Québec in the sense of “to catch.”

In the quote above, what the author means with on pogne plus is that if you’re thin, you’re more “catchy” — catchy in the sense of being physically attractive. You can understand pogner here as meaning “to be desirable,” and on pogne plus as meaning “one is more desirable.”

The expression pogner avec les filles means “to be lucky with girls.” A person qui pogne avec les filles is considered to be attractive by girls and has no trouble finding girlfriends. When it’s with the boys that someone is “catchy,” the expression is pogner avec les gars. Remember, gars is pronounced gâ.

Y pogne avec les filles.
Girls love him. Girls think he’s hot.

It’s not just people who can be catchy; a song can pogner too, for example. Une chanson qui pogne is a catchy song, a hit.

If you’d like to read the entire text on Urbania, you can do that here.

_ _ _

French quotes written by Anonymous in “Lettre d’une boulimique,” published on Urbania, 9 May 2014.

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Yesterday, I posted a satirical piece about francophones’ attitudes towards French. I suspect the piece was misunderstood, which is of course the risk that comes with writing satirically. The text wasn’t meant to be taken at face value. I’d like to look at some of what I wrote, without the satirical angle this time.

I remember a conversation I had with two friends while at university. One of the friends was anglophone, and the other was francophone. All three of us were speaking in French.

At one point, the anglophone friend talked about his job. He used the words ma job to talk about his work. The francophone friend corrected him almost immediately. He said the anglophone should say mon emploi instead of ma job. He argued that ma job sounded inappropriate for the anglophone to use.

The anglophone said no, that his job was not an emploi. He explained that his job was just temporary work, and that it wasn’t his career. The francophone said the word emploi could be used for any kind of employment. The anglophone was probably splitting hairs for the sake of conversation, but what he was saying isn’t entirely crazy.

The francophone was right in the sense that emploi can be used for any kind of employment, but he was so caught up in his zeal to call out a québécois usage that he deemed inappropriate that he missed the nuance of what the anglophone wanted to convey. For the anglophone, the word emploi was incorrect because that word turned his job into something more important than what it really was to him.

In this case, my anglophone friend could have maybe used the word une jobine instead. This word conveys the idea of a small job or project, or in my friend’s case, “unimportant” work carried out just for the money. I avoided suggesting the word jobine to him in that moment, though. I didn’t want to give the francophone friend a heart attack by revealing such a québécois word to an anglophone.

This was the point that I wanted to make with the joke about saying posséder sexuellement le canidé domestique instead of fucker le chien. It would be incorrect to say posséder sexuellement le canidé domestique, even if the words in this made-up expression literally mean the same thing as the words in fucker le chien. It feels wrong to alter the expression like this because fucker sounds necessarily more crude than posséder sexuellement, and because canidé domestique sounds unnecessarily more scientific than chien. Similarly, saying mon emploi instead of ma job felt wrong to my anglophone friend because it added a level of seriousness to his temporary work in a way that he didn’t like.

The part about how posséder sexuellement le canidé domestique is the way that it’s said in France is also a joke. Nobody uses this expression, not in Québec and not in France. The idea behind the joke is this: eleminating an expression that sounds too québécois in favour of another one that sounds more like international French or like French from France does not automatically make the expression correct.

Perhaps you’ll remember the scene from 30 vies where a teacher corrects a student who describes a character he’s invented for a story as un tough. The teacher says he shouldn’t describe his character as un tough because tough is an anglicism; she says he should describe his character as un dur instead. The student, in turn, corrects the teacher by saying: Ben non! Dur, c’est moins tough que tough!

The student understands something that the teacher doesn’t: replacing a québécois usage for an international one doesn’t necessarily result in an improvement of language.

Pretty doesn’t equal right.

I’m not saying that speakers should always stay in the informal level of the québécois variety of French. Different language situations call for different kinds of French. What I am saying is that just because a word or expression belongs to an international kind of French doesn’t automatically make it inherently better, especially when using that word results in a change of meaning. Dur, c’est moins tough que tough.

I ended the piece by saying that one would be better off learning Spanish instead of French to avoid developing a complex of one’s own. I’m joking, of course. I don’t discourage anybody from learning French. Now that OffQc is approaching 1000 posts, I would hope there’d be no doubt on this point.

But behind this joke is my belief that we needlessly complicate the language learning experience for newcomers to Québec. We do newcomers no favours whatsoever by discouraging them from wanting to understand the way French is spoken in Québec. A teacher of French from Québec once accused me of teaching bad French on OffQc. What this teacher fails to recognise, much to my disappointment, is that native speakers of French and learners of French have very different needs.

I can only imagine the dismay he must have felt when he discovered I was presenting on OffQc the kind of language he probably strives to eradicate amongst his native French-speaking students. But a language learner does not have the luxury of being able to skip over the parts of language deemed incorrect. The language learner must learn to understand all of it — even the parts native speakers don’t think are very pretty.

The usual criticism about the way French is used in Québec is that more prestigious forms of language are rejected by speakers. If there is truth to this, then it mostly occurs between native speakers themselves. When a learner of French enters the scene, the tables are often turned and it’s the colloquial form of French that’s often rejected. This explains why so many learners of French have commented to me that Québecois French seems like a secret language, one that they aren’t allowed access to. Hiding the colloquial variety of French is very detrimental to newcomers. Not only does it limit how far they’ll go in the language, it can also erode their self-esteem because it makes them feel like outsiders who don’t belong.

I do my best to point out when certain usages are best to be avoided by learners. For example, I continue to discourage you from saying moé and toé because they are too heavily stigmatised by the native speakers. But I will never discourage you from learning to understand any aspect of language.

In French courses for newcomers to Québec, the colloquial language as used in Québec is almost entirely overlooked. Perhaps a better word would be shunned. This doesn’t mean students in those courses are learning French from France, though. They’re learning a standardised form of Québécois French — the kind used in the media, for example. But it’s not enough. Teaching newcomers only one register of language — the most prestigious one — puts them at a disadvantage.

I’ve seen too many examples of newcomers who’ve made a dedicated effort to learn French in these courses only to find themselves unable to communicate effectively in real language encounters. I do realise of course that there’s no student who’s going to walk out of any language course, no matter how fantastic the course may be, and speak effortless French. That would be utopic. But when I come across a newcomer who’s gone through all the levels of French and still doesn’t know that tu as almost always contracts to t’as when people speak colloquially, there’s a problem.

Yes, the responsibility for learning a language will always lie with the student. But if we’re going to go to the trouble of offering French courses in the attempt to help newcomers to integrate, can’t we please drop the ideology that the colloquial language of Québec is inferior and begin teaching newcomers the way people really speak in the kind of language situations they’re most likely to find themselves?

With all of this in mind, perhaps you’ll reread my text from yesterday and even find some humour in it this time — or disagree with it entirely, that’s fine too.

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You pig. Only a peasant says “mourir.” The correct verb is “trépasser.”

OffQc supports you fully in your quest to learn French. But, hey, let’s be honest — learning French isn’t for everybody.

If you enjoy living a life free of complexes, French is most likely not for you.

French is probably the only language in the world where the vast majority of its speakers consider practically everything said in the language to be incorrect.

You thought you could use the basic verb mourir in France? How innocent of you.

No matter what word you choose to say in any language situation, there will always be a French person only too pleased to scold you:

You pig. Only a peasant says mourir. The correct verb is trépasser. One must demonstrate respect for the French people by speaking our language beautifully. One does not callously say mon chien est mort. One must say mon canidé domestique trépassa.

What, you thought things were better in Québec?

Oh, sure, the Québécois are proud to not be a bunch of square-head anglos, but this doesn’t stop them from sweeping up their language and pushing it under the rug. Remember the expression fucker le chien, the one that the Québécois sometimes use to describe having difficulty doing something?

If you use the expression fucker le chien in Québec, your interlocutor will smile and feel flattered that you used an expression from Québec. Ultimately, however, the linguistic complex written into the DNA of every single Québécois will kick in:

Where did you learn to say that? That’s so funny. Well, it’s true that the Québécois say fucker le chien, but it’s not correct. You should say posséder sexuellement, not fucker. The word chien isn’t really correct either, tsé. You should say canidé domestique. The correct way to say the expression isn’t fucker le chien, but posséder sexuellement le canidé domestique. That’s how they say it in France. You shouldn’t speak bad like us, tsé.

If you suffer from a complex when you speak French, congratulations! You probably speak French rather well.

If you’re still free of any complex when you speak French, you’re most likely new to the language. Welcome, friend.

If you’re somewhere in the middle in the sense that you’ve not yet developed a fully fledged complex but still acknowledge there may be truth to this — and you’re going to press on in French anyway — OffQc salutes you, brave soldier.

If you’re undecided about learning French and none of this sounds terribly appealing, do yourself a favour and learn Spanish instead.

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I’m often asked for feedback from learners of French, usually about something they’ve written. I notice there’s hesitation over how to word the question.

How do you ask for feedback in French?

There are many different ways, but I’ll stick with just a few simple ones here.

Let’s say you’ve written an essay, and now you want some feedback on what you’ve written. You can ask:

Qu’est-ce que vous pensez de ma rédaction?
Qu’est-ce que tu penses de ma rédaction?

You can replace ma rédaction with whatever it is that you want feedback on.

If you both already know that it’s your rédaction that you’re talking about, you can ask:

Qu’est-ce que vous en pensez?
Qu’est-ce que tu en penses?

When people speak informally, you’ll also hear qu’est-ce que tu en penses contract to qu’est-ce que t’en penses, or even qu’est-ce t’en penses, which sounds like kess t’en penses.

If you’re writing content for the web and need to put a tab or link asking visitors for feedback, it’s good to remember just what feedback is anyway.

Feedback is really just comments.

Although the word feedback does exist in French, you can simply use the word commentaires.

You can write:

Envoyez-nous vos commentaires.
Envoyez-moi vos commentaires.

You can also write Commentaires or Commentaires? with a link.

This reminds me of a French word that I saw on the Postes Canada website, where they ask visitors for feedback.

There’s a link in the top right corner of the page that reads: Rétroaction sur le site Web. This is their way of asking visitors for feedback about the website.

To me, rétroaction here seems like an unnecessarily complicated way of asking for commentaires.

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