What are the differences between Canada's French and France's French? Should I study a little bit of both? Are there some words or expressions from one that might not be understood by the other?
French Language Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for students, teachers, and linguists wanting to discuss the finer points of the French language. It only takes a minute to sign up.Sign up to join this community
What are the differences between Canada's French and France's French?
Written and formal types of French are very similar. There are only a few cosmetic and vocabulary differences that do not prevent mutual comprehension. For example, I just read the Radio Canada news web page, and the only word that wouldn't have been used in a similar page from French media is that title: Est-ce vrai que les tomates ne goûtent plus rien? Here the verb goûter is used a way unknown to academic French which only document goûter as "someone tastes something" and never "something tastes something" so it would heve been Est-ce vrai que les tomates n'ont plus de goût ? here. That didn't prevent at all my understanding first because I already guessed this meaning after hearing it first in Belgian French a while ago, and second because whatever verb used, the context makes clear what it means so this would have equally work: Est-ce vrai que les tomates ne schtroumpfent plus rien ? ;-)
Spoken French can be an issue. Colloquial conversations between French Canadians (see joual) might be unintelligible to France native speakers and sometimes subtitles are used in Quebec movies available in France. I suspect the opposite might be less of an issue because Canadian French-speakers have probably more exposure to French from France, its accents and expressions than the other way around.
On the other hand, I have never had any real issue understanding and being understood when meeting French Canadians, only occasional unexpected vocabulary, gender, familiarity (tu vs vous) and expressions issues that are quickly sorted out. I carefully watched the video about the tomates qui ne goûtent plus rien and I can confirm everything was 100% understandable to me. I just had to stay more concentrated than usual because of the difference between the accents I'm used to hear and the accents of the people speaking in that video.
Should I study a little bit of both?
That's up to you.
Are there some words or expressions from one that might not be understood by the other?
Yes, probably a similar level of misunderstanding that would occur between US and UK English speakers.
This is a multi-part question, and I'm mostly going to focus on your second question about which variety you should aim to learn, and broaden it to include how one could go about learning Canadian French.
With respect to passive mastery of French, you will naturally learn whatever you are exposed to, so my answer will mostly address the question of which variety to aim to use when you speak. This is important because the patterns of speech you adopt when you learn a second language are quite hard to undo, so it is likely that whichever dialect you aim for first will remain dominant for you, even as you progress to far higher levels of ability.
I think it's fair to say that the Parisian variety of French can be regarded as a standard for all French-speakers outside of North America, both native speakers in Europe and non-native ones elsewhere. If you listen to a Belgian or Swiss newscast, you will hear relatively few differences in accent and vocabulary with France. And as time goes on, those differences are becoming fewer among the educated general population. Within France, my observations are that non-Parisian accents are seldom heard in national broadcasts, though educated speakers from the south of France often do have a regional accent.
In Canada, on the other hand, you have a situation where formal registers of the language are distancing themselves across the board from European French and incorporating non-European features of the usage of the educated middle class of Quebec. At the same time, with increasing levels of schooling, the lowest registers are moving closer to the speech of the educated and hence to the standard. The sociolinguistic changes of the last fifty years or so in Quebec in fact closely parallel those that have taken place in Australian English in relation to British English. (There used to be a quasi-British Cultivated Australian accent, but it is no longer heard.)
Assuming that you are from a country outside the French-speaking world, and that you don't have any reason to expect to have closer connections with French Canada than with the rest of the French-speaking world, it is difficult to recommend in good conscience that you aim to speak Canadian French. I can see three main reasons:
(1) Numerically, francophone Canadians are just over 10% of native speakers. France: about 57 million, Canada: 7.5 million, Belgium: about 4 million, Switzerland: 1.6 million.
(2) As a practical matter, it is diffcult to find teachers outside Canada and pedagogical materials that teach Canadian French (but more on this below).
(3) In my experience, many people in France (perhaps a sizable minority) harbour a degree of prejudice towards those who speak with non-Parisian accents, particularly including those from Quebec and the south of France. They may make unwarranted assumptions about a person's intelligence and education based on accent. I have met people from both the north and south of France who felt tremendous social pressure to abandon their regional accents. The result is that most educated northerners have adopted Parisian accents (or something close), while those in the south mostly retain their accents and weather the inevitable prejudices they face if they move north or otherwise deal with northerners. Though few speakers of Quebec French live in France, my sense is that the few who do are likely to face similar accent discrimination.
These attitudes towards Quebec French extend beyond France and seem also to be present to a degree among second-language speakers elsewhere (such as in former French colonies), where learners, in the course of studying French, may have been exposed to the pervasive ideology of the standard associated with the French language everywhere.
If, on the other hand, you expect that your contact with French-speakers will primarily be with Canadians, then it is sensible to aim to approximate the usage of educated francophone Quebecers (though if you are outside Canada, the practical challenges in doing this should not be underestimated).
I would like to emphasize that anglophone and allophone Canadians who are starting out in French will gain nothing by aiming for a European variety on the basis that it is the "standard". To French Canadians, you will sound anglophone until you lose your English accent; if you are fortunate enough to lose your English accent, you will merely come across as a foreign francophone, but not necessarily as any more articulate than if you spoke Quebec French. French Canadians don't dislike European French, but they do feel it is inappropriate when spoken by Canadians. (In the same way, Americans may love listening to a Tony Blair speak, but could they instinctively accept someone born in Topeka who spoke that way as American?)
I can illustrate this by recalling the 2011 federal election. Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton both spoke passable French, and both made the kinds of mistakes anglophones typically make. But they also made other kinds of "mistakes." Ignatieff, on various occasions, elicited ridicule by using European French words like des baskets (instead of the expected espadrilles, "running shoes"). This perfectly fit the existing narrative of him being "out of touch". Layton, on the other hand, sometimes used forms of speech strongly associated with the Quebec working class. Though these would have been considered illiteracies on the part of a francophone politician, French Canadians often considered them charming coming out of Layton's mouth.
So, considering that the vast majority of learning materials have Parisian French as the target variety, how can you acquire Canadian French? Here are some ideas.
(1) If at all possible, try to get a teacher or conversation partner who is a speaker of Canadian French. This should be easy if you're in Canada, but may be difficult elsewhere.
(2) If you are in Canada, seek out group activities in French. How many kids across the country attend French immersion but have zero contact with the local francophone minorities?
(2') If you're American and are learning French very seriously because of your French Canadian or Acadian heritage, you should strongly consider opportunities for immersion in Quebec (if you're from New England) or New Brunswick (if you're from Louisiana). You'll discover that there are thriving communities there that live their everyday lives in a beautiful, vibrant French very much like that once spoken in your communities, but which you may now only hear echoes of in the oldest community members.
(3) Consume Canadian French-language media as much as possible. If you listen to Radio-Canada's Première Chaîne radio, which I believe can be streamed around the world, you will mostly hear middle-class Quebec French.
(4) When you start to work seriously on pronunciation, learn the detailed rules of Canadian French. Douglas Walker's The Pronunciation of Canadian French is excellent for this.
(5) Even before you start working hard on making your accent more native, pay close attention to the vowel pairs that are distinguished by Canadians but never or not always by Parisians. You'll find the theory in Walker's book, but the distinctions that are not systematically reflected in contemporary European French dictionaries are: espace/place [ɛspɑ:s]/[plas], baisse/laisse [bɛ:s]/[lɛs]. Other important distinctions not always observed in Parisian French but which are still faithfully reflected in European dictionaries are fait/fée [ɛ]/[e], brin/brun [ɛ̃]/[œ̃], jeune/jeûne [œ]/[ø]. (Though this is seldom mentioned in reference works, I also find the blanc/blond [blɑ̃]/[blɔ̃] distinction to be muddled in the speech of increasing numbers of European francophones.)
If you learn thousands of words without paying attention to these distinctions, the words will be very hard to "unlearn." A good reference for the Canadian pronunciation of vocabulary words is the online Usito dictionary (usito.usherbrooke.ca). In fact, this is a good all-round dictionary that carefully distinguishes between words and senses that are specific to Canada (marked "Q/C"), those that are specific to Europe ("F/E") and those that are common to the two (hence unmarked).
(6) Have a good selection of reference works on Canadian French available. I can recommend:
Lastly, I'd like to point out that even if a person immigrates to Quebec speaking European French or something like it, the vast majority of Quebecers will be respectful of them. However, they will also continue to be perceived by many as foreign in a certain sense. French Quebecers do enjoy hearing immigrants who speak Quebec French, even if they continue to make non-native mistakes.
Since the differences, or lack thereof, have been thoroughly covered in other answers and comments, I'd like to focus on your middle question, namely whether your should study both.
Ultimately, only you can really answer that question, but here are things I'd consider if I were in your shoes:
If your answers boil down to something along the lines of a very nebulous "because it sounds cool, but I don't really know", then you're probably better off learning "international French", i.e. the basic set of vocabulary, syntax and grammar that is share by all varieties of French. You can then gradually pick up on more specific regional diversions as the need arises.
On the other hand, if the questions lead you to a very specific answer such as "I want to move to Montreal and work in the _____ industry", then you'll want to focus on studying the French Canadian variety of the language.
If you're still unsure, you probably can't go wrong if you simply start by getting a firm grounding in the basics of the language. You'll be able to build on that to adapt to any more specific needs you might have later.
The differences aren't that big. The major gap would be the accent and some of the expressions. There isn't two different languages to learn, that's just one, with some variations. It's just like British English and American English. You just need to learn French, in general, to be able to understand Canadian French, and general one.
Lots of really good answers, I'll just add known examples that are understood very differently between the two. They're often used in comedy sketches.
Puis-je voir une photo de tes gosses? (Can I see a picture of your kids?)
Famous example, the original definition of gosse is kids, but in Quebec it means testicles. As you can see, you can only ask that in France.
Ce repas est écœurant! (This meal is disgusting)
The meaning of écœurant is disgusting or nauseating, but in Quebec we use it as wonderful. The meaning is the complete opposite, so make sure you know what you're doing.
In addition, some words related to the structure of the system might differ. For example, baccalauréat (bachelor's degree): In France, you get it after high school but in Quebec it's the first degree of university.
We have a lot of weird slang and expressions in Quebec that might not be understood by people from France, but it doesn't prevent communication at all. It's not like we're going to use slang on purpose when talking to someone that doesn't originate from Quebec. Other than that, we study the same exact french at school so the written language is identical.
Wikipedia makes balanced assertions on the topic, along the lines of the previous answers:
Formal Quebec French uses essentially the same orthography and grammar as Standard French, with few exceptions, and exhibits moderate lexical differences. Differences in grammar and lexicon become more marked as language becomes more informal.
While phonetic differences also decrease with greater formality, Quebec and European accents are readily distinguishable in all registers.[...]
[ Wikipedia, Quebec French ]
Le français écrit du Québec est syntaxiquement identique au français européen et international. Il ne s'en distingue que marginalement sur le plan lexical. Quant au français oral (du Québec), passablement différent du français écrit (européen et international), il comporte des écarts syntaxiques et phonétiques parfois prononcés par rapport à la norme. Le québécois connaît des variétés régionales [...]
[ Wikipedia, Français québécois ]
Generally, you learn the basics and as you use the language, exposure to a variety will do the rest. For some specific instances see also this.