English is sometimes referred to as the language of Shakespeare. Similarly, French is sometimes called the language of Racine or Corneille. Neither of those great 17th century authors, however, ever set foot in most of the far-flung places that French is spoken today. Just as Shakespeare never set foot in Australia, Ghana, or Belize, to name only a few countries where English is an official language. If Racine and Corneille were to time-travel to the 21st century, they would probably be startled to find that French is a global language spoken far beyond Europe. In 2021, French is an official language in no less than 29 countries, and widely studied or spoken in many more.
Over the centuries, many varieties of French have developed. Broadly speaking, all of them share the same grammatical and etymological foundation, but local variations manifest in pronunciation, vocabulary, and even grammar. This is true not only from one francophone country to another, but also from one region to another with a country. Here in Canada, there are about half a dozen varieties. The 3 that have the most mother-tongue speakers are Québecois, Acadian, and Franco-Ontarian. To someone familiar with the language, speakers of each group can be readily distinguished by their pronunciation. To my ear, for example, Franco-Ontarians have a distinctive burr in the pronunciation of certain words such as ‘deux’ and ‘monsieur’ that makes them immediately identifiable.
European French, often designated “Parisian” by anglophones, continues to exert a certain fascination on this side of the Atlantic. Many an anglophone learning French in Canada or the U.S. dreams of moving to France to restore an abandoned chateau. I confess that even though I’m an Ontarian by birth and upbringing, my relationship with the French language has been shaped more by contact with France and its culture than by contact with my francophone fellow Ontarians, or with our friends across the Ottawa River in Québec. In France, nonetheless, the language also varies. There are regional differences that fluent speakers perceive, most noticeably between north and south.
The question that arises for French learners, then, is “Which French should I learn?” The shortest, most practical answer is: any French you can get. Whether your teacher, language partner, or other informant hails from Québec, France, or Sénégal makes little difference in their ability to help you learn the language. French is French, wherever it’s spoken If it’s your dream to live in Montréal, by all means seek out media content, friends, or teachers from there, but don’t discount input from other sources. In the early stages of learning, all understandable input from the target language is useful input.
To make a long story short, just learn French!
David Gemeinhardt was born and raised in London, ON. He holds a master's degree in French Studies from Western University. He blogs about French history at www.versaillescentury.com and @versailles_century on Instagram.