French Language in Canada

French is one of Canada’s two official languages. Although every province in Canada has people whose mother tongue is French, Québec is the only province where speakers of French are in the majority. In 2011, 7,054,975 people in Canada (21 per cent of the country’s population) had French as their mother tongue.

Francophones in Canada

A broad demographic portrait of francophones in Canada can be drawn from the responses to three language-related questions in the national census: those regarding mother tongue (first language learned at home in childhood), knowledge of the two official languages (ability to converse in these two languages), and language used most often in the home.

Canadians with French as their Mother Tongue

According to the 2011 census, the population of Canada includes 7,054,975 people who have French as their mother tongue, or 21 per cent of the total population. Within this group, 6,102,210 people live in Québec, while the rest are distributed as follows: 493,295 in Ontario, 233,530 in New Brunswick, 38,775 in the three other Atlantic provinces,and 181,190 in the four provinces west of Ontario. The 2011 census also shows that individuals with French as their mother tongue are in the majority in Québec (78 per cent of the province’s population) and in the minority in the nine other provinces (0.49 per cent in Newfoundland, 3.42 per cent in Nova Scotia, 3.75 per cent in Prince Edward Island, 31.56 per cent in New Brunswick, 3.88 per cent in Ontario, 3.53 per cent in Manitoba, 1.6 per cent in Saskatchewan, 1.9 per cent in Alberta, and 1.2 per cent in British Columbia).

Knowledge of Official Languages

Regarding knowledge of Canada’s official languages, the 2011 census shows that in Québec, 38.2 per cent of people with French as their mother tongue can express themselves in English, while 67 per cent of people with English as their mother tongue and 75 per cent of people with a mother tongue other than English or French can express themselves in French. Thus, in this province where francophones form the majority, members of linguistic minorities feel a far greater need to express themselves in French than members of the francophone majority do to express themselves in English.

In all nine of the other Canadian provinces, the proportion of people whose mother tongue is not French but who can converse in French averages only 6 per cent, and there is little variation from this mean from one province to another. But in these same provinces, the proportion of people with French as their mother tongue who can express themselves in English is very high: 71 per cent in New Brunswick and well over 80 per cent in the other provinces. As a minority language group in each of the nine provinces of English-speaking Canada, francophones have little choice but to learn and master English. For the non-francophone people of these provinces, learning French is more a personal choice than a necessity.

Use of French in the Home

The census data on language spoken most often in the home can indicate whether Canadians who have French as their mother tongue continue to speak it at home, or whether they instead tend to speak one of the other languages that compete with French (which in Canada usually means English). Conversely, these same data can also indicate the pressure that French may exert at the expense of other languages in this social space.

The 2011 census shows that in Québec, the percentage of people for whom French is both their mother tongue and the language that they speak most often in the home is nearly as high as it can be (97.65 per cent); in New Brunswick, this percentage is 87 per cent, but in the other provinces, it is far lower—for example, only 53 per cent in Ontario, 39 per cent in Manitoba, and 21 per cent in Saskatchewan.

Recent History of Francophones in Canada

The late 1960s and the two decades that followed marked a turning point in the history of francophones in Canada. During this period, the francophones of Québec regained control of their linguistic destiny by enacting a number of laws, including, in 1977, the Charte de la langue française (Charter of the French Language, commonly known as Bill 101), which made French Québec’s only official language. This statute gives francophones the right to communicate in French at work, notably in the economic sectors where English once predominated. It also requires that French clearly predominate in public signage and that immigrants send their children to French-language schools (see also Québec Language Policy).

Impact of the Charter of the French Language in Québec

The primary purpose of all of these measures was to encourage non-French-speaking immigrants to integrate into the francophone community rather than into the anglophone community, as they had tended to do in the past, especially in Montréal. Once the birth rate of Québec francophones fell below the replacement rate in the 1980s, integration of immigrants became one of the key necessities for maintaining and potentially increasing the province’s French-speaking population.

The statistics from the 2011 census show that nearly 40 years after the adoption of the Charter of the French Language, French was exerting significant pressure on language minorities in Québec. Of the 599,225 Quebecers who had English as their mother tongue, 10 per cent spoke mainly French at home. Among the 904,185 Quebecers whose mother tongue was neither French nor English, the proportion who spoke French at home was higher than the proportion who spoke English — the first time this pattern had been seen in the census. According to linguistics scholar Julie Auger, these developments suggest that in Québec, French may become the main adopted language of members of linguistic minorities.

Language Rights of Francophone Minorities Outside Québec

Outside Québec, starting in the 1960s, several jurisdictions in the nine provinces and two territories of English-speaking Canada took steps to recognize certain language rights for their francophone minorities, including the right to education in French, which many of them had previously abolished (see Ontario Schools Question; Manitoba Schools Question; North-West Schools Question; New Brunswick School Question). This right was subsequently guaranteed by the new Canadian Constitution adopted in 1982 (see Constitution Act, 1982) and implemented in all of the provinces and territories of English-speaking Canada.

New Brunswick was the province that took recognition of francophones’ language rights the furthest: the province passed one law in 1969 making French one of its two official languages and another in 1981 recognizing the equality of the province’s francophone and anglophone communities. In this officially bilingual province, francophone institutions enjoy a high degree of autonomy (see Bilingualism).

Another significant piece of language legislation was the federal Official Languages Act, first passed in 1969 and updated in 1988. Its general purpose is to ensure that francophones and anglophones have access to services in French and English from the federal government and several national institutions, such as Air Canada. But the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, which monitors enforcement of this act, regularly notes in its annual reports that the services offered in French by the federal public service outside Québec are far from the quality that would be necessary to guarantee francophones full access to such services.

Decline of French in the Home and Vitality of Francophone Minorities

Although securing government support for French represented a major gain for francophone minorities outside Québec, it did not reverse their assimilation into the English Canadian community. As noted earlier, outside Québec and New Brunswick, Canadians whose mother tongue is French show a marked tendency to stop using this language in their homes. The census data show that this trend accelerated from 1971 to 2011.

The data also show that in the 650 French-language schools operating outside Québec, some students come from homes where French is used seldom or not at all. In fact, in places where francophones are only a small minority, most francophone parents rely mostly on the schools to transmit French to their children, who are thus more comfortable in English than in French. Also, a 2006 survey on the vitality of official language minorities showed that outside Québec, French-language schools do not attract all of the francophone students who could attend them. For example, in New Brunswick, 82 per cent of francophone parents send their children to French-language primary schools, but the remainder send their children to English-language schools. In Ontario, only 58 per cent of francophone parents enrol their children in French-language schools. In Alberta, the proportion is even lower: 28 per cent. In fact, at the primary level, the rates of attendance for French-language schools in each of the nine provinces of English-speaking Canada are very close to the census-based percentages for use of French in the home in these same provinces. This close correlation is unsurprising, because the school and the home are the two main social spaces that determine the reproduction of minority language communities.

English-Speaking Quebecers Learning French

In Québec’s English-speaking community, the rise of francophone nationalism in Québec in the late 1960s and the implementation of the Charter of the French Language in the late 1970s led to the realization that current programs teaching French as a second language were inadequate. The way that French was traditionally taught in the schools was not good enough to give students the French-language skills they needed to meet the new bilingualism requirements resulting from the Charter. To provide the required skills, Québec schools developed and implemented bilingual education programs (commonly known as French-immersion programs) in which students learned French by taking subject-matter courses in that language. These programs proved far more effective than traditional French-language instruction, and as a result, bilingual education became extremely popular in Québec.

In 2013, 35 per cent of English-speaking students in Québec schools were enrolled in these bilingual programs, while others actually attended French-language schools. As noted earlier, by 2011, nearly 70 per cent of Quebecers who had English as their mother tongue could express themselves in French, which was almost 30 percentage points higher than in 1971. The increase among Quebecers with a mother tongue other than English or French has been on the same order. The growth of bilingual education has probably contributed to this increase, but research by Hélène Blondeau, Naomi Nagy, Gillian Sankoff and Pierrette Thibault on how Montréal anglophones learn French shows that long-term interactions with francophones outside of school also help these anglophones to become bilingual.

Some bilingual education programs were also established in the 1970s outside Québec, but their growth has been less spectacular. In 2013, slightly fewer than 10 per cent of anglophone students were enrolled in these programs.

Bilingualism Among Canadian Anglophones Outside Québec

Over the past 40 years, the rate of bilingualism has increased far less among Canadian anglophones outside Québec than among Québec anglophones. Since 2011, the rate outside Québec has even begun to decline. According to Jean-François Lepage and Jean-Pierre Corbeil of Statistics Canada, part of the reason may be that in three of the provinces of English-speaking Canada, French is no longer a mandatory subject in school, while in the six others, it has become optional at the secondary level.

The small number of English Canadians outside Québec who are bilingual is attributable to a number of factors. Outside Québec, the proportion of students who learn French in immersion programs is relatively low, and anglophones have few opportunities to interact with francophones, who usually live in places where they are in the minority. Moreover, outside Québec, knowledge of French does not have a very high economic value. In the federal and provincial public service and in companies with national operations, the number of positions requiring bilingualism is generally quite limited. Also, because outside Québec most francophones are bilingual, they can compete with anglophones for these positions. Some anglophones have less pragmatic motives for becoming bilingual, such as wanting to get closer to French Canadians or learn more about their culture. But as we have just seen, these reasons have not led to any marked increase in bilingualism among English Canadians.

The French Spoken in Canada

Two main kinds of French are spoken in Canada: 1) the French spoken in Québec and by descendants of Quebecers in the provinces west of Québec, and 2) the French spoken by Acadians. Other variants include the French spoken: 1) by Métis people, who are the descendants of unions between French voyageurs and Aboriginal women in the 18th century; 2) by descendants of immigrants from France, Belgium and Switzerland who settled in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; 3) in the Madawaska region of New Brunswick, where francophones of Québec origin and francophones of Acadian origin live side by side; 4) by bilingual anglophones; and 5) by francophone and non-francophone immigrants.

French of Québec and the Québec Diaspora

In the 17th century, French colonization in New France was limited to the valley of the St. Lawrence River and, to a lesser extent, those of its tributaries. But during this period, France also established a network of fortifications and trading posts beyond the St. Lawrence valley, especially around the Great Lakes. In the early 18th century, colonists from New France settled in this area, between Lake Erie and Lake Huron, on both sides of the Detroit River. The French colony of Detroit was thus the first francophone diaspora community with its origins in the St. Lawrence valley. Such expansion remained relatively modest until the 19th century. But starting in the 1830s and continuing throughout the first half of the 20th century, overpopulation and the development of capitalism in several parts of Québec led thousands of Quebecers to leave the province, often permanently, in search of land or jobs that they could no longer find at home. This stream of migrants was the source not only of most of the francophone communities in Canada’s western provinces (except for those founded by francophones arriving directly from Europe), but also of the francophone communities in several cities in New England in the United States (see Franco-Americans).

Until roughly the late 1960s, the communities of the Québec diaspora maintained close ties with the “mother province” within what was then known as the French-Canadian nation. But as the flow of migration from Québec dwindled and this province achieved a high degree of economic, cultural and linguistic autonomy, these communities began redefining their identities and their visions for the future, influenced by the social and political environments of the various provinces where they lived. Although there is a growing tendency to refer to the French spoken in these communities in terms of these new identities (Ontario French, Manitoba French, etc.), studies published by Raymond Mougeon, Sandrine Hallion, Robert Papen and Davy Bigot have shown that despite the distances between these communities and the different lengths of time that they have existed, the forms of French that they speak are still closely related to one another and still share many usages with their common source, Québec French.

In studies on the particularities of Québec French and the French spoken in the Québec diaspora, linguists distinguish the following five categories: 1) traits typical of the French spoken in the 16th and 17th centuries, 2) usages from regional dialects of France, 3) innovations, 4) borrowings from Aboriginal languages, and 5) anglicisms.

Some of the traits of 16th and 17th-century French that are preserved in Québec French are as follows: 1) the use of the sound /ɛ/ (eh) in the adjectives droit (right, straight) and froid (cold) and in subjunctive forms of the verb être (to be), such as sois, so that they are pronounced drette, frette, and seille, respectively; 2) the use of s’assir for s’asseoir (to sit down), s’écarter (to go away) to mean “to get lost,” serrer (to tighten) to mean “to organize or to put away,” à cause que (because that) to mean “because,” mais que (but that) to mean “when” or “as soon as,” and the preposition à (at) to situate actions or events in time, so that, for example, instead of saying ce soir, ce matin, tous les jours (this evening, this morning, every day), people say à soir, à matin, à tous les jours. The preservation of these older usages may be partly attributable to the weakening of the ties between Québec and France after the conquest of New France by the English.

The main regions of France from which immigrants came to New France in the 17th century were Normandy, Perche, Poitou and Charentes. Traces of the dialects of these regions can still be found in certain lexical particularities of Québec French. For example, Normandy is the source of the use of the verb barrer (instead of the more standard verrouiller) for the action of locking a door, and of the nouns bleuets (instead of myrtilles) for “blueberries,” gadelles (instead of groseilles à grappes) for “currants,” and vadrouille (instead of serpillière) for “mop.” The verbs gosser (to cut a piece of wood or a board) and garrocher (to throw) and the noun boucherie (butchering of pigs) come from Poitou and Charentes. But while such words have survived in Québec French, according to linguistics scholar Yves Charles Morin, the traits typifying the pronunciation of these regional dialects have not, because Québec French aligned itself with the standard French pronunciation of the 17th and 18th centuries far sooner than these dialects did. However, because the pronunciation of French among educated speakers in France continued to evolve over the intervening centuries, there are still some differences today between the pronunciations of French in Québec and in France, even in more formal contexts.

Examples of innovations — the third category of particularities of Québec French — include poudrerie for wind-blown snow, pâté chinois for the Québec version of shepherd’s pie, and the terms gardienne d’enfants and gardiennage where continental French uses the anglicisms babysitter and baby-sitting. Another kind of innovation has consisted in giving existing words additional meanings that they did not have in Europe. For example, cèdre originally designated the Mediterranean cedar, a species not native to North America, but in Québec now also refers to two wide-ranging North American species: eastern white cedar and western red cedar. Québec French has also innovated in its use of certain suffixes. For example, compared with everyday continental French, everyday Québec French makes freer use of the suffix –age to create nouns from verb and noun roots. Words such as voyageage (travelling), bousculage (jostling), peinturage (painting), gardiennage (babysitting) and magasinage (shopping) illustrate this process. Another innovation is the use of the interrogative particle -tu in such phrases as ça va-tu? (How are you?) and vous en voulez-tu? (Do you want any?).

Many of the words that Québec French has borrowed from Aboriginal languages express North American realities that could not have been denoted by equivalent French terms. For example, the words achigan and maskinongé denote two North American fish species that are related to perch and pike, respectively, while ouaouaron refers to the bullfrog, a species of frog that is unknown in France.

Québec French borrowings from English take two main forms: 1) direct borrowings of English words, such as bumper instead of pare-choc, cute instead of mignon, and checker instead of verifier; 2) use of words or phrases that have been influenced by English indirectly, such as prendre une marche (literally, take a walk) instead of aller se promener and fournaise (instead of chaudière) to mean “furnace.” Many of these borrowings date back to the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, when French faced competition from English in many spheres of activity, notably trade and industry.

The diversity and development of French in Québec and in the Québec diaspora have been the subject of many studies, conducted both by linguists and by language-planning agencies in Québec (such as the Office de la langue française). These studies have revealed major differences according to the age and social origins of the individuals speaking and the situations in which they are doing so. For example, the French spoken by ordinary people in Québec is quite different from the register used by broadcast journalists at Société Radio-Canada. The former tends to include traits particular to Québec, such as those just discussed, while the latter, though still incorporating some traits of local French, tends to come closer to standard French. Analogous differences can be found in written French, though they are not so marked as in oral French. For example, advertising brochures and the Yellow Pages™ will include some usages that typify ordinary Québec French and others that conform to standard French, while in more official documents, textbooks and government forms, the more standard usages tend to predominate.

Research on the evolution of the traits typical of Québec French shows two opposing trends. In some cases, terms peculiar to Québec French (such as bicycle) are starting to lose ground to equivalent terms that are more widely used (such as vélo). But in other cases, the Québec usage resists the effects of globalization and remains strongly anchored in the local language, both formal and informal; for example, a bra is still a brassière (rather than a soutien-gorge) and mittens are still mitaines (not moufles).

Studies on Québec French borrowings from English show that they are used in a way very similar to other features of ordinary French. These borrowings are typical of everyday Québec French and are more common among average speakers than among members of higher social strata. Given the particularly charged symbolism that words borrowed from English can have in French-speaking Canada, they are often targeted by language planning agencies, which try to promote their replacement with equivalent French terms. Such efforts may have had some success, but new borrowings from English continue to emerge, such as the adverbial use of the word full to intensify the meaning of adjectives also borrowed from English (full cool, full hot)or even of French adjectives (full écœurant, for“totally disgusting”). Neither of these developments is surprising, because the literature shows that borrowing between languages is driven by speakers’ desire to replace old, stale words with fresh, new ones and/or to project a bilingual identity.

The large number of lexicographic works that inventory the particular features of Québec French reflects the societal importance of language issues both in Québec and outside it. The most recent of these works, the Usito dictionary (2015), differs from its predecessors in that it was developed from a large-scale database of written and oral language. Thanks to this solid empirical foundation, it includes thousands of usages that are specific to the ordinary and formal registers of Québec French, as well as the many usages that it shares with continental French. This dictionary also provides information on the levels of language associated with many of the terms that it contains and on the French usages typical of France that are not common in Québec. Usito thus constitutes the first comprehensive reference work on Québec French.

As mentioned earlier, the varieties of French spoken in Québec diaspora communities elsewhere in Canada share many usages with Québec French and with one another. But Mougeon’s research on the evolution of these varieties has shown that in places where francophones are in the minority, when French is no longer passed down the generations in the home, it shows signs of anglicization and language attrition on the one hand and standardization on the other.

Anglicization and language attrition involve the use of turns of phrase that betray the influence of English or an imperfect mastery of the complexities and irregularities of French, indicating that French is no longer the main language of communication and is losing ground to English. A good example is the use of the adverb juste (just) or seulement (only) between the subject and the verb, as in Il juste travaille le matin (He just/only works mornings), which is acceptable in English, but not in French.

The second trend, standardization, involves the disappearance of certain traits of ordinary Québec French and their replacement by standard French equivalents. For example, astheure, a colloquial compression of the phrase à cette heure (at this time) is being replaced by the more standard maintenant (now). The reason for standardization is that in communities where francophones are in the minority, francophone parents who do not speak French with their children at home rely on French-language schools to teach it to them. As is only right, the schools train their students to use the standard register. In contrast, in diaspora communities where there is less pressure from English, the French spoken preserves most of the characteristics of ordinary Québec French.

The extent to which the paths of French in the Québec diaspora and French in Québec are diverging is currently the subject of an in-depth multidisciplinary study, part of a major project on French in North America, entitled Le français à la mesure d’un continent.

Acadian French

The current Acadian population of Canada is descended from the inhabitants of Acadia who returned to Canada after the deportation or who escaped it by taking refuge in remote parts of the colony. Because the land that the Acadians had lived on before the deportation was handed over to British colonists, most of today’s Acadian communities are located outside the historical boundaries of Acadia. There are now Acadian communities in all four Atlantic provinces and in some parts of Québec (the Magdalen Islands and several villages on the south coast of the Gaspé Peninsula and the north shore of the St. Lawrence estuary). However, most Acadians now live in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

New Brunswick is where the Acadian francophone population is most vital and Acadian francophone institutions are the strongest. It is also the Atlantic province where government support for French is greatest and is guaranteed by the provincial constitution (New Brunswick is the only officially bilingual province in Canada). In the three other Atlantic provinces, only about half of all people who have French as their mother tongue also have it as the language that they speak most often at home, and provincial government support for French does not go far beyond the education system.

Acadian French has several characteristics that were typical of the French spoken in the 16th and 17th centuries but have disappeared from the French spoken in Québec and France today. Examples include the use of the pronoun je (I) instead of nous (we) withfirst-person plural forms of verbs (je chantons/-tions instead of nous chantons/-tions), the use of the ending /õ/ with third-person plural forms (ils chantont/chantiont instead of ils chantent/chantaient), and the use of the simple past tense, but with a regularized morphology (je chantis, tu chantis, il chantit for je chantai, tu chantas, il chanta). Other examples include the use of bailler instead of donner (to give), the use of ne... point instead of ne... pas to negate a verb, and the use of the sound /u/ (as in “spoon”) in place of the open o [ɔ] in words such as pomme (apple) and homard (lobster). One reason that Acadian French is so conservative is that Acadia was cut off from France quite early on (in 1723), and even during the preceding French colonial period, contacts with people from France, including colonial administrators, were fairly limited.

Today’s Acadians also use agricultural terms derived from the French or gallo-roman dialects of the parts of France from which many of the first Acadian colonists came (such as Poitou, Charentes, Aunis and Saint-Onge). Examples of such terms include éparer (to spread out a net to let it dry), remeuil (a cow’s udder) and barge (a haystack). That said, the various forms of Acadian French also share many usages with Québec French, such as the use of je vas instead of je vais (I go), être après + infinitive instead of être en train de + infinitive (to be in the process of doing something), astheure instead of maintenant (now) and à cause que instead of parce que (because),as well as the pronunciation of er as [ar] (for example, parsonne instead of personne). These commonalities reflect the fact that Acadian French and Québec French date back to the same period of French colonial history.

Corpuses of oral language gathered in various parts of the vast area where Acadians now live show that Acadian French varies from one region to another. For example, within New Brunswick and Nova Scotia respectively, linguistics scholar Karin Flikeid found considerable variation in the ways that the nasal vowels of French are pronounced. Ruth King observed that the typical features of spoken 16th- and 17th-century French are vigorously preserved in several Acadian communities on Prince Edward Island and in Nova Scotia, but far less so in northeastern New Brunswick, near the Québec border. For example, in the latter region, the archaic verb endings mentioned earlier are almost non-existent.

There are also some differences in how English has influenced the development of Acadian French. This influence is far weaker in cities and regions where francophones are in the majority (for example, in northeastern New Brunswick) than in those where they are in the minority (as in the southeastern New Brunswick city of Moncton and in Nova Scotia). In these latter communities, francophones use a register that involves borrowing many terms from English and incorporating them into utterances in traditional Acadian French. This phenomenon of discursive blending is illustrated by the following utterance from a corpus collected by Marie-Ève Perrot among youth ages 16 to 19 in Moncton. In this utterance, terms borrowed from English — “pretty much” for presque, “well” for ben, “soon”for bientôt, bummer off zeux (bum off them) for vivre à leurs dépens (live at their expense), and afforder for se permettre — coexist with traditional usages such as the pronunciation of the final /t/ in tout (where it is silent in standard French) and the use of à cause for parce que (because) and ils pouvont for ils peuvent (they can).

    pretty much tou/t/ mon argent vient de mes parents / un jour / well soon faudra j’arrêtede bummer off zeux à cause comme / je sais qu’ils pouvont pas afforder deme faire vivre pour toute leur vie (Pretty much all my money comes from my parents. Well, soon I’m going to have to stop bumming off of them, because I know they can’t afford to support me for the rest of their lives.)

This mode of expression, especially vivid in the younger generations, is commonly referred to as chiac and is probably used mostly for communicating with other members of the communities where it is spoken, rather than with francophones from elsewhere. Although chiac is disparaged by some members of the Acadian elite, it does convey a certain dimension of Acadian identity that is valued by authors such as Dano Leblanc and France Daigle and singers such as Lisa LeBlanc, who use it in their literary and musical creations. Linguists are currently studying the place of chiac in the communicative repertoire of its users, as well as its acceptability for communicating with francophones who do not come from the communities where it is used.

Métis French

The francophone members of the Métis people are descendants of unions that took place between French colonists from the St. Lawrence valley and the Great Lakes region and Aboriginal women during the time of the fur trade in what were then called the Pays d’en haut (“upper country”). As a result of these unions, Aboriginal people appropriated French, which supplanted the Aboriginal languages that mothers had originally passed on to their children. Subsequently, French in its turn experienced competition from English, which penetrated the Métis communities. According to linguist Robert Papen, there are now only a few thousand francophone Métis left, living mainly in Manitoba. Given the current resurgence of Métis identity in Canada, it would be interesting to investigate whether this figure needs to be revised upward, using the unpublished data from the last census.

Métis French is of considerable scientific interest. Because the Métis acquired French during the 18th century and subsequently lived more or less apart from other French Canadians, their French provides a window onto the language spoken by the colonists at the time of the fur trade. For example, in Métis French, the vowel in words such as neige, paire, mère, fête and crêpe is pronounced [e] (as in “say”) and not [ɛ] (as in “sled”) or [ai] (as in “slide”), which supports the theory that the pronunciation [e] was predominant in the colonists’ French and that the concurrent pronunciation [ɛ] or [ai] did not spread into Québec French until later on. Métis French also provides information about the languages spoken by Aboriginal women in the 18th century, in particular Saulteaux (an Ojibway dialect) and Cree, which have left some traces in this form of French. For example, Métis French has borrowed from Saulteaux or Cree the terms taanshi (hello), migwech (thank you), and moushoum and coucoum (grandfather and grandmother).

French Spoken in Western Canadian Communities Founded by Francophone Immigrants from Europe

In the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta,there are communities where francophones whose ancestors came from France, Belgium and Switzerland live together, in varying proportions, with francophones from the Québec diaspora. For example, in Manitoba, the contingent of European origin in Saint-Claude comes from France, while that in Saint-Alphonse comes from Belgium. In Saskatchewan, the names of several francophone communities evoke the places from which the European colonists came, such as Saint-Brieux, Lisieux, Cantal and Domrémy. The wave of immigration from Europe occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was stimulated mainly by the agricultural land that was still available then in these three provinces.

For linguists, what makes these communities interesting is that they offer a chance to study the development of French in situations where different dialects are in contact. Although a limited amount of in-depth research that has been done on this subject, studies by Robert Papen and Anne-Sophie Marchand show that in those western Canadian communities where francophones with European backgrounds form a sizeable contingent, their French is not completely aligned with Canadian French and preserves several usages typical of the French of their ancestors. For example, in several communities in Saskatchewan, to express the future in a manner analogous to “I am going to (do something),” francophones with European ancestry will say je vais most of the time and je vas some of the time, as in je vais/je vas y penser (I am going to think about it), while francophones with Québec ancestry will say je vas most of the time and je vais or m’as some of the time (je vais/m’as y penser); this last variant is typical of the everyday French spoken in Québec. Most likely, part of the explanation for the continued heterogeneity of the French dialects spoken in these mixed communities is that these two groups of francophones began to live together only relatively recently.

Madawaska French

Madawaska is a border region that includes Aroostook County in Maine and Madawaska County and the northern part of Victoria County in New Brunswick. The issues involved in the evolution of French in Madawaska are similar to those in the mixed francophone communities of Manitoba and Saskatchewan discussed in the preceding section. In Madawaska, francophones of Acadian origin and francophones of Québec origin have lived together in relatively equal numbers since the late 18th century. According to French linguist and author Geneviève Massignon, who gathered data in Madawaska in the 1940s, Québec French and Acadian French have merged into a common form of speech in which vocabulary traits and phonetic traits specific to each group now seem to be intertwined, and in which most of the rich morphology of Acadian verbs seems to have given way to the simpler verb forms of Québec French. An effort should be made to investigate these phenomena of dialect mixing further, with a contemporary corpus, and to relate them to the sense of identity of the francophones in this region, which seems to have grown more Acadian in recent years.

French Spoken by Bilingual Anglophones

The need to evaluate the effectiveness of bilingual education programs has resulted in numerous studies that provide specific data on Canadian anglophones’ skills in spoken French and on the sociological factors that determine it. Research on the French-language skills of anglophone students who have just graduated from bilingual education programs has shown that although these students have a far better mastery of French than those who have studied French as an academic subject, their skills are still inferior to those of francophones their age. They understand French better than they speak or write it, and they make mistakes mainly in manipulating the elements of grammar and vocabulary.

Among adults, as research by Françoise Mougeon and Katherine Rehner has shown, anglophones whose knowledge of French comes close to that of francophones are distinguished by their actively seeking opportunities for extended interaction with francophones. Obviously, such opportunities are considerably greater in Québec than elsewhere in Canada. It is thus understandable why, in a study of the French-language skills of anglophone young adults in Montréal, Blondeau, Nagy, Sankoff and Thibault found some individuals whose mastery of the conjugation of French verbs and the gender of French nouns (two common stumbling blocks in learning this language) is identical to that of francophones. This same study also showed that the French of these anglophones has a certain local flavour. In other words, English Montrealers absorb some of the typical traits of Québec French that were discussed above. In contrast, in Toronto, a large city whose francophone community is multiethnic and represents only 1.5 per cent of the total population, the Canadian traits of the French spoken by anglophone young adults are less apparent.

French Spoken by Francophone and Non-Francophone Immigrants

The settling of francophone and non-francophone immigrants in Canada raises the question of their integration into the country’s francophone communities. According to the 2011 census, the Canadian population included 6,775,800 people who were born abroad; out of this total, 72.8 per cent stated that their mother tongue was neither French nor English, 23.8 per cent stated that it was English, and 3.4 per cent that it was French, Thus, people with French as their mother tongue represent only a small proportion of the immigrant population in Canada. The proportion in Québec is higher, but not even close to a majority: it averages about 18 per cent and has scarcely changed at all in the past 40 years.

Until now, the French spoken by immigrants to Canada, whether francophone or not, has received little attention from linguists. In a study of the speech of immigrants from France who were living in Toronto, Gilles Forlot found that their French diverged from the French of their mother country in some respects that were attributable more to the influence of English or to language attrition than to their having adopted any traits of Canadian French. In Québec, Hélène Blondeau and Michael Friesner’s analysis of the French pronunciation of immigrants from Latin America showed that the second generation comes closer to local French usage and does not retain traits associated with the influence of Spanish. This generation’s usage seems modulated more by their socio-symbolic orientation and their belonging to a network than by factors related to ethnicity. In the same vein, in another study, Blondeau and colleagues examined the French spoken in a culturally diverse francophone neighbourhood of Montréal and investigated the hypothesis that young francophones of Haitian origin adopted the implicit standards of the local French more readily than young francophones of North African origin, who were more subject to the pressure of an exogenous standard.

See also Languages in Use in Canada; Ethnic Languages; Second-Language Instruction.

Further Reading

  • Julie Auger, "Le français dans le Québec du XXIe siècle," in Salikoko Mufwene and Cécile Vigouroux, eds., Colonisation, globalisation et vitalité du français (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2014), 179-210.

    Hélène Blondeau, Naomi Nagy, Gillian Sankoff and Pierrette Thibault, "La couleur locale du français L2 des anglo-montréalais," Acquisition et interaction en langue étrangère 17 (2002): 73-100.

    Hélène Blondeau and Michael Friesner, "Manifestations phonétiques de la dynamique des attributions ethnolinguistiques à Montréal," Revue canadienne de linguistique 59, 1 (2014): 83-105.

    Annette Boudreau, "Discours, nominations des langues et idéologies linguistiques," in Davy Bigot, Michael Friesner and Mireille Tremblay, eds., Les français d’ici et d’aujourd’hui. Description, représentation et théorisation (Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2013), 89-109.

    Karin Flikeid, "Recherches sociolinguistiques sur les parlers acadiens du Nouveau-Brunswick et de la Nouvelle-Écosse," in Raymond Mougeon and Édouard Beniak, eds., Le français canadien parlé hors Québec (Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 1989), 183-199.

    Gilles Forlot, "Portrait sociolinguistique de migrants français à Toronto », in Normand Labrie and Gilles Forlot, eds., L’enjeu de la langue française en Ontario français (Sudbury: Prise de parole, 1999), 197-238.

    Ruth King, "Acadian French in time and space: A study in morphosyntax and comparative sociolinguistics," Publication of the American Dialect Society 97 (2013): 1-159.

    Jean-Francois Lepage and Jean-Pierre Corbeil, L’évolution du bilinguisme français-anglais au Canada de 1961 à 2011 (Statistics Canada, 2013).

    France Martineau, "Le français des pionniers de la Saskatchewan: quelques pistes de réflexion," in Robert Papen and Sandrine Hallion, eds., À l’ouest des Grands Lacs: communautés francophones et variétés de français dans les Prairies et en Colombie-Britannique (Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2014), 155-187.

    Geneviève Massignon, Les parlers français d’Acadie. Enquête linguistique, Tomes 1 and 2 (Paris: Klincksieck, 1962).

    Yves Charles Morin, "Sources de la prononciation du français du Québec," in Raymond Mougeon and Édouard Beniak, eds., Les origines du français québécois (Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 1994), 199-236.

    Françoise Mougeon and Katherine Rehner, "Engagement portraits and sociolinguistic performance: A transversal and longitudinal study of advanced L2 learners," SSLA 37, 2 (2015): 1-32.

    Raymond Mougeon, "Maintien et évolution du français dans les provinces du Canada anglophone," in Salikoko Mufwene and Cécile Vigouroux, eds., Colonisation, globalisation et vitalité du français (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2014), 211-276.

    Raymond Mougeon, Sandrine Hallion, Robert Papen and Davy Bigot, "Convergence vs divergence : variantes morphologiques de la première personne de l’auxiliaire aller dans les variétés de français laurentien du Canada," dans Carmen LeBlanc, France Martineau and Yves Frenette, Vues sur les français d’ici (Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2013), 131-184.

    Robert Papen and Anne-Sophie Marchand, "Un aspect peu connu de la francophonie canadienne de l’ouest : le français hexagonal," Revue Canadienne de linguistique appliquée 9, 2 (2006): 133-148.

    Marie-Ève Perrot, "Statut et fonction socio-symbolique du chiac : analyse de discours épilinguistiques," Francophonie d’Amériques 22 (2006): 141-152.

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