Non-French French and Why Am I Just Now Learning This?

I studied French for 3 years in high school and another 3 years at university between 1997 and 2003. Then I took some time off from languages while I was doing my Master’s in Linguistics and ended up moving to France in late 2006. So I guess you could say that I’ve been learning French for 10 years, though those first 6 years were just grammar and literature and not so much useful stuff like comprehension and conversational skills. Granted, I haven’t actually been “studying” French while living in France because I’ve been teaching English most of the time. Nevertheless, after all that time I am still learning new things about the French language that I can’t believe I didn’t learn years ago.

Some French books make a tiny effort to teach you other varieties of French instead of focusing solely on Parisian French. They may mention that Belgian and Swiss French use septante and nonante for 70 and 90 instead of soixante-dix or quatre-vingt-dix. They may also mention that in Quebec, the meals are déjeuner, dîner and souper instead of petit déjeuner, déjeuner and dîner. And that’s about it.

What they forget to tell you is that octante was also once used in Belgium and Switzerland for 80 instead of quatre-vingts – though it’s rarely said nowadays, you can still find it in literature – and that some parts of Switzerland (Vaud, Valais and Fribourg) use huitante. In addition, Belgium and Switzerland both use the same words as Quebec to designate the three meals of the day. I just learned that yesterday. Seriously, I’ve been learning French for years & years and I just now learn that?!?

Obviously I don’t live or work in Belgium or Switzerland or unfortunately don’t regularly talk to Belgians or the Swiss so I understand why it’s harder to pick up the vocabulary differences. I’ve studied in Quebec and still watch Quebecois shows and read blogs written by Quebecois people so I’m familiar with chum, blonde, char, magasiner, dépanneur, vidanges, piastre, niasieux, etc. and I definitely know NOT to use gosses*.

But when it comes to le français belge or suisse, I’m lost. I can’t even detect a Belgian or Swiss accent because I have such little exposure to them. David’s super scientific explanation opinion is that Belgians sound too guttural and the Swiss talk too slow. I love guttural sounds (I think Dutch is the coolest-sounding language EVER) and a slower rhythm would be nice since French people talk way too fast sometimes. Maybe I need to watch some Belgian and Swiss movies. Anyone have any recommendations?

Here are some websites for learning other varieties of French:




*Gosses means testicles in Quebec, not kids!

  • Le Huitième Jour is a good movie I saw while I was in Belgium. And I've always had trouble in French class, because I can't think in soixante-dix and quatre-vingt-dix, but instead soixante and nonante. Just makes more sense, after having learned it there.
    My friends who learned French in France love to make fun of the way I pronounce 'r' – they've told me I kind of sound like I'm gagging. But I like the sound better. I do wish that the average student had more exposure to a variety of French accents and vocabularies. Would help when travelling.

  • And you there are other French(s) than Parisian French and Swiss/Belgian/Quebecois French right?
    Like real French French, you know from French places that are not Paris. 😉

    Personally, I don't find Belgian French that different. I mean, there are more differences between Mediterranean French and Brittany French than between Begian French and Picard French. And as you live near Switzerland, you may find Swiss French quite similar to Savoyard French. Personally, I find both to be pretty odd and funny sounding.

    Oh and in the South West too, we call breakfast “déjeuner” and some people do call dinner “souper”, no need to cross the ocean for that. 🙂

  • Geordie2004

    YES. I love the way the Dutch language sounds too, Jennie!

  • Amy

    The only Belgian movie I can think of right now is Panique au Village. I don't think it's great for learning language, but it's a good example of Belgian humor and I think it's just great. 🙂 Unless you go out in the Wallon countryside, there isn't much of a difference for accent, and then they just sound like the Ch'tis. I've actually never heard anyone say souper, but I live in Brussels so maybe it's said elsewhere. They definitely do have a lot of different words and sayings than standard French, but I've never switched over (except for septante and nonante) and they understand me just fine. Belgium is a great little country and it's a shame we never learn anything about it in French classes.

  • Amber

    We've got friends living in the Wallon countryside and they sound exactly like the ch'tis of the Nord Pas de Calais or Picardie. The more time you spend around them, the more you understand them. I guess there are vocabulary differences (the best I can think of is serpilliere and W5 (pronounced “wa-sang”)) and I just ask until i'm sure I understand. My old neighbors used to call me their chottenanette, which I thought was really strange until I figured out it was a term of endearment 🙂
    The Swiss accent is super twangy! It always makes me laugh. I had a Swiss student this year and a couple last year.
    But on the subject of Francophone countries and language variations, I'm preparing the C2 exam and there's entire sections in my book devoted to Quebecois, Swiss, and Belgian French. I could scan the pages in and send them to you if you were curious.
    To go off on a mini-language tangent, there's also an exercise that I found to be really difficult where you have to say the “real French” for americanized words like “un parking” — my hubby didn't even know half of them!

  • I think that Klingon is based on Dutch. I heard that somewhere…