From Martinique to Montreal: French around the world

November 10, 2023

You might be wondering why the picture above is of a tropical beach in Martinique instead of a café on a boulevard in Paris? Well, that’s because French is actually spoken in more countries than you might think! According to the International Organisation of La Francophonie, there are around 274 million French speakers worldwide and French is the 5th most widely spoken language in the world. It is the official language, or one of the official languages, in 29 states and governments on the planet too! So in theory, you can fly from Montreal (Canada) to Abidjan (Ivory Coast), then spend some time in Dakar (Senegal) before popping over to Nouméa (New Caledonia) without using any other language besides French.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the language remains the same from one place to another; naturally, grammar, words and expressions change depending on where you are. I’ve had the chance to live in a few places where French is spoken and I think it is fun to hear different accents and learn new words and local expressions. Let me share with some fun facts about French around the world.  

To start, I spent the early years of my life living in Switzerland where about 23% of the population speak French. Most people can tell when I say, “Ça joue ?” (Does it play?). As far as I’m aware, this expression, which means, “Is that alright?” is only used in the French speaking part of Switzerland. A French speaker from France would probably say “Ça marche ?” (Does it work?) in this context. Now, let’s imagine you lost your phone. In France, you would say, J’ai perdu mon portable”. But if you use that same sentence in Switzerland you’ll be saying you’ve lost your laptop! The word “portable” means laptop in Switzerland and mobile phone in France.

Now on to Belgium. The French-speaking community live in the southern Wallonia region and in the capital, Brussels. About 40% of the population speak French, that’s roughly 4.5 million people! The first thing that struck me when I moved to Brussels was the way people use the verb “savoir” (to know).  They use it where other French speakers would use the verb “pouvoir” (to be able to). A French speaker in Belgium would say “Tu sais me sonner ce soir ?” (Do you know how to ring me tonight?) while a French speaker from France would say “Tu peux m’appeler ce soir ?” (Can you call me tonight?). Another funny difference is the phrase, “Tu me dis quoi.” (You tell me what.) When I first heard it, I was a little bit confused! But I quickly realised that it meant “Keep me posted.” which, in most other places is,  “Tu me tiens au courant.” (You keep me in the loop).

Let’s now move on to somewhere a bit different! In Martinique, a French overseas department in the Caribbean, nearly the whole population speak French – that’s about 380,000 people. I lived there for a while and it was an incredible experience! The beaches, the people, the culture…and of course from a language perspective too! The accent in Martinique is a lot smoother and the intonation is rhythmic and beautiful. Most people from Martinique tend to use standard French, sometimes mixed with some words in Antillean Creole (a French-based language that includes elements of Carib and African languages).

Although Antillean Creole is not French, I thought I would end with a couple of expressions that bring back nice memories from my time there. People love it if you can say some words in Antillean Creole. I would always start a conversation with,  “Sa ou fè ?” (How are you?). This is a short and easy expression to remember. Another useful expression to know is Pa ni pwoblem.” which is quite similar to Pas de problème.” (No worries.) in French – a useful one for Martinique where the life is so laid back and relaxed!

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