Written by Julie Barlow

The American Association of Teachers of French is holding its Annual Conference in Montreal this summer on July 7th, 2011. A member of the AATF recently wrote to us asking if the French spoken in Quebec is really a “dialect” as he had heard from a colleague.

The answer is no. But let’s back up a bit.

What is generally described as a Quebec dialect is a Quebec slang called joual. It is one among many local registers of the language. It is therefore extremely derogatory – or ill-advised– to reduce Quebec French to its slang, just as much as it would be derogatory to reduce American English to its slang, or French from France to argot.

When most people hear the word “dialect”, they think of a language that’s so different from the standard language, it will require some work to learn it.

First of all, what’s a dialect? “Dialect” can refer to a form of a language whose pronunciation, grammar or vocabulary is different from other forms of the same language. Or it can mean a regional, social, or “occupational” form of a language that is different from the standard or literary language. Or it can refer to a member of the same family of languages.

Hence the concerns of our friend at the AATF.

The fact is, most Quebeckers would probably laugh, or scoff, if they heard someone refer to their French as a “dialect.”

This is why.

In every day speech, Quebeckers use different expressions than the French or the Belgians, or African French speakers, for that matter. That’s normal. Every region has special expressions that are born out of the history of the area and of other languages speakers from the area come into contact with.

Additionally, every language has their slang, an informal usage of vocabulary and expressions. The word “man” in English, becomes “bloke” or “chap” in British and Australian slang, while in American slang it is “guy” or “dude”. English has hundreds of other distinct forms of slang. It’s the same with French, with Marseille argot, Parisian argot and dozens more. Even Quebec has more than one kind of slang.

But that doesn’t make Quebec French itself, a dialect.

There’s a difference between the casual language used in everyday conversation, and the formal language used in culture, the media, politics and especially teaching. The written language and formal French used in Quebec is standard French. Vocabulary might be different, but when written, the rules are the same.

The French spoken, say, by Quebec radio announcers, public speakers or politicians (in the best cases) is of the highest standard. Anyone else in the French-speaking world would understand it.

Because of the accent, a French speaker hearing Quebec French for the first time would probably find it odd – just like an American who had only heard Parisian French would.

But Quebec French is no more “dialectal” than the English spoken on NPR in respect to the English spoken by BBC announcers.

In our travels, we often hear people refer to Quebec French as a dialect. Where does the idea come from? North American French-speakers are victims of a super-purism that infects almost every one who is learning French. There’s a very widespread idea that only truly correct French is the French “from France.”

This is nuts. Can you imagine hearing someone who visited Detroit return and report that the language spoken there is “an American dialect”? Coming back to our friend’s question raised at the beginning… Quebec French is no more a dialect than Detroit English is an American dialect.