Québécois French differs considerably from Metropolitan French in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. This I found out the hard way when I arrived in Mont-Joli, a remote little town in the Bas-Saint Laurent region of Québec, Canada, near the south shore of the Saint Lawrence river. I had been posted there in the third year of my degree in French and Linguistics to be an English teaching assistant in a secondary school.
For the first couple of weeks, I lodged with a retired teacher who lived near the school, and I can honestly say that for practically the whole of those first weeks, I could not understand a word that was said to me! The sound of the language was so different from what I was used to that I seriously questioned whether it was even French that was being spoken! There were words I had never heard of and even familiar words were pronounced in such a way as to be unrecognisable!
Picture my first day in the school… My supervisor René-Claude introduced me to a young student he thought might be interested in an English Club I had suggested setting up. When asked if he would like to join, he replied with what sounded like, “Sah daypan, koss-kuh-toh?” As I was looking a bit flummoxed, René-Claude chided the lad and told him to speak “properly”, informing me that what he had actually said was, “Ça dépend, qu’est-ce que tu as?” (that depends, what have you got?). Similarly, when one day I was looking a bit unhappy, a new Québécois friend asked, “koh-toh-loh?” which ‘translated’ as “Qu’est-ce que tu as, là?” (meaning, what’s wrong?) I was beginning to panic, wondering how I would cope with this strange new language. Were my two years of university studying French all in vain?
Bit by bit, however, my ears gradually tuned into Québécois French and it was a joy to discover the differences.