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Regionalisms and learning French as a foreign language?

French Teacher tips | learning French

The issue of regionalisms when learning French as a foreign language cropped up whilst looking at photos of our language students in Paris feasting on delicious French pastries: pains au chocolat… or are they chocolatines?

We won’t go over the whole debate again, but every nation had their say and nobody could agree!

The French still fly the flag for certain words specific to the regions they come from, as do the Italians and Spanish. There’s a sense of belonging and pride in putting your regional identity in the spotlight. But it’s hard work if you’re learning French as a foreign language! These linguistic variations give language students the run around, force them to adapt and can give rise to comic situations!

So, how do students and teachers handle regionalisms when learning or teaching French as a foreign language? How do you integrate them? Do they stop you connecting with the local community?

Let’s define regionalisms in the French language

Linguistic regionalisms are real troublemakers when learning French. What are they exactly? They’re variations in vocabulary, expression, syntax and pronunciation specific to a French region or community

You mustn’t confuse them with regional languages or dialects like Breton, Basque or Creole. What we’re talking about here are specificities in the national language that diversify and enrich it with regional turns of phrase and terms. 

French teachers tend to discuss differences in the language spoken in Quebec or Luxembourg rather than variations between French regions.

Types of regionalisms

Regionalisms tend to appear in spoken French and are far less a feature of written French where more formal and “conventional” language is the norm. We can split these variations into 3 types:

Variations in vocabulary

This is the most obvious use of regionalisms in French. Regional vocabulary could do with its own dictionary! 

“Peux-tu me passer le pichet s’il te plait?” 

  • Someone from Toulouse would say “carafe” instead of “pichet”.
  • Someone from Ile de France would say “brodo”.
  • Someone from Alsace would say “cruche”.
  • Someone from Lyon would say “pot d’eau”. 

Who knew getting a drink was so hard?!

Variations in pronunciation and phonetics

When you write “persil” or “sourcil”, you know everyone in France will write and understand the same thing. They do, however, pronounce them differently i.e. the last L is silent in the Centre region!

Another example is the letter O, whose phonetics say everything about you in France. Just say the words “rose” and “jaune” and your audience will have an easy time working out where you come from! An [o] sound puts you in the northern regions whilst an [ɔ] sound makes you more likely to hail from the South of France. Now there’s a fun little game that will get everyone talking and smiling! 

Variations in grammar

Differences in syntax are harder to handle. They can be odd and seem like grammar mistakes.

Let’s take the striking example of some regions using “y” in turns of phrase such as “c’est-y pas sympa cette soirée?” or “je vais y faire” (translation: I’ll do it, I’ll deal with it). It may come as a surprise if you’re from the Grand Est region visiting Lyon, Burgundy, Savoie, Dauphiné etc. If you’re a stickler for syntax, it will send you round the bend!

It’s so complex that maps have even been drawn up to identify the rough borders of regionalisms.

Why use the “local lingo”?

Language students don’t necessarily have to learn regional nuances, but they are worthwhile! Knowing the “local lingo” can make it easier to fit into your social or professional situation, especially when you travel, study or work in France. It’s that something special that will make you popular with the locals as they’ll be pleasantly surprised by your understanding of regional subtleties. Without prior knowledge of it, you have to adapt and learn through experience, so prepare to be pulled up on your mistakes!

How do teachers handle regionalisms in French class?

It all depends on the teacher’s understanding of the subject and the students’ language level and objectives. Some teachers may introduce beginners to variations in phonetics and pronunciation, before handling different vocabulary and grammar with more advanced learners. 

It’s good preparation for students taking a course, working or studying French in a specific French region. These linguistic features form a cultural way of teaching French, just as you learn about food & drink and its specific language.

Understanding regionalisms isn’t a priority in French as a foreign language learning, so it may be addressed when the opportunity arises. That’s down to the teachers, guides or French hosts with student guests. It’s something that we like to explore during our language stays when we welcome young or adult students to different French towns and regions. “Translating regionalisms” is part of the language experience among our visiting students. It celebrates the difference between what the handbooks describe and the reality of everyday language!

So how do you handle specific language features when you’re learning French?

You have to keep your ears open and listen carefully. Oral comprehension and practice are essential to get to grips with the nuances of the language. Local radio stations and podcasts can help you get a feel for regional accents and terms. 

Students in France can ask their guide or teacher to unlock the secrets behind odd pronunciation or unknown vocabulary they come across whilst interacting with locals. If you’re in conversation with a French person, feel free to ask them as they’ll be delighted to detail the specific features of their language and the history behind it.

Regionalisms aren’t just oddities, they’re part of France’s heritage and what make the language so special. They’re more a feature of spoken rather than written French and they capture the energy and power of the language. They show just how diverse French is and how different it is from your school textbooks. Regionalisms fascinate and confuse French students, especially when they stop them communicating and interacting with locals properly. But they can also be fun, bring people together and celebrate culture!

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