I think Belgium is one of the best countries in Europe, but I am totally biased because it is where I learned to speak French.
So, yes, I have a bit of a Belgian French accent when I speak. I have heard that people in France like to make fun of the Belgian accent, but I have never had that happen to me. There are other ways that the dialects differ as well.
Just as Canadian French is different from Standard French, Belgian French is also different. There are actually three official languages in Belgium - Dutch, French, and German. French is spoken in the Walloon region of southern Belgium, which makes sense since it borders France.
Even though both countries speak French, the French is not always the same.
4 Big Differences: Belgian French vs Regular French
If you already know some French, you probably know about the unusual words for the numbers 70, 80, and 90. In standard French you say them as follows:
70 = soixante-dix (sixty ten);
71 = soixante-onze (sixty eleven),
72 = soixante-douze (sixty twelve), etc.
80 = quatre-vingt (four twenty);
81 = quatre-vingt-un (four twenty one),
82 = quatre-vingt-deux (four twenty two), etc.
90 = quatre-vingt-dix (four twenty ten);
91 = quatre-vingt-onze (four twenty eleven),
92 = quatre-vingt-douze (four twenty twelve), etc.
Happily, in Belgium, there is less of this nonsense. No offense intended to L’académie! In Belgian French they are called the following:
70 = septante;
71 = septante et un;
72 septante deux, etc.
80 = quatre-vingt, Zut!
For some reason this is still how you say 80 in Belgian French.
90 = nonante;
91 = nonante et un;
92 = nonante deux, etc.
Thanks Belgium for having (some) numbers that do not require extra math!
As we learned in the introduction, and as you likely expected, the accent is somewhat different in Belgian French as well. The two languages sound similar for the most part, but there are a couple of differences that are likely to stand out.
The first difference in pronunciation is with the letter R which is more pronounced in Belgian French. It may help to compare it to the difference in pronunciation of R between American and British English.
Now, we know from French pronunciation rules that the French R is made in the back of your throat. You sort of make it vibrate to make the sound. Well, in Belgium, they do it a little stronger. Have you noticed how the R in American English is harder and more pronounced than in British English? Well, the Belgian R is like the American one in this respect. It is more pronounced and harsher than in Standard French.Nasal vowels might sound a little different as well.
Sometimes you may hear the consonant in a nasal vowel like -an or -en, or the nasal vowel -in will have a longer vowel and sound more like -een. Other than regional differences, the Belgian French accent isn’t too far off from the Standard accent.
3. Word meanings
As with all languages, certain words are used differently in different dialects.
Savoir/Pouvoir - Savoir means “to know” and pouvoir means “to be able”, but in Belgian French, savoir is often used in place of pouvoir. For example, you may hear someone say “je ne sais pas le faire”, when something is not possible, but it literally means “I do not know how to do it”. If they used pouvoir here, it would mean “I am not able to do it,” which would be more clear to someone in France.
Serviette/Essuie - Another difference in Belgian French is the word for towel. In Standard French the word serviette is used to mean both napkin and towel. But in Belgian French serviette means napkin and a towel is called an essuie. This is important to know because you would have a hard time drying off after a shower with a napkin!
Aux toilettes/à la toilette - In France toilettes is plural, but it is singular in Belgian French. So, if you want to say “use the restroom” in France, you will say “aller aux toilettes”, but in Belgium you will say “aller à la toilette”. This may seem minor to some, but if you have learned the important of number agreement, it is definitely enough to throw you off and make you question everything you learned about French so far!
Meals - Meals are also called by different names than in Standard French.
4. Une fois
Different dialects use different filler words. In English, we say things like “so”, “uh”, “well” and “like”. They are just sort of random words and sounds we add to a sentence when our brain is trying to catch up to our mouths.
In both Belgian French and Standard French they use the filler words “bon”, “ben”, and “hein”. “Une fois” however, is strictly a Belgian filler word.Une fois mean once in French, so it may seem odd to hear it mid-sentence.
It is such a common word that they even titled a movie after the saying called Il était une fois, une fois!