Introducing your SaaS product to French-first Canadians is just about offering a French translation of your products, right? Not quite.

Before embarking on product development for a Canadian marketplace, take a step back to appreciate the linguistic landscape.

We spoke to Marcel Petitpas, CEO and Founder of Canadian technology company Parakeeto, about the lay of the land. 

Marcel Petitpas - Parakeeto

Marcel grew up in Prince Edward Island, attending a French-speaking school. He now lives in New Brunswick, which has a thriving French-speaking community.

“The narrative is that Canada is a bilingual country, but it would be incorrect to assume that all Canadians are fluent in both languages,” Marcel explains. 

Most people have had some exposure to French and 22% of the Canadian population speaks French as their first language. Nearly 18% say they are able to conduct a conversation in both English and French.

How widely spoken is French in different Canadian communities?

  • Quebec describes itself as a French province rather than a bilingual one. Here, you have a right to speak French, which means you need to be able to carry out all tasks – like accessing government services, going to work, using tools, etc – in French. That is not true in other provinces in Canada.
  • There are three provinces that describe themselves as “bilingual”New Brunswick, Manitoba and the North West Territories.
  • Of the remaining provinces, some make an effort to provide services in French, but it’s not a legal requirement. And, some of them make very little effort at all.

Why is French translation an issue if most people speak English?

There is a great deal of pride among communities where French is the first language.

It’s true that most people in Canada can speak English. But there are areas where you won’t be able to have a conversation in English, especially as you travel further from metropolitan hubs. 

And, even if locals are able to speak English, they don’t always choose to. 

“There’s still such a fresh wound around the conflict between English and French that the French like to keep things local,” explains Marcel. “Some francophones refuse to order food in a restaurant in English, for example.”

French-first Canadians are proud of their language and are dedicated to protecting and preserving it. 

The good news? Address this at the outset and you can create a significant competitive advantage.

Marcel says he’s seen a lot of software companies start in Quebec and never have to leave. How? Because they’ve built a strong customer base by offering a great service in French. 

It makes it very hard for other competitors to come in, even if they have a better solution. People will value a French service over an English one with better features and pricing.

Localizing your product for French-first Canadians

There are business benefits to translating into French – but how do you localize your service? What subtle differences will help to make the user experience feel “local”?

Consider the following:

  • If you translate into the French spoken in France, Canadian users will probably understand all of it.
  • However, some parts may jar culturally. In conversational French, there is a contrast between France French and Quebec French. 
  • There are many slang words and colloquialisms between the different variations of French spoken within Canada. They’re extremely noticeable depending on where you are in the country.
  • The dominating influence in Canada is Quebec or Montreal French because most media produced in Francophone comes out of these areas.

The Canadian approach to imperial versus metric measurements varies too. 

“It’s a bit of a mismatch. We tend to use pounds for weighing but we drive in kilometers, and sometimes you’ll see dates formatted in both ways,” says Marcel. 

Pay attention to these smaller details to be authentic.

Essentially, there is no “one size fits all” in Canada. That can make the job of localization appear like an uphill battle, but those who succeed will prosper.