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With over 274 million speakers worldwide as of 2016, French is the sixth most-widely spoken language, making French voice-over localization a great investment for any business looking to expand its customer base or increase its employee engagement. However, because French speakers live in Europe, the Americas, Africa, and other parts of the world, there are significant regional linguistic variations that can affect vocabulary and accent. Therefore, it’s crucial to have a little knowledge of the main regional variations before deciding how to localize.

This post will look at what you need to know about francophone countries and regions when recording voice over in French.

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Strong regional variations and robust demographic growth

Like Spanish and Portuguese, French spread to various locations during the colonial period, including the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, and some parts of Asia. Each region developed its own variation of French, with slightly different vocabularies, accents, and sometimes even grammar rules. However, most speakers of the different regions are able to understand each other despite these regional variations.

Photo by Catherine Fox.

There’s also a trend that we should point – the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) estimates that the number of French speakers will grow to over 700 million by 2050. Demographers forecast that France’s birth rate will make French the most widely spoken language in Europe, ousting German, by 2025. However, that’s not where the major linguistic shift is coming from. 80% of the 700 million speakers are projected to be in Africa – that’s approximately 560 million French speakers.

So what do you do if you have to record French VO? Keep the following 5 tips in mind.

1. If recording for France or Europe, use standard European French.

With almost 70 million inhabitants, France is the 20th largest country in the world by population. Moreover, the country has a large, developed economy, ranked number 10 in gross domestic product worldwide. These two facts alone mean that localizing into France is de rigueur for any international business, especially if it sells or hires in the European Union.

If your product is going to France, you must record in European French with native French voice-over talents, preferably with a neutral accent, which is the standard for most corporate and e-Learning VO work. Same for any feature films or TV shows – dubbing for the French market is a must.

2. If you’re releasing your products in Canada, record in Canadian French voice-over as well.

Over 7 million Canadians speak French as their native language, or mother tongue – that’s 22% of the country’s population, according to the 2011 census. Most Canadian Francophones live in Quebec, which is primarily French-speaking, but there are about 1 million living in other provinces. Moreover, the Canadian government recognizes French as an official language of Canada, of equal status to English, and provides French-language services around the country.

Because of this, localizing into French is expected for most products going into Canada. Moreover, the francophone population is large enough – especially in economic terms – that recording audio VO into this particular variant of French is a must, as opposed to re-using a European French recording.

3. If going into a specific locale in Africa, the Americas or Asia, look at the needs of that locale.

Africa is seeing rapid economic growth, and as mentioned before, is expected to contain 80% of Francophones in 30 years. Of course, it already contains a plurality of the francophone population, with 115 million first- or second-language speakers. This makes French a kind of lingua franca for much of the continent, making it useful for any kind of widespread communication, like online multimedia content. When recording VO it’s good to keep in mind the specific locale, or even the larger region, into which your content is going. For example, it’s good to know whether you’ll need Maghreb French, spoken in Northwest Africa, which has an Arabic accent, or a more general West African French, which would feature speakers with accents from Congo, Ivory Coast, and other French speaking sub-Saharan countries.

The same applies for francophone countries in the Americas, like French Guiana, Guadeloupe and Martinique, where French is an official language. Content going into these countries specifically should be recorded with native voice talents if possible. Otherwise, using content recorded with European French is often acceptable for corporate or e-Learning usage, though not always ideal.

4. Going into Haiti? Record Haitian Creole voice-over.

While French is one of the official languages of Haiti, and spoken as a first language by approximately 20% of the population (statistics vary on this), almost all Haitians speak Haitian Creole. Haitian Creole draws its vocabulary and syntax primarily from French and West African languages, and is spoken by almost all Haitians. Therefore, if your content is going specifically to Haiti, this is usually a better localization option.

5. Go regional for any marketing or transcreated content.

Marketing or transcreated content, like TV commercials, radio spots or marketing videos, is generally informal, relying heavily on colloquialisms and turns of phrase, which can vary greatly from one region to another. For this kind of content, attention to local accent is paramount, and should be consulted with local marketing managers if possible to make sure that the voice over recorded really “speaks” to the local audience. This is more than just making sure to record European, Canadian, African or a different regional French, depending on the market countries. Different variants of French exist within countries – therefore, it’s not unusual to have marketing companies requesting French from a specific part of Canada (from Montreal, for example) or a specific French province.

Engage your in-country partners

This is true for all localization projects: engage local partners whenever you can. They have insights into whether any of your content will cause issues in a specific locale – for example, if a small section will offend a particular region, it can be quite cost-effective to record an alternate in the VO track, to be used for that region only. Or, if you’re recording an employee training for a business in French Guiana, your in-country manager there may help determine which characters should have local accents, vs which ones could have European accents. And of course, their input is invaluable for marketing content, as discussed in tip 5 above.

No matter what, the input from your local partners will be invaluable in creating the final voice-over scripts, and in making sure that the content will work for its intended audience. Engaging them early in the localization process will make your final product better, and lower the risk of pick-ups and other unforeseen costs.

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