Speaking French in Montréal
Irrespective of what we like to think of Canada as a unified country of two identities and two languages, to be in Montréal is to know how the divide is, at least linguistically, palpable and distinct. There are three ways to approach the city: one as an anglophone, and then as a francophone, or as a fluent French speaker. Third is as a fully bilingual Canadian, where you are content in either language. Montréal’s a lovely place, and without question the best urban environment in Canada during the summer months. The people live and exclaim life in a way that exemplifies the best qualities of the city’s multitude of small attractive bars, restaurants, night life, and parks. As a tourist, it shines; as a resident, it does as well; but if you’re interested in moving to the city and learning French, it becomes a tougher sell.
This is not about separatism; though it touches upon the issue as an inherent part of discussing language use in the province. One thing to talk about is how French is spoken in many parts of Canada outside of Québec. Most notably New Brunswick, where half the population identifies itself as francophone and the other half as Anglophone and as such is our lone bilingual province. French is furthermore the first language of many communities in Ontario, as well as in Manitoba and further up into the north, a legacy of the voyageurs that were the fur-traders and hunters of early Canadian yore. The point is that the French language in Canada is not delineated by borders; it’s a breathing language and the political debate over French Canadian culture in part implicitly denies that the French culture that exists outside of the province of Québec is equal to that found within its territory.
My position is that I speak English as a first language, French as second, and my French is good, but without a French Canadian accent—l’accent Québecois—and somewhat French-French. Whenever someone says something about the quality of their language skills, it has to be taken at face value, until you speak to them and figure out just how good it is, or isn’t. Mine is far from perfect, but also far from bad, and for this forum, I’ll just have to leave it at that.
The reason to go into this sort of personal detail is to explain how speaking French here is sometimes challenging. In the commercial centre of the city, the service employees are versed in identifying your accent before you even speak. You’ll be waiting in line for a coffee at the McDonald’s (guilty as charged) and the people ahead of you in line will be served in French, then comes your turn and the attendant will serve you in English without your having said a word. It’s a bit of game, and those who work in these sorts of positions are very good at it. You can then insist on speaking French but you’d better be fluent or else you’ll continue to get service in English. The principle is that the server will want to execute the order in an economical fashion, not help you to improve your school-boy French while you fumble over how to supersize your order.
So, if your French is somewhat rough around the edges, people will not necessarily accommodate you; it isn’t because they don’t want to speak to you in French, it’s that it is the practical solution to a non-political issue: we’ll serve you in your preferred language. This is likely to happen anywhere in the business core, and done gently or with great tact depending on the establishment and employee.
Yet you can feel that this is an issue: what’s wrong with my French? It’s good enough, you say. Indeed, it probably is (or isn’t), and if you wander outside of the city centre and into the areas that are distinctly francophone, you’ll get to use your French and won’t get the switcheroo if you get your object and subject reversed. Pointedly, some servers won’t necessarily want to speak to you in English, and may as well not speak it very well—or at all—depending on their age, educational level, and interest. So, you say, not all that different from parts of Europe, no? And if not, why can’t it be like Europe in terms of casual multilingualism? Self-evidently, because this isn’t Europe.
Does service determine the nature of linguistic relations, and more to the point, your ability to immerse yourself into culture? Yes and no. The challenge of Montréal is that it is a point where two linguistic oceans meet, with overlap and integration here, distinct lines there, and so forth. The history of the city is divided between anglophone neighbourhoods of wealth, and poor francophone ones. It is a university town, and the two anglophone universities are smack dab in the city centre, and both attract a cortège of students from anglophone Canada and far fewer from francophone. The social-economic divide is different between the students, favouring those in general from out of province, their manner of socializing is different, and the language used is, well, different.
Part of learning a new language is being confronted with an inability to express yourself in your native tongue. You’re forced to learn the local language because that’s all you have to work with, and in a sink or swim situation, the vast majority of people can and will learn how to swim over time. Once over the hurdle of self-consciousness, it’s a slow matter of basic grammar, vocabulary, and then practice, practice, practice. The inherent challenge of speaking French in Montréal is that it can make one incredibly self-conscious. Just when you feel that you can order a coffee and croissant in French and feel as part of the culture, you get your service in English, and you feel somehow like Sisyphus, only worse, since Montréal is anything but hell.
Certainly, French is also among the most challenging common languages one can learn; it is grammatically complex, accent carries a very high premium, and it is conducive to being spoken like a fast-moving stream coming down a steep valley. For the easy-going and grammatically loose North American English Speaker, all these things can make for a terrifying linguistic experience all on their own.
So much of learning a language, though, is to know the culture of those who speak it. Service in French is not Québecois culture as much as service in Toronto is not Ontario culture. It is about friends and the people you work with, the community in which you live, and the gradual accretion of relationships formed over the course of time. In the way that a traveller may get a sense of a place in a foreign land, the way to truly ever know it is to stay put and invest time there, and as with paintings, the picture emerges one small layer at a time.
All of which is to say that learning and improving your French in Montréal is a unique challenge, not impossible, but with added challenges not necessarily found elsewhere in the world. Go anywhere else in the province where there isn’t such a body of anglophones and you will be as anywhere else where English isn’t the first language. If, however, you speak French well already, Montréal is among the thorniest and most beautiful of roses to pick, an island that splits the mighty Saint Lawrence river in two.