French, English and Montréal


Sign pro­mot­ing the use of French lan­guage in a mall in Mon­tréal: “I like when retail employee talk to me in French. Thank you.”

It’s only when I showed up at Star­bucks that I real­ized I had no idea how to order in French. And order­ing my cof­fee in Eng­lish in Mon­tréal would look back, wouldn’t it. But I needed cof­fee: this is a work­ing week­end for me and I haven’t had much sleep the last few days.

I apol­o­gized right away: “désolée, je com­mande tou­jours en Ontario!”. The barista eyed me, not say­ing a word. I gave it a try: “Je pour­rais avoir un… grand? Café vanille? Latte?” He sighed and cor­rected me: “on dit un moyen café latte vanille sans sucre”. “Oh, thank you! So that I will know how to order tomor­row morning!”

The barista turned to the other employee and yelled in Eng­lish: “eh, can I have a grande skinny vanilla latte?” “Sure, no worries.”

I looked at him quizzi­cally. He shrugged like a French guy would have: “I’m an anglo­phone, ya know”.

Oh Canada. The coun­try where you never really know which lan­guage to use.

It reminded me of order­ing at McDon­alds’ in Québec a while ago, when I was still new in Canada. Feng and I were trav­el­ing around Mon­tréal and had stopped to grab a bite. I was slightly happy that for once, I could order in my mother tongue – my Eng­lish wasn’t that good and Feng was usu­ally in charge of these things in Ontario.

I’m by no mean a reg­u­lar McDon­alds’ cus­tomer. In France, the only time I went there was when I was in high school. If the first class of the day was can­celled for any rea­son (for instance, if a teacher was sick), we had nowhere to go but McDon­alds’, which was the only busi­ness opened before 10 am. We used to share McMuffins and hang out there for a cou­ple of hours, wait­ing for the next class.

So I really wasn’t sure what to order and how to order it in Québec. I started with the drinks:
— Can I have two Coca Light?
— What?
— Two. Coca. Light.

Blank stare. I even­tu­ally pointed to the Coke machine behind the employee. “Ah, un Coke Diète!”.

The rest was equally as tricky because unlike in France, all the Eng­lish names are trans­lated to French: “McCro­quettes” for “Chicken McNuggets”, “MacPoulet” for a “McChicken” etc. In case you were won­der­ing though, “Big Mac” is “Big Mac”, but they call it “le” Big Mac. And the Quar­ter Pounder with cheese” is a “Quart de livre avec fro­mage” – in France, it’s a “Royal with cheese” – but of course Québec does use the impe­r­ial system.

Let me tell you, by the time I fin­ished order­ing, Feng was laugh­ing out loud behind me. I sounded like an Amer­i­can red­neck order­ing in bro­ken French.

After the expe­ri­ence, I began to trans­late every­thing to French every time I needed to speak Québec French. But as I quickly learned, it’s not that easy. For exam­ple, Sta­ples, the pop­u­lar office sup­ply store, doesn’t trans­late lit­er­ally as “Agrafes” – it’s “Bureau en gros”. Ooops.

You never know which lan­guage to use when talk­ing to peo­ple either. Some peo­ple reply to you in Eng­lish after you speak French, some take offense if you speak Eng­lish but don’t speak French any­way. I’ve had minutes-long con­ver­sa­tions in Eng­lish before I real­ized we were both fran­coph­o­nes. And I had sim­i­lar con­ver­sa­tions in French before real­iz­ing the other per­son didn’t under­stand a word of it.

Walk­ing around in Mon­tréal yes­ter­day, I heard a lot more Euro­pean lan­guages (such as Ital­ian, Spain Span­ish, Ger­man etc.) than in Ottawa. I heard a lot of French from France as well which rein­forced my per­cep­tion that most French immi­grants live in Québec.

I also noticed that I must have a ‘for­eign’ look because peo­ple tend to speak to me in Eng­lish every­where I go in Mon­tréal. And yet you can tell they are fran­coph­one by the accent, plus as soon as I reply in French we switch to that lan­guage. Weird.

Lan­guage and bilin­gual­ism can be a strange issue in Canada. It’s fun, though. I’m very happy that I can use both French and Eng­lish daily.


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


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  2. I love your blog! Keep it up. I’m curi­ous to know what dif­fer­ences you’ve dis­cov­ered about “real” French vs. Cana­dian French (in terms of COMMON words, ter­mi­nolo­gies, phrases, expres­sions, etc.)

    • Hi and welcome!

      There would be a lot to write about it… I got used to Franco-Ontarien vocab­u­lary, which is dif­fer­ent from Québec voc. A lot of expres­sions puz­zled me when I first came here and a lot still do. But again, I also some­times use French (France) expres­sions that my co-workers don’t understand!

  3. I’m mov­ing to Mon­tréal for the 2nd half of my PVT in Sep­tem­ber and I really can’t wait to explore East­ern Canada. I’m also so curi­ous about the cul­tural dif­fer­ences from coast to coast and if I’m gonna be able to under­stand le fran­cais québe­cois lol.

  4. Pingback: 10 Great Resources to Improve Your Quebec French Language Skills | Correr Es Mi Destino

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