French, English and Montréal

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Sign promoting the use of French language in a mall in Montreal: "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 Montreal 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 Montreal 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.


  1. Now you know my pain! :p I always speak English when I shop, but at work I’m bilingual and it gets confusing sometimes. It’s true that if you start in English then people will get mad and even make a complain to the employer. Hehehe…But I love to be in my bilingual environment and can switch to any language whenever I want 🙂

    That poster is such a propaganda!

  2. It reminds me of one of my silly mistakes when I first moved here. I went to La Poste and asked for “postage” with my best French accent. NOBODY could understand me even though I was waving a letter with no postage in their faces. Finally a customer said “elle a besoin des timbres.”
    .-= angela´s last blog ..Spring has Sprung =-.

  3. Although I am far from bilingual (despite studying French all through high school) I find that if I at least attempt to speak French while in Quebec, it is very much appreciated.
    And it is then very much appreciated by me when we end up speaking in English!

  4. This is hilarious! Ah, “le bilinguisme”, got to love it. Just so you know, ordering at Starbucks is barely a language matter. Apparently, you have to know the right vocabulary – as I’m not a regular customer I would have difficulties to order in any language!
    .-= Yasmine´s last blog ..The Love Story About Two Dirty Socks =-.

  5. LOL! I love the fact that the French call it coca – makes so much more sense than coke, doesn’t it, and yet it’s so strange at the same time! And I love the differences between French French and Quebec French. Really enjoyed these stories.
    .-= Soleil´s last blog ..Title-less =-.

  6. i think quebec should divide everyone into two “teams,” one english and one french. like in high school, each team gets to choose a word until all the words are chosen. flip a coin to see who goes first.
    french chooses the word: fromage.
    english chooses the word: watercolor
    french chooses the word: sheut
    english chooses the word: recovery
    and so on, until there are no words left. then everyone will know what language to speak. it est simple.
    .-= Seraphine´s last blog ..Sticky Pants =-.

  7. your post reminded me of a scene in Pulp Fiction where they were talking about how you have mayo in your fries in Europe, and they were talking about the different names for a Big Mac etc.

    I don’t speak a word of French, although I could probably figure out what was being said if it was written down. I have enough trouble with my “British” English and the “Canadian” English most days….LOL

    Gill in Southern Ontario
    .-= Gill´s last blog ..Recipe and other stuff…….. =-.

  8. Why ma chère Zhu,that is my first hilarity of the morning !!
    So funny and so real 🙂

    The two times that I was in Québec, I also sometimes had the impression of not knowing in what language to speak in some situations in Montreal, more than Quebec city.I would ask instructions in French, and get hurried English speakers, or to order beignets at Tim Hortons en Français and get the whole transaction continue in English.
    Othertimes, French speakers would hear an Anglo accent and start off in English ( courteous).

    Anything goes when you are bilingual like us !
    Bises xx

  9. Ha ha… I also notised that in Continental Europe, people prefer to use Coca Light, instead of Diet Coke.
    Why is it so? Something in the water? Ha!

    The only item I know how to order in French, is probably, Le French Fries. Ha!
    Though, people here normally call them “chips”.
    Potato chips in the US are potato crisps in the UK.
    Not sure about Canada though. Maybe it’s similar to US?!
    .-= London Caller´s last blog ..Devil’s Lure & Angel’s Beauty / 魔鬼的引诱和天使的美丽 / Tarikan Iblis & Kecantikan Malaikat / 悪魔の誘惑と天使の美貌 =-.

  10. @Cynthia – The West-end is definitely more English but I find most people speak both languages anyway, just English first. How about you, what is your first language?

    @khengsiong – Yes, that’s the reason why. It’s just funny because I didn’t know at the time… same way the “stop” sign is translated to “arrêt” in Québec but in France, it’s just “stop”.

    @Bluefish – 😆 They were also handing out bag similar to the poster. I speak French first when I’m in Québec, except for a couple of times when I forgot to…

    @Agnes – I think each country’s Mcdonalds’ has its local food. I remember the Kiwi burger in New Zealand (with beet!) and the cheese sandwiches in France.

    @Linguist-in-Waiting – Yes, this is why I like to live in a bilingual country!

    @angela – You would definitely fit in Montreal, franglais is the most spoken language! French speak franglais too, they just don’t know it 😆

    As for your story… I can totally picture it! I remember a while ago I was at my bank in France and an American guy came in, he wanted to know if he could exchange travellers’ cheque. He obviously didn’t speak French but for a few sentences which he must have learned. I could understand him no problem but the woman at the bank was stuck on the fact he had said “tu” instead of “vous”… seriously, give him a break, I thought!

    @Beth – You are right, just trying to speak French will make your life easier and it is appreciated, like in France.

    @Yasmine – Oh, I know, ordering at Starbucks is painful. I don’t know why they make it so difficult…!

    @Soleil – I thought “coca” was the word used everywhere, kind of like “Mcdo” 😆

    @Seraphine – You know what, that may work! 😆

    @Celine – I guess you don’t need it in your side of the world.

    @Gill – Yep, it is Pulp Fiction 😉 Do you find a lot of differences between Canadian English and British English? I can understand BE no problem, mostly because I read a lot of book by British author. The slang is a bit different but I don’t find it hard to understand.

    @barbara – And I think they say “beigne” for “beignet’, which I find funny because in French slang, “une beigne” is a clout.

    @London Caller – But people wouldn’t understand because in France, fries are actually “Belgium fries” 😆

  11. Haha, loved your post… I just read it to my colleagues who laughed too! I was actually surprised to find in France that they haven’t translated the McDonalds menu into French, it seems wrong for the French not to. I eat McDos occasionally – we get a good student deal.

    I normally order – “je prends un menu *insert English pronunciation here* Royal Bacon s’il vous plaît?”
    – “do you want fries and coke? ketchup?”,
    – “oui, s’il vous plaît”,
    – “seven euros please”,
    – “merci, bonne soirée, au revoir”
    – “thank you, good evening, goodbye”

    Just because I have an accent, and don’t speak French particularly well, they ALWAYS speak to me in English at McDonalds in France!
    .-= Kim´s last blog ..Shocking news… =-.

  12. p.s. – I LOVE the kiwi burger with beetroot and egg… mmmm!
    p.p.s. – NZ English whilst mostly BE has a lot of American English words. Is Canada similar? We say chips for crisps, chips for fries (yes it gets confusing having the same word for 2 different things!), truck for lorry, soccer for football…
    .-= Kim´s last blog ..Shocking news… =-.

  13. Oh jeez Zhu you should go live in India for a while. 🙂

    I’m ready to explore Montreal now. I can only speak English. Chad can speak French but he says he feels shy. 🙂 hehehe
    .-= Priyank´s last blog ..Hare and Tortoise =-.

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  15. 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!

  16. 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.

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