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French, English and Montréal

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.

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