First off, I want to thank everyone who left informative comments on my Hiatus post. (I should add that wolfangel was quite correct that people would often switch to English when they heard I wasn’t a native speaker, but I got a fair amount of French conversation in anyway.) I learned the word dépanneur ‘convenience store’; I heard the affricated d and t; I did not notice the tense/lax vowels or the –tu questions; I did notice the contractions (chais &c) and a feature nobody mentioned in the comments, the raising of nasalized vowels: vent sounded almost like vin (with /æ/ as in hat), and vin had a high [e] and sounded diphthongized ([veiN]) — in fact, one guy said matin so that it struck my ears as [matiN]. In general, men spoke with heavier dialect than women, and some of them were virtually incomprehensible.

We spent our time mostly in the francophone area north and east of our hotel, so we dealt with a lot of French-speakers, but all of them were willing to accommodate my non-francophone wife except for one Metro ticket-seller who answered her “Do you speak English?” with a brusque “Non.” People seemed by and large bilingual; a striking example of this occurred during our dinner at the (very good) Bistro Côté Soleil on rue St-Denis, when we sat next to two women, the younger probably a grad student in art and the older perhaps her faculty advisor. The younger spoke almost entirely in French and the older almost entirely in English, but they clearly understood each other perfectly and occasionally dropped into the other’s language (both had fairly heavy accents). Other people switched back and forth in the course of a few sentences. I’ve been in many multilingual cities and some with a very widespread minority language (often Spanish in the US), but never one where two languages met on such equal terms. Whatever contortions Québec has had to go through to get where it is today, I’m impressed with the result.


  1. Nativists in this country use Quebec as an example of the horrors of bilingualism, whereas it seem like a success story to me.
    Even per capita, Canada’s problems are smaller than the US’s, so that if the language problem is Canada’s biggest worry, that doesn’t mean it would even be noticable if it were transferred bodily to the US.
    Georgie Ann Geyer, not my favorite writer at all, gave me one of my favorite citations, quoting a Finnish statesman to the effect that “When things improve, people complain exactly as much, but about smaller things.”

  2. I suspect (having friends who grew up in Montreal before current policies were in effect) that the relationship between the languages was always like this (except English used to be more obviously associated with money).
    The problem of official bilingualism that Zizka alludes to have more to do with the cost outside the tiny areas you describe, with no benefit. In fact, arguably no benefit even within Quebec, where these same policies are resisted more than in the rest of Canada. Demographically, French is dying in North America. This is sad, but sadder still that the government is fighting a rearguard (and expensive and pointless) action.

  3. Arguably, everything is true.

  4. Montreal has never really been a city wracked by ethnic violence – the FLQ incident is one of the few exceptions and it was just about as widely condemned by separatists as federalists. However, the current situation is the end result of decades of bickering. A large part – two thirds roughly – of Quebecois are not able to respond to more than simple requests in English. While the remaining third is disproportionately in Montreal, the current relative equality of the two languages in the city is the result of enormous legal pressures leveled against English. Fifty years ago, Montreal was a segregated city, where there were neighbourhoods where no one spoke French at all, vast slums where French was the default language, and a bilingual class of middlemen moved between the two.
    The intervening years were pretty harsh on the city. Much of the rise of Toronto can be attributed to the flight of anglophones and the death of Montreal as a Canada-wide economic centre. Those things might have happened anyway – the rise in American trade after WWII was shifting power to the west in any case and away from the port cities on the east coast – but the language laws certainly speeded the process up.
    I gather the government, having met most of its demographic goals – some 90% of Quebecois prefer French to English – and having established that even in Montreal you can’t live in the long run without French, has been pushing hard for more polite accomodation towards tourists. This is probably for the best and I’m told that it has relieved a lot of the pressures on anglophone individuals, although it has placed even more pressure on anglophone institutions. You can live in Quebec without English about as well as you can in France now, but that wasn’t true as recently as the 1970’s.
    Quebec may not be on the brink of declaring independence, but the establishment of French in Quebec seems pretty stable now. They can afford to lighten up a little. But, as recently as a decade ago, there were still people crying that French was dying out in Montreal.

  5. I lived in Montreal until about a year ago, and would like to add two comments.
    Firstly, I regularly heard people switch langauges in mid-sentence, and/or pull in a word from the ‘other’ language without pause.
    Secondly, the death of French in Montreal is still regularly decried.

  6. No one but politicians figure French is dying in Montreal. There are arguments about whether lessening of certain aspects of the language laws would (the school one being most common) end up removing French from the city; in any case, these will not be changing soon (court cases notwithstanding).
    People do switch languages in all sorts of ways. There is the way lh described, which isn’t switching, when two people who have a relationship of some sort will each speak primarily in their own language (this is the reverse of the customer service example I mentioned before). There are times when you switch every couple of sentences, there are times when you switch within a sentence. I’m sure there are explanations for when people switch (other than to pull in a word they just can’t remember), but it’s not clear to me offhand. I admit that sociolinguistics is not my strong point.

  7. Is there a socio-economic gap between Anglophones and Francophones in Montreal specifically or Canada generally?

  8. There is a socio-economic gap between anglophones and francophones but it is not very large anymore.
    In Montreal until the past few decades, the upper levels of business were exclusively in English. A construction worker and his foreman might speak French, but when talking to the boss or the owner, it would have to be in English. The moneyed elite was unilingually Anglophone and French was the language of the unwashed masses.
    Now, there is a large class of Francophone businessmen, and most businesses are run either in French exclusively, or in a bilingual environment. In addition, there was a capital flight to Ontario, so the French got richer, and the English sent their money to Toronto :).
    I remember reading that in 1960 the average Francophone in Quebec made about 60% of the annual wage of an Ontarian, and now that figure is closer to 90%.
    But Ontario is one of the richest provinces, and Quebec is about in the middle.
    The gap is now more social than economic. Outside of Montreal and Ottawa there is simply no real means for Francophones and Anglophones to meet and interact, so insular ignorant ideas can ferment.

  9. As far as I know, there’s no real gap (anymore: go back not too long ago and the gap was huge), if you look at the numbers intelligently. For instance, as mentioned, you can’t compare average wages in ON and QC; equally, you can’t compare average francophone vs anglophone wages within QC, because the rural areas are pretty much all French (or Native). But if you compare wages in Hull or Montreal (or even Sherbrooke and Quebec City), you’re likely to find no major difference.

  10. Just to clarify, when I say French in North America is dying, I mean that the birth rate among Quebecois is nowhere near what’s needed to replace the native population, and this is one part of Canada where new immigrants are not making up for the gap.
    Also, due to Canada’s unique transfer payment structure, the economic status of Quebec (and the maritimes) is largely due to net federal spending in the area (I think between 20 and 40% of regional GDP, but I can’t find the sources right now).

  11. Regarding switching languages, my wife is fluently bilingual. I observe her and her sisters switching between French and English all of the time. It seems to me that they switch to whichever language makes it easier for them to express themselves, sometimes for a few words or for several sentences.

  12. i’m an anglo, born in montreal, have lived elsewhere, and moved back. would not trade the linguistic tension for anything…though tension is dying out, you still never know what language you should speak in when you address a stranger – funny thing when 2 anglos talk in french a while to each other before they figure out that they should be talking english. i finished high-school in 1991 (in an anglo neighbourhood in the centre of the city) and even then lots of my classmates finished school without being able or willing to speak french even in the most basic settings (ordering food for instance).
    The relationship between french and english has changed dramatically since I was younger – I think in large part because all the anglos who didn’t want to learn french left in the 70s, 80s and 90s …and those of us who have stayed or arrived have a much healthier approach to french: we speak it!
    come back and visit any time!

  13. Jordan Black says

    Scot Martens is completely wrong. Have you ever even been to Montreal?! Where do I begin? First of all, your melodramatic view of the past social situation (“vast slums where French was the default language” are you kidding?) belongs on daytime tv. Nothing in Montreal could ever be considered vast, and there are still neighbourhoods where no one speaks French at all. Also, I find your choice of the word “slum” offensive. ot to me, but to people who actually live in Slums. A visit to Madras, Calcutta, or Dakka would do you good. It might bring your head down from the Loire valley. And francophone outside the city are probably worse even than Italians as far as speaking English. It’s not like they’re special. Anywhere in the world today, English is the lingua franca of business and money. It has been for several decades (try ten…). Why shouldn’t Quebecers have to learn it? Furthermore, the Anglophone and francophone populations on the island of Montreal itself are nearly equal, with a very large allophone minority. Also, ALL of the rise of Toronto can be attributed to “the fleeing Anglophones”, as you put it. You neglected to mention the severity of the language laws imposed by the PQ.
    It’s not cowardly individuals, as you portray them, that “ran away” (left), it’s the Canadian and North American headquarters of many companies, which were too busy making money to bother teaching French to every single employee. Think about it. 350 MILLION Anglophone north-Americans, maybe 7 million francophone ones. You say that francophone can get jobs now… That’s because there are no multinationals (or even nationals) left! Only Quebec companies! After the francicization started, many Anglophones in Montreal LOST THEIR JOBS because THEY couldn’t speak French. A tad petty, non? Also, you say that “You can live in Quebec without English about as well as you can in France now, but that wasn’t true as recently as the 1970’s”. That’s just FALSE! Ever take a walk along Dorchester? That’s right, not Rene-Levesque, but the pre-PQ name, Dorchester. That’s in Westmount. I know that you are wrong, because I only speak French when I leave the downtown core (which no one HAS to do).
    “…but the establishment of French in Quebec seems pretty stable now”. Again, this is just plain FALSE! Have you ever heard Quebec French people speaking French? It’s English with some French words thrown in and with an accent. HONESTLY! Those who “don’t understand” just don’t want to! I can understand French, they can understand English. French people have no problems making themselves understood in foreign countries such as India or Outer Mongolia, where neither English nor any romance languages are spoken. So surely it must be easier when your languages are at least 70% cognate.
    “But, as recently as a decade ago, there were still people crying that French was dying out in Montreal.” They still do, on a daily basis. Ever pick up a copy of “Le Devoir”?
    I speak French. I have gone up to store clerks and addressed them in English, and they address me in French. I thought the customer was always right. I mean, my money’s bilingual…
    Oh yes, and the best part, again, neglected by you. Schooling. You can only attend English school if your parents (that’s right, BOTH parents) went to English school, in QUEBEC, not North America, not Canada, but only Quebec. Americans living in Montreal must send their children to French school, or private school, but absolutely NOT English school. This is, if I recall correctly, the same kind of thing my ancestors faced in the early part of Hitler’s regime… Hmm… How did that turn out? What this is is legislated discrimination! These laws discriminate against me and everyone who speaks my language, simply because they do.
    It’s all fine and dandy for you tourist/non-native “experts” to romanticize this systematic prejudice, but I am offended by your feeble attempt at it. If someone moves to France, they learn French, Sapin, they learn Spanish, Japan, Japanese. Quebec Anglophones have been here since the beginning, and have been integral to Quebec and Montreal history. So take your silent revolution, and shove it.

  14. Jordan Black is partially ritgh on certain things, largely wrong on most. I live in Montréal right now. Have been for seven years and was born in the Eastern Townships. The thing about not having any multi-national corporations around? You got to be crazy. Ever heard of CGI, Ubi Soft, Electronic Art, Bombardier, Quebecor, Cirque du Soleil, Groupe Jean Coutu, what not man! Name it we got it. Not only are there MANY multinational either headquartered or having major production centers in Montreal, many of them have been started, runed, and are owned by French Canadian.
    Yet, it is true that the whole turning of the linguistic issue in a legal apparatus was a discutable move. It cost us a lot. But again not as much as the previous comment stipulates. The rise of Toronto is due in part to a transfert of capital, but also and mainly to the development of a large industrial pole in the american midwest (Chicago and Detroit). And with that came the automobile pact between the US and Canada, that gave to Ontario a protected industry that hired legions of folks, something that French Canadian would eventually get through hard work (Bombardier and the aerospace industry) rather than conservative political economy.
    Now for what is of the laws on school attendance… What a morron has one to be to compare these laws to Hitler’s regime. This is the lamest argument EVER!! You really have to be ignorant to compare the motivation of the PQ to Hitler’s regime. Just one difference among thousands: the PQ never killed anyone, oh and it was elected via democratic institutions inherited from the Brits. Just because a government decides that it will spend its money on education in a certain langage rather than another does not make that government a facist one.
    Also, no, sorry, I love my anglos (my grand father was a british pilot who came here after the second world war) but they were not here since the beginning. My French ancestors had seen a hundred deadly winter before any of them showed up. But yes, anglos are a part of Quebec, just as much as anyone else.
    Oh, and anglos loosing their job because they couldn’t speak French. What about French not getting jobs because they can’t speak English in the first place (or are catholics for all that matters)?
    Pointing fingers for lost benefits wont help. The problem was that the French Canadians formed a dominated ethnic group and via parlementary insitution ended up holding power and decided that the majority had the right to feel at home. The way they did it was questionable, but it remains that an injustice needed an end being put to it.
    And no, I won’t shove anything anywhere. We’re just not that much into that kind of stuff here. We really do like our democratic institutions though.

  15. Oh, and about this: “Have you ever heard Quebec French people speaking French? It’s English with some French words thrown in and with an accent.” Well, answering that incredibly insulting comment would require more swear words than there is availlable in English, so I’ll passe. Just take a walk to Université de Montréal or UQÀM (yeah that’s east of Saint-Laurent) and you’ll see that many of us speak a more standard observing French than your average parisien.

  16. Thanks, Mathieu — I was hoping someone better informed than I would demolish Jordan’s obviously prejudiced remarks.

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