The Definitive Guide to Switching Between French and English in Québec

with 266 comments

bilingual Montreal

At the Dépanneur, the Caisse Populaire and waiting in line at the SAAQ

In business situations, there is one rule and it is the same as anywhere else in the world:  The customer is always right.

The Good Faith Clause:  For months I had to visit the Royal Victoria Hospital twice a week to se a physiotherapist and an occupational therapist.  Both were English-speaking.  The Ocupational therapist always greeted me in French, apologized profusely for not speaking it better, and tried really hard.  The physio greeted me in English and made no effort to find out my preference.  I eventually asked the Occupational Therapist if we could speak English.  She had been very respectful and made a sincere effort but my English was better than her French and we mutually agreed that the communication would be easier in English.  Because the physio never made an effort, neither did I.  I only spoke French with her and she eventually had to deal with it.

At the Yacht club, Bingo and your local chapter of the Bilderberg group

When speaking to Montreal Anglos in social situations, I always speak French.  The Anglo usually responds in one of three ways:

French: The Anglo answers in fluent French and that’s that.

Franglais: The Anglo responds in a half French/half English bastard tongue.  I can understand him/her, so it’s cool.  I, however, stick with French.  Franglais is great for Hip Hop lyrics but I have no inclination to trade my ability to converse in two of the world’s greatest international language for the regional creole of Federal government secretaries.

English:  My fellow conversationalist answers in English, I respond in French, he continues in English.  We both understand each other, we are both speaking the language of our choice.  All is good.

The rules above are exactly the same for Anglo-Québécois addressing Francophones.

How to avoid being labelled a Maudit Anglais if you don’t speak French

French-speaker in Québec have very high expectation for their Anglo neighbors.  They’ve been telling us they are fluently bilingual for three decades now and, get this, we believe them.  That is why some visitors to Montreal and Québec sometimes faced with an aggressive response when speaking English.  To avoid this use accents and dress like a tourist.  If you can pull off a British or Australian accent people will not expect you to be able to speak French.

Sri Lankans, Philipinos, Canadians and other Immigrants

There are two schools of thought concerning the proper way to communicate with our new countrymen and women.

The pseudo-cosmopolitans: They believe that everyone who is not from Québec speaks English and that they are ‘helping’ immigrants by communicating with them in English.  This school of thought is very widespread in Québec City and other places that have little to no contact with actual immigrants.

The AngryFrenchGuys: We assume immigrants are just like real people and would appreciate to understand the social conventions of their new home as soon as possible, therefore we only speak French with them.

The Switch

English-speaking visitors to Québec frustrated by the Switch – the habit of Francophones of switching to English as soon as they hear the slightest hint of an accent your speech – should refer to the rules above.  The Francophone can switch to English if he wants to, but who is forcing YOU to switch with him or her?  Just keep on speaking French!  That or pretend to be a German tourist.

These are the rules.  Put them on the fridge.  Carry them in your wallet.  Now you know.

Written by angryfrenchguy

January 4, 2009 at 6:05 pm

266 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. GCL,

    So it appears that Justin “Timberlake” Trudeau is indeed more erudite in matters of jurisprudence than we give credit for. He doesn’t speak “bilingual”, he speaks the ancient language of Law French.


    January 17, 2009 at 10:06 am

  2. Edward:

    My God, he could actually be the Canadian Obama you were talking about earlier, someone to unite people in the center. Of course, he’d have to find a way to overcome resistance on both extremes. You never know.

    “Le governament de la Canada se annonce aujourday que le official langue ist maintenow la bilingel. All ceux que no le use sera be hanger de une fuckenesti Gibbet.”


    January 17, 2009 at 12:31 pm

  3. “And I’m all for the distinction between males and females at the right time and place. Vive la difference!”

    I must concur. Males’ toilets are far too stinky for my liking. =P

    Bernadette Cajigal

    January 17, 2009 at 12:48 pm

  4. @GCL “Ben, juste watchez-moi là”

    @Bernadette: and the lines in female bathrooms are just too long. …separate but equal, eh?


    January 17, 2009 at 5:58 pm

  5. DIFFERENT YET EQUAL!! YES! The happy balance.

    Bernadette Cajigal

    January 17, 2009 at 8:22 pm

  6. C’est bizarre, même “bain-al”, le parler de ces toilettes!

    “Différentes, pis encore égales.”

    Mais la pisse-là n’est vraiement pas égale!


    January 18, 2009 at 12:24 am

  7. Chaqu’un a son égout.


    January 18, 2009 at 11:46 pm

  8. So what do you do if you’re French-from-France, you go about your business in Montreal, and half the shopkeepers switch to English on you, because you’re “foreign” (i.e. don’t speak the secret code of joual / Good Old Boy)? This happens to all my born-in-France friends in Quebec. I guess they just keep barreling along in French-from-France French and hope for the best. But I can tell you that they curse a culture of provincial chauvinism and xenophobia when they get home from the store. I’ve heard them do it more times than I can count.


    January 23, 2009 at 9:22 pm

  9. But the switch to English is meant to be accommodating, not offending.

    If they simply continue in French I’m sure the shopkeeper will accommodate that.

    To be frank (no pun intended), I’m pleased to hear that it happens to francophones as well as to non-francophones. Makes me feel hope that my French might be better than I had thought.


    January 25, 2009 at 7:18 pm

  10. But if you could speak French, as the French from France, wouldn’t you feel offended if someone with whom you were perfectly at ease and happy to speak in French suddenly switched to English? And wouldn’t this be even moreso if you had difficulty speaking English?


    January 26, 2009 at 12:01 am

  11. How would you feel if North American Anglophones kept switching to French on you because of your “funny” antipodean accent. I guess it would be irritating, but perhaps actually more amusing or laughable. I would be thinking “what a bunch of redneck hicks these people are!”. Which is more or less what the French think of Quebec, from what I hear.


    January 26, 2009 at 2:28 pm

  12. Well, I’d be really annoyed. I’d be thinking “do they think I can’t speak English?”… When I know very well that I am capable of communication in English at the highest standard. It would feel as if they were treating my abilities as inabilities, and as such, I would not only be frustrated to no end, but also feel highly insulted.


    January 26, 2009 at 4:05 pm

  13. My greatest triumph in Quebec was when I got in a taxi, asked the driver to take me to the airport and he asked if I was going back to France. That was the one time that my lack of a proper Joual accent actually helped me seem more francophone. I’ve also been mistaken for German out in Baie Comeau, which felt kinda OK. But usually the switch to English takes less than 60 seconds. ;-(

    I am way out of my league here and I recognize it. I learned French in HS from a textbook from non-native speakers. It is amazing I can communicate at all.


    January 26, 2009 at 9:43 pm

  14. Sorry to butt in guys, but shaddup was feeding you a line. I mean, his tag sort of gives away that he’s just trying to stir the pot. Plus, a Frenchman would never “curse a culture of provincial chauvinism and xenophobia” when thinking about Quebec unless he died and was reincarnated as a Canadian Anglo trying to project his personal demons onto French immigrants.

    Which isn’t to say the French never say anything negative about Quebec or complain about not fitting in here. They’re as likely to experience culture shock as anyone else. They just wouldn’t sound like they were reading from English Canada’s “How to Gripe About Quebec” playbook while doing it.

    Also, consider that if a given Quebecer really is that provincial, culturally chauvinistic, and xenophobic, he’s also probably pretty unlikely to have learned English. The foundations of shaddup’s little fantasy/gross slander against Quebecers crumble pretty easily under scrutiny.

    Not that I blame you guys at all for falling for his little fable. The natural first instinct upon reading it isn’t to think that it’s just being made up to badmouth Quebecers.

    If you really want to know how the French see Quebecers, I’d say it’s much the way the English see Australians, actually (or the Scots, or the Welsh, or the Irish, or the…). They don’t necessarily have the most flattering image, but it remains positive overall, if slightly condescending. Quebecers, for their part assume the French think they’re slightly superior and occasionally give them a bit of a hard time in the “those whingin’ poms” kind of way, but that’s generally about as bad as it gets.

    Anyway, I hope none of that sounds like I’m telling you off, because it really isn’t my intention. It’s more like I’m trying to do my small part to at least make you aware that you can’t always take what people say about Quebec at face value.


    January 26, 2009 at 11:43 pm

  15. gcl is right. I can’t imagine a Quebecer switching to English for a Frenchman. Unless it’s one of those stereotypical snooty Parisians who’s feigning not understanding what the Quebecer is saying, but if it were my I’d keep going in French even then.


    January 27, 2009 at 11:54 am

  16. I GOT MY FIRST SWITCH!! It happened at Tim Hortons and it was really irritating. J’ai demandé du homme a la caisse de parler avec moi en francais, qu’il a fait pour un total d’une sentence entiere.

    I’d like to point out that this was in Québec City (près de La Pyramide).

    Je suis venue ici pour practiquer le francais, donc il faut que les gens, n’importe qui, parlent avec moi en francais!! A la vache! >.<


    February 7, 2009 at 9:58 pm

  17. “That is why some visitors to Montreal and Québec sometimes faced with an aggressive response when speaking English.”

    My *American* sister was walking in Laurier Park and encountered this charming attitude a couple of months ago. She was asked the time by some rude French bitch (in French) and trying to be helpful she said “I’m sorry I don’t speak French” and was told “I want the time! You should learn French!”

    Seriously, this province is so screwed. And if French Montrealers can’t be civil to tourists who have come here to spend money, I really don’t have very much sympathy for their cause.


    February 14, 2009 at 12:43 am

  18. Yeah, people in Quebec should throw themselves at the feet of tourists and other foreigners who are so gracious as to come to this screwed up province and help their economy with their precious dollars, which gives them the right to not even learn how to say “Je ne parle pas francais.”

    Thomas Dean Nordlum

    February 16, 2009 at 6:33 pm

  19. “Yeah, people in Quebec should throw themselves at the feet of tourists and other foreigners who are so gracious as to come to this screwed up province and help their economy with their precious dollars, which gives them the right to not even learn how to say “Je ne parle pas francais.”

    (sarcasm on)
    Yeah, I’ll remember that the next time I go down to the States to spend my hard-earned-cash and support their tanking economy. Those Yanks better all speak French to me, esti!
    (sarcasm off)


    February 17, 2009 at 9:14 am

  20. Edgy and TDN, you can’t judge everyone in a province by the actions of a select group of people. Most of the Quebecois I have come across here are incredibly nice and my experience was, in fact, the opposite of Edgy’s sister’s, where I chose to speak in French and was served in English. If the person barking at Edgy’s sister were not a passerby but a guard, a salesperson or someone acting in a professional position, you’d have every right to make a song and dance out of it, but as it stands, she was a passerby, and may have been running late for a good friend’s funeral. You just don’t know these things.


    February 19, 2009 at 2:12 am

  21. EXCELLENT!!! Vraiment très drôle et tellement vrai!

    Je vie dans le Eastern Townships et je vois à tous les jours des résistants de la langue de la «flèche tremblante» (Shake spear). J’ai beaucoup d’affection pour ces Irlandais (on est à Richmond quand même!). Je leur parle d’abord en anglais et ils continuent en français. N’est-ce pas «cute»?

    Comment reconnaître un anglo? Il s’habille mal; elle met trop de spray net et ils ont tous un teint qui, normalement, devrait leur indiquer qu’ils font de la haute pression. Mais ils sont ici depuis toujours (on n’est pas à Montréal là! On se respecte et on s’aime. Mon voisin d’en face ne parle pas un mot de français, mais à 80 ans, des hommes comme ça, il ne s’en fait plus, il est tellement gentil et travaillant! C’est pas mal le seul monoanglo québécois que je puisse respecter.

    Les autres Quebecers qui ne parlent pas un mot de la langue molle hier et encore aujourd’hui, sont détestables. Pas parce qu’ils ne dare pas de vouloir tenter d’essayer, mais parce que ce sont des esprits fermés et obtus. Derrière chaque langue se trouve une culture différente; si la culture ne t’intéresse pas; en quoi es-tu intéressant???


    March 18, 2010 at 10:06 am

  22. I speak fluent English, as well as French. I will make two comments, from a VERY personal perspective. 1. I have no problems if an American approaches me on the streets of Quebec City and asks me if I can speak English, nor do I have a problem if hear the same question out of an English-Canadian, as long as it is asked NICELY! (I’ll bend over backwards, if asked the right way!)However, anyone who comes to me with attitude that “these guys better speak English if they want my money” will be met with resistance. My answer to anyone like that is, “Tu peux t’en aller chez vous n’importe quand!” (“You can go home anytime you like!”) 2. I normally speak the local version of French that I grew up with. However, that doesn’t mean I’m illiterate or “uneducated”, and it doesn’t mean I can’t communicate IN FRENCH with the French from France! I DO NOT like the idea of anyone from France addressing me in English, and I WILL NOT speak English to them! C’est tout, and that is all.

  23. En ce qui concerne la communication (à l’oral!) entre nous et les Français, les Suisses, ou les Belges, les problèmes ne sont pas souvent si nombreux que ça si toutes les personnes qui se parlent sont instruites et font attention à ce qu’elles disent. Par contre, si nous insistons sur l’emploi du plus pur “joual” et les Français ne nous parlent qu’en “verlan” ou en argot, ça finira par rendre la communication difficile. Mais, ceci dit, nous ne devons jamais choisir de nous parler en anglais pour faciliter la compréhension mutuelle. Franchement, il n’y aurait jamais rien de plus insultant… et ridicule!

  24. Paul a raison.

    Si les Français du Pas de Calais, de Paris, ou les Wallons, les Suisses romands, etc, ont leur dialectes locaux du français (plusieurs ont même une langue locale en plus du français local) font l’effort de standardiser leur français en parlant aux Québécois de Beauce, Montréal Saguenay…, la communication passera sans problème. Toutes les langues ont des dialectes, la plupart des langues très répandues ont en plus un dialecte standard pour certaines fonctions de communication. C’est pas compliqué, me semble.

    Au Québec, on parle français aux touristes et aux gens qui viennent vivre avec nousautres. On leur fait cadeau de notre culture et de notre milieu de vie. Les deux vont ensemble. Tous les touristes que je croise font l’effort de baragouiner le français… sauf quelques Canadiens bouchés. Ils vont comprendre à la longue, à force d’entendre du français.


    December 13, 2011 at 12:32 pm

  25. ”For most francophone Quebecers, the difference usually boils down to competency in French, personal culture and attitude. Some francophones from the ROC fit in almost seamlessly, whereas many others, who are more anglicized and whose attitudes seem more alien to francophone Quebecers, do not. As time wears on, the latter group is growing larger and larger, and the first “seamless” group is getting tinier and tinier. Hence attitudes such as those of Marc (who is probably fairly young) who make a very clear distinction between Québécois and francophones from the ROC.”

    This is so on-the-spot! Young Québécoises and Québécois have less and less in common with the quickly-eroding French-Canadians communities. I’m sure strong connection will remain with Acadie after Québec’s independance, as a considerable part of Acadian youth still really live in French.


    December 13, 2011 at 12:50 pm

  26. […] of Australians cite Crowded House on their MySpace pages too, and that goes towards confirming Acajack’s contention: Acadia to Quebec is like New Zealand to Australia—or Canada to the U.S. To Quebec, Acadia is […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: