AngryFrenchGuy

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

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  1. “This can lead to what might be called the “unswitch”, which I have experienced often. That is, when two native Anglophone speakers carry on in French for several minutes before suddenly, and slightly awkwardly realizing that both are English speakers at which point a sheepish English interjection into the conversation occurs and without skipping a beat everything continues in English”

    Yea, those situations are awkwardly funny. If I suspect I’m talking to another anglo, I usually throw in a quick one word resposnse like “yep” or “sure” to see if it takes.

    Although I’m not as militant as some, I disagree with your first point. If I have reason to suspect that the person serving me is bilingual, either because I heard them speak english to someone else, or I happen to be in a fairly english neighborhood, I’ll expect to speak English. If I find that their english isn’t very good, I’ll switch, I’m not a total dick. But if I’m giving them money and they are capable of providing a sertain type of service, why would I turn it down?

    RoryBellows

    January 5, 2009 at 10:31 pm

  2. Fair enough. I think I might just be a bit paranoid as a foreigner.
    If I had been born here I might not feel so obliged to abandon my mother tongue which in principle is one of the official languages of Canada (which as we know forms a nation around Québec)

    Edward

    January 5, 2009 at 11:11 pm

  3. I find Le Switch strange too. It’s even wierder here in Ontario here my kids go to French school. There are sanctions in place to encourage the students to speak French exclusively, yet when waiting with other parents to pick up my kids in the lobby – even within earshot of the directeur – Francophone parents inevitably speak English to me. Maybe they’re mixing me up with my wife, whose French is limited – you never know in Ontario whether only one or even neither of the parents of kids in French school actually speak French.

    Todd

    January 6, 2009 at 12:03 am

  4. A few years ago, I met a man from Africa (I forget which country, because I only spoke to him briefly) who had lived in Israel, France, and Germany before moving to Quebec. Of course, he spoke Hebrew, French, and German in addition to a few African languages. He said that with access to lessons and full immersion, anyone could learn to speak any language fluently, read it at a high level, and write it acceptably in six months. “Anyone,” he insisted. “Any language.” He told me he’d figured that out learning Hebrew and later applied it to German.

    He was with a friend (who also spoke however many languages) who wasn’t so sure. The first guy replied that by “lessons,” he meant a few hours of serious study every day with a qualified teacher. By immersion—and this is the part that blew my mind—he meant making sure you consume TV, radio, movies, magazines, newspapers, books, music, and whatever else you care to name mainly in the language you are trying to learn and being surrounded by native speakers who either can’t or won’t speak any other language to you. His friend said “Oh, well, in that case, yes, obviously.”

    What I would like to see happen in Quebec is the introduction of universal (and ideally free) access to quality French lessons for all newcomers who want them coupled with a popular movement that inspires French-speaking Quebecers to discover their inner AFG and stop switching to English. Not out of anger, but out of a desire to (paraphrasing the real AFG) help newcomers understand and fit into Quebec.

    gcl

    January 6, 2009 at 12:16 am

  5. “If I had been born here I might not feel so obliged to abandon my mother tongue which in principle is one of the official languages of Canada”

    That’s actually a pretty good point in favor of Quebec’s independence.

    The argument that Canada has two official languages and Quebec is just a province within Canada carries a lot of weight. If Quebec were an independent country with French as the sole official language, it would at least settle that issue. Like taking for granted that you have to speak Spanish if you live in Mexico, Portuguese in Brazil, or English in America.

    gcl

    January 6, 2009 at 12:35 am

  6. “By immersion—and this is the part that blew my mind—he meant making sure you consume TV, radio, movies, magazines, newspapers, books, music, and whatever else you care to name mainly in the language you are trying to learn”

    My teacher was saying after I got a very high grade, “You should not have been in this class. Are you SURE you have not taken a French class before?” I listen to satellite radio in French (music and talk/news), I read the news online in French, my email is set to French, I do listening exercises and bribe my musically-inclined husband to play with Soundforge to speed up and slow down spoken French on recordings. I dedicate at least a half hour a day to sitting down and hashing out new verbs and vocabulary. I keep my dictionary with me when I read articles and I look up new words. That said, I’m missing the piece of talking with native speakers regularly. But yes, I would say I’ve made a lot of progress. I am not fluent by any means, but after six months, I have vastly improved. The other day I almost said to the gas station attendant when I went to prepay, “Bonjour, vingt dollars pour six, SVP” after listening to the news in French on the way home. I stopped myself and actually said “Hi, twenty dollars, number six, please.” It was funny. But yeah, I can see what this guy is saying. I have a neighbor who has lived a bunch of different places and had to pick up local language and she says the same as this person you are talking about.

    AEG

    January 6, 2009 at 7:14 am

  7. “A few years ago, I met a man from Africa (I forget which country, because I only spoke to him briefly) who had lived in Israel, France, and Germany before moving to Quebec. Of course, he spoke Hebrew, French, and German in addition to a few African languages. He said that with access to lessons and full immersion, anyone could learn to speak any language fluently, read it at a high level, and write it acceptably in six months. “Anyone,” he insisted. “Any language.”

    He was absolutely right of course. The proof is that there are fairly large and diverse human populations where pretty much 100% of the subject group is bilingual. Think Franco-Albertans, for example. Closer to me, I see this with Franco-Ontarians as well, where close to 100% of the adult population is bilingual. This includes PhD Franco-Ontarians, illiterate Franco-Ontarians, dyslexic Franco-Ontarians, autistic Franco-Ontarians, blind Franco-Ontarians, ADD Franco-Ontarians. You name it. All of them bilingual in French and English.

    It is not a widely-known fact, but as a carrot to those anglos who cannot fulfil even the most minimal bilingual requirements, the Government of Canada actually has a test by which a person can be officially declared “unable to learn a second language”. Get your hands on that and, while it is true that your opportunities for advancement in the public service may be limited in certain areas of work, no one can legally bug you with French ever again during your entire federal career!

    Acajack

    January 6, 2009 at 10:25 am

  8. “That’s actually a pretty good point in favor of Quebec’s independence.
    The argument that Canada has two official languages and Quebec is just a province within Canada carries a lot of weight. If Quebec were an independent country with French as the sole official language, it would at least settle that issue. Like taking for granted that you have to speak Spanish if you live in Mexico, Portuguese in Brazil, or English in America.”

    I see your point but this is not completely true. The fact that German and Italian are also official languages of Switzerland does not mean that people who live in Geneva and Lausanne don’t take for granted they have to speak French there.

    Acajack

    January 6, 2009 at 10:29 am

  9. “What I would like to see happen in Quebec is the introduction of universal (and ideally free) access to quality French lessons for all newcomers who want them…”

    We used to have them. They were called COFI (Centre d’orientation et de formation des immigrants). They weren’t perfect but certainly better than nothing. They were abolished in 1998 by, guess who? The Parti Québécois government.

    Acajack

    January 6, 2009 at 10:31 am

  10. “Bilingual francophones who switch over to English too easily or too fast are at least as much part of the reason why English rather than French ends up being the common language between francophones and non-francophones in many situations.”

    Thank you! (Ou dois-je dire “Merci” ?)

    AEG

    January 6, 2009 at 7:32 pm

  11. “That’s actually a pretty good point in favor of Quebec’s independence.

    The argument that Canada has two official languages and Quebec is just a province within Canada carries a lot of weight. If Quebec were an independent country with French as the sole official language, it would at least settle that issue. ”

    Not sure I agree either. I think I would feel even more obliged to use French in Quebec if I came from Alberta or BC just to prove that I’m not an “Ugly Canadian”. I certainly think that coming from America spares me much grief among the locals who I imagine make a mental 180-degree turn from “Maudit anglais!” to “C’est pas si pire pour un americain.”

    On the other hand if I were an Anglo-Quebecker I might resent being told that the language my ancestors spoke for 200 years here is no longer acceptable.

    Edward

    January 6, 2009 at 10:15 pm

  12. You forgot something AFG. If your interlocutor is impolite (in French or in English, it doesn’t matter), what he deserves is the universal kick-in-the-groin.

    Jonathan

    January 6, 2009 at 10:15 pm

  13. Acajack:

    I’ve given some thought to your response, and I’ve gone over what I originally said. I’m sticking to my original statement because I think it is, in fact, completely true.

    “That’s actually a pretty good point in favor of Quebec’s independence.”

    I’m simply observing that it’s a good point in favor of independence. And it is. So this statement is perfectly true.

    “The argument that Canada has two official languages and Quebec is just a province within Canada carries a lot of weight.”

    The argument does carry a lot of weight. So this too is an entirely true statement.

    “If Quebec were an independent country with French as the sole official language, it would at least settle that issue.”

    Again, absolutely true. Under those conditions, it could no longer be said that Quebec was part of a country with two official languages.

    “Like taking for granted that you have to speak Spanish if you live in Mexico, Portuguese in Brazil, or English in America.”

    This sentence is grammatically incorrect, I’ll admit, but it illustrates my last point and there is nothing false about it. The overwhelming majority of people will take for granted that they’ll have to speak those languages if they choose to live in those countries.

    What you say about Switzerland is also perfectly true, but that doesn’t mean we’re contradicting each other. It’s just that there are different linguistic situations in different countries.

    So what is the situation in Canada? We may not see eye to on this (or maybe we will), but here’s my take:

    In some countries with more than one official language, certain places are understood by everyone to be x-speaking places and that is that. As you pointed out, Switzerland is one of those countries. Belgium, from what I understand, is another. Canada is not, which is why we’ve had Anglophone in Quebec banging on about English language rights for decades and why we’re all supposed to pretend that French-speaking communities are thriving across the ROC.

    Other countries are home to a number of languages, but most people there expect to be able to get by on just one of them without having to learn the others unless they really want to, and they’re resentful if they can’t. They assume that everyone in the country will eventually learn that language. Furthermore, they believe everyone in the country should learn that language for the good of the country and they view people who don’t want to learn it with a mixture of resentment, mistrust, and anger. America is one of those countries. So is France. And the UK. And Spain. And Canada. Which is why (as you point out elsewhere) Francophones in the ROC have pretty much all learned to speak English and why there continues to be so much fear and resentment of Quebecers who resist the spread of English.

    gcl

    January 6, 2009 at 10:32 pm

  14. It would be ironic, though, if Québec independence became a justification for Canadians to stop bothering to learn French.

    Mandarin probably gets one quite a bit further in the world these days. 法语算一个第三世界的语言了

    Edward

    January 6, 2009 at 10:33 pm

  15. Edward:

    I’m not ignoring your post. I’ll get back to you.

    Jonathan:

    You need to work on your conflict resolution skills, son. The kind of behavior you are advocating won’t solve anything, and in a political context, it could even trigger an escalating cycle of violence. Of course, if the person being rude is a Canaanite, then by all means, kick away. It’s the only thing those people understand.

    gcl

    January 6, 2009 at 10:40 pm

  16. GCL:
    I think you’re still in last week’s blog.

    Kick them Canaanites in the Baals.

    Edward

    January 6, 2009 at 10:48 pm

  17. More like going for a running gag.

    “Kick them Canaanites in the Baals”

    Beautiful!

    BTW: Did a hatchet translation of your Mandarin. Not sure about the tense, but I’m assuming you are talking in a conditional/future way. Are you saying French would be considered a language of third (third rate?) importance, or a third-world language? Just asking out of curiosity, really.

    gcl

    January 6, 2009 at 10:58 pm

  18. You are too caught up in issues of language…but that is your right…

    Who really gives a shit…you want for some reason to learn french or inglese…go for it…I am sure if you have enough intelligence to use your computer you likely can learn another language. HELL. learn espangol. mandarin, german whatever turns you on…

    Problem is, in Canada, there are strong programs in place such as the ola which are biased towards the french language…these programs are very expensive and for the most part useless. Waste of money…

    So Then, you like french…go learn it…you like something else get on learning a few words.. But, please, pay for it yourself as it is a personal choice and not one which should be funded by public monies. (anglais ou francais)

    Oh, I know what the socialist will have to say….about this,…

    My take,, get over all your silly language paranoia..

    Of course it doesnt matter the whole country pretty well f’ked at this time…Just look at the last 5 weeks of the progue of parliament….of course maybe we could spend (or print some money) to convert all to speak french….what would it take…trilllion…maybe two….think of the benefits. We could all parlez la francais…mai oui…

    I would worry about things of more importance..

    ABp

    ABP

    January 6, 2009 at 10:59 pm

  19. I think you’re too caught up in the voices in your head telling you it’ll all be okay if you just get drunk and rant on angryfrenchguy.com.

    gcl

    January 6, 2009 at 11:07 pm

  20. “So what is the situation in Canada? We may not see eye to on this (or maybe we will), but here’s my take:
    In some countries with more than one official language, certain places are understood by everyone to be x-speaking places and that is that. As you pointed out, Switzerland is one of those countries. Belgium, from what I understand, is another. Canada is not, which is why we’ve had Anglophone in Quebec banging on about English language rights for decades and why we’re all supposed to pretend that French-speaking communities are thriving across the ROC.
    Other countries are home to a number of languages, but most people there expect to be able to get by on just one of them without having to learn the others unless they really want to, and they’re resentful if they can’t. They assume that everyone in the country will eventually learn that language. Furthermore, they believe everyone in the country should learn that language for the good of the country and they view people who don’t want to learn it with a mixture of resentment, mistrust, and anger. America is one of those countries. So is France. And the UK. And Spain. And Canada. Which is why (as you point out elsewhere) Francophones in the ROC have pretty much all learned to speak English and why there continues to be so much fear and resentment of Quebecers who resist the spread of English.”

    You were right to say we do in fact see eye-to-eye on this. I am so used to baiting Canadian status quo-types with this statement about Switzerland (I sometimes use Belgium or other countries as examples as well.)…

    Of course, as you say, it’s true that, contrary to places like Switzerland and others, Canada hasn’t seen fit to grant its francophone population its own language “safe zone” in Quebec that francophones have been pretty unanimously demanding for the past 40 years.

    Most people can’t seem to think outside the box and persist in viewing the current Canadian model as the have-all-end-all of arrangements for multi-national states.

    Which goes a long way in explaining why a prosperous, peaceful, stable democracy like ours can’t rid itself of the separatist threat once and for all.

    Acajack

    January 6, 2009 at 11:18 pm

  21. “It would be ironic, though, if Québec independence became a justification for Canadians to stop bothering to learn French.”

    They’re not really learning French in that great a proportion these days anyway. (At least not outside Quebec.)

    The percentage of Brits who speak French is twice that of English Canadians in the ROC, and the percentage of anglos in the U.S. who speak Spanish is catching up to bilingual Anglo-Canadian numbers as well.

    If you Google angryfrenchguy and “Knowledge is Power: English is not” you’ll find an entire discussion on this topic.

    Acajack

    January 6, 2009 at 11:24 pm

  22. third-world, but it was only tongue in cheek (un jeu (joue!) de langue)

    French was once the lingua franca for international communication. Today it is English. One day I am sure Chinese will take its place.

    …but at least we still have hockey.

    Edward

    January 6, 2009 at 11:32 pm

  23. Edward:

    I knew you were kidding. Again, out of curiosity…

    Was that real Mandarin, or babbelfish Mandarin?

    gcl

    January 6, 2009 at 11:45 pm

  24. gcl:
    > In some countries with more than one official language, certain
    > places are understood by everyone to be x-speaking places and that is
    > that. As you pointed out, Switzerland is one of those countries. Belgium,
    > from what I understand, is another.

    This is sort of a hijack, but as I understand it, one of the main problems with Belgium is that this is NOT in fact understood by everyone. One of the Flemings’ principal complaints is that francophones working in Brussels are settling in suburbs that are actually over the border in Flanders, but acting like they don’t actually have to learn Flemish. Some of these suburban municipalities have what is called “language facilities”, which (again, if I understand correctly) means that francophones will be guaranteed services in French, ostensibly until they know enough Flemish to get by. But the francophones are treating this as a permanent situation. So the Flemings’ fear is that these suburbs will end up being de facto “annexed” to the Brussels-capital region. (Brussels, it should be noted, is 80% French-speaking but was originally Flemish-speaking and a large proportion of its population is ethnically Flemish.)

    Marc

    January 7, 2009 at 12:00 am

  25. @

    Acjk

    Of course, as you say, it’s true that, contrary to places like Switzerland and others, Canada hasn’t seen fit to grant its francophone population its own language “safe zone” in Quebec that francophones have been pretty unanimously demanding for the past 40 years.

    GIMME A BREAK. ACJK…WHAT ABOUT THE OLA. FEDERAL HIRING QUOTAS…ETC ETC. Your safe zone is all of Canada…at the expense of others…

    ABP

    ABP

    January 7, 2009 at 12:10 am

  26. It’s not such a hard language once you master the tones.

    Edward

    January 7, 2009 at 12:13 am

  27. Edward:

    “I think I would feel even more obliged to use French in Quebec if I came from Alberta or BC just to prove that I’m not an “Ugly Canadian”.

    Canadians aren’t aware of the image of the “Ugly Canadian” as anything other than a racist separatist myth with absolutely no basis in fact, so it doesn’t make them feel obligated to speak French or do anything else.

    “On the other hand if I were an Anglo-Quebecker I might resent being told that the language my ancestors spoke for 200 years here is no longer acceptable.”

    It wouldn’t become unacceptable. French would simply become the one and only common language for everyone. And sure, a lot of people wouldn’t like it, but in the long run, they would accept it. A lot of French-Canadians in the ROC resented that a language they had spoken in their own country for over 200 years had to play second fiddle, but in the long run, they’ve accepted it. English will remain the dominant language of North America, so it would probably still fare much better in Quebec than French in the ROC, so Anglos would have even less to resent.

    “It would be ironic, though, if Québec independence became a justification for Canadians to stop bothering to learn French.”

    Canadians already have plenty of ways of justifying not bothering to learn French. The most common, I think, are:

    1. It’s too complicated/I don’t have a knack for languages.
    2. Everyone I know who speaks French also speaks English anyway, so I don’t have to speak French.
    3. It would be more useful to study Mandarin/Spanish/Japanese/Hindi/some other language.

    So if Quebec became a separate country, maybe the third excuse would replace the first as the most common reason ROCers give when asked why they don’t speak French. Actually, it would probably remain at number three behind the new excuses “Because I live in Canada” and “Here’s a punch in the face for even asking me that question.”

    No big loss. And in the long run, we would be trading empty promises from Canada for full control over our own language policies.

    I have to get to bed. Hopefully talk to you guys here tomorrow.

    Goodnight, Edward. I’ve enjoyed our discussion.

    Goodnight Acajack. I’ll get back to you on that shameless bit of federalist propaganda you stuck in at the end of your 11:18 post.

    Goodnight ABP. Make sure you put your smoke out before you pass out on the couch. Wouldn’t be right to let your personal demons take out an entire subsidized housing complex.

    gcl

    January 7, 2009 at 12:15 am

  28. @gcl
    Must be the tequila…..

    Aqui, 28 C en las noches…

    Vous avez une bien..

    ABP

    January 7, 2009 at 12:25 am

  29. “One of the Flemings’ principal complaints is that francophones working in Brussels are settling in suburbs that are actually over the border in Flanders, but acting like they don’t actually have to learn Flemish.”

    “Packed like Flemings into shiny metal boxes….”
    — The Police

    It seems that at its core the problem in Quebec is that there is a venerable minority deserving of full social and linguistic rights whose ancestral language happens to be English, which also happens to be the language of most of Canada. Attempts to protect French language at the expense of these anglophone Quebeckers come across as overbearing and vindictive.

    Providing services in English is one thing, but demanding that anglophones NOT use English is quite another.

    Edward

    January 7, 2009 at 12:26 am

  30. @GCL

    Nuit.

    Guess if I wiped out the housing project it would be my loss.

    Sorry your such a negative person…Do they have Dale Carnegie courses in francais

    ABP

    ABP

    January 7, 2009 at 12:34 am


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