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. Ok Ok!!!!

    Modurmal mitt er franka, en eg tala lika ensku. Kvada tungumal tala eg?

    ;-)

    Kriss

    January 7, 2009 at 1:34 am

  2. Sorry, I’m late to the party, but this whole thread is a bit nonsensical. Observe the typical conversation between two people in a typical setting.

    When communication occurs, there is always a language negotiation of some kind happening in the first few words: “Bonjour”, “Hi”, “Pardon?”, Excuse me?”. Remember the modems of the old days? Same thing. Two communication devices trying to establish some protocol. The protocol is established depending on the locale and the protocol (“speed”) used to exchange data.

    Millions of these negotiations are conducted each day. And it goes without saying that a conversation in Quebec should be initiated in French. The surroundings should give someone a clue about that. It creates an expectation about which languages should (I am not making it compulsory here) be spoken.

    But for that to happen, there needs to be clues to the nature of a particular locale, the old mindset had to be changed. That’s why Dr Laurin, a noted psychiatrist, and his team (his deputy minister at the time was Guy Rocher, a distinguished sociologist) added the part on commercial signs in the “Charte de la langue française”. After 3 decades it should be clear to anyone that French is the de facto language, English being an optional fallback. Just the way English is the common language in Toronto

    To respond to ABP’s point, Canada’s meddling in Quebec’s linguistic situation has usually made the matter worse. You say the Official Languages Act is expensive? I’d say it’s (barely) the minimum.

    After all, my Quebec friends and I still pay a decent share of all taxes collected in Canada as I write this; we should be treated as normal customers, nos as beggars!

    ClaudeB

    January 7, 2009 at 4:35 am

  3. AFG: “If you can pull off a British or Australian accent people will not expect you to be able to speak French.”

    Acajack: “The percentage of Brits who speak French is twice that of English Canadians in the ROC”

    This is totally true, since most kids take French in school (France is across the chunnel and has great food, can ya blame ’em?), although the British people are trying to encourage more kids to take Spanish for business purposes when they get older.

    I thought it was interesting the perception AFG implies here. The North American-type accent you will be taken for Canadian and expected to speak it, but British/Australian not.

    Nom

    January 7, 2009 at 6:40 am

  4. “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.”

    Context please, 90 % of Brits live less than 300 kms away from 66 million French speakers.

    90 % of English Canadians live more than 600 km away fron 7 million French speakers.

    At a certain point, language facility is created by necessity and close contact with other languages. The percentage of people in a given society who have closed minds is virtually identical across the planet.

    Dave

    January 7, 2009 at 9:00 am

  5. NOM “although the British people are trying to encourage more kids to take Spanish for business purposes when they get older.”

    At first, I thought I read “although the British people are trying to encourage more kids to take Spanish for *expatriation* purposes when they get older”! ;-))

    Acajack

    January 7, 2009 at 9:11 am

  6. “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.”

    Was your tongue firmly in cheek here my friend? I should have added “deservedly” to my statement at 11:18, because although I am what might be called an “agnostic” or “lapsed federalist” on the issue, I do consider that, as a reward for their brilliant handling of the issue, Canada as a country and Canadians in general fully *deserve(s)* to have a sovereignist movement that is still alive and kicking in Quebec today.

    Acajack

    January 7, 2009 at 9:15 am

  7. “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.)”

    Good points. It is also worthy to mention that language “facilities” also exist for Flemish speakers living in a few municipalities that are part of the francophone part of Belgium (Wallonia). So when the Flemings complain of French incursion on Flemish turf, the francophones also point to these and say “yeah, but your Flemish-speaking *brethren* also have access to “facilities” in their language on our turf as well!”, much in the same way that English Canadians refer to spanking new French schools or bilingual road signs in places like Eastern Ontario when they criticize Quebec for its language policies.

    In Flanders, measures taken by some Flemish municipalities (note that facilities are federally-imposed and municipalities don’t have a say in the matter) to protect their Flemish character include having prospective homebuyers pass a language test to prove they can speak Flemish, or sign a waiver in which they pledge to not ask the town for any more services in French. Of course, these measures are greeted with a tremendous hue and cry from Belgian francophones.

    However, the truth is that “language facilities” for francophones in Flemish areas near Brussels have a much greater impact than the “facilities” for Flemish speakers in francophone Wallonia. Once again, it is somewhat analogous to the situation in Canada, where boosting English in Quebec vs. boosting French outside Quebec yields similarly disparate results to, say, giving Arnold Schwazenegger steroids vs. giving Pee Wee Herman steroids.

    Because, in spite of the fact that, numerically, Flemish speakers now outnumber francophones in Belgium by a 55 to 45 margin, French is still (because of its historical head start) for all intents and purposes the more dominant language in the country. This may change eventually, but it will take some time.

    The end result is that Flemish speakers in the “facilities” municipalities usually end up having to speak quite a bit of French on a daily basis to accommodate unilingual francophones (that “ride” on the facilities), whereas in Wallonia, the everyday existence of the majority francophones in the towns with “facilities” for the Flemish is largely unaffected and pretty much goes on in French only as it always has, and as it does elsewhere in Wallonia where no facilities for Flemish exist.

    Acajack

    January 7, 2009 at 10:30 am

  8. Acajack:

    Yeah, that was tongue in cheek and entirely good natured.

    gcl

    January 7, 2009 at 10:43 am

  9. ABP:

    I’m more of a Lenny Bruce kind of guy.

    gcl

    January 7, 2009 at 10:56 am

  10. Dave “Context please, 90 % of Brits live less than 300 kms away from 66 million French speakers.
    90 % of English Canadians live more than 600 km away fron 7 million French speakers.”

    Excuses, excuses. French is an official language of Canada and used to some degree by every single one of this country’s institutions. It is also (more or less) required or at least a good-to-have for career advancement in many of the said institutions. French is present on every single domestically-purchased consumer product that English-speaking Canadians have in their households. It benefits from national radio and TV networks that are available in every single corner of the country.

    It has also benefited at least in theory from a coast-to-coast French immersion program in schools that should have enabled by now great(er) numbers of now-adult English-speaking Canadians to be bilingual.

    French has none of this going for it in the UK, and proximity to France likely has nothing to do with it. Lots of countries share borders but have relatively few people on either side of them speaking the other’s language (think France and Germany, Spain and Portugal, Denmark and Germany).

    “At a certain point, language facility is created by necessity and close contact with other languages. The percentage of people in a given society who have closed minds is virtually identical across the planet.”

    Perhaps, but lots of people around the world have historical/societal hang-ups about many things, including language. This is probably true of most English Canadians with respect to French, for a variety of reasons (superiority complex, resentment of French as an “imposition”, etc.), all of which contribute to many people pretending that there isn’t actually a huge part of their country that functions in another language.

    Acajack

    January 7, 2009 at 11:02 am

  11. That franglais reminds me of Chiac that the Acadians around Moncton speak. I once commented on a YouTube Marie-Jo Theriault clip on how I didn’t like it and thought it was the beginning of the end of the French language in Acadia. Someone replied by saying that “les acadiens sont un peuple fiers! On est fier de chiac . . .etc . . . Vous me faites chier.”

    Just wondering, how do the quebecois in general feel about the acadians, and more importantly, chiac?

    Thomas Dean Nordlum

    January 7, 2009 at 2:07 pm

  12. Whenever I find out I’m talking to a frog, I just tell them to fuck off and I leave. Problem solved.

    Billy Bob

    January 7, 2009 at 2:50 pm

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

    I think what would be a real shame is if the ROC decided to stop providing services to ROC Francophones if Quebec separated. Especially given that they will have gone from maybe a quarter of the population to not even being the largest minority any more (I believe people of Chinese descent outnumber Francos in the ROC).

    AM

    January 7, 2009 at 3:24 pm

  14. Thomas Dean Nordlum:

    Québécois – Acadiens
    is analogous to
    French (from France) – Québécois
    Americans – English Canadians
    Australians – New Zealanders

    Quirky cousins, pretty cool, sorta like us yet sorta different, perhaps not as sophisticated but generally well-liked by all.

    Most Québécois would be familiar with chiac and know it when they hear it, though some might not know the name chiac and just refer to it as Acadian-speak. In some circles in Quebec chiac is considered to be obvious evidence of what the ROC does its francophones, which is to say kill off their language slowly but surely.

    I know the song you are referring to. It’s called “À Moncton”. Since I have some relatives in New Brunswick and know Acadian culture quite well, chiac is very familiar to me. I must admit to really liking this song. I guess what I love about it is its sheer authenticity. The language may not sound pretty to most francophone ears from around the world, but it’s exactly how a typical teenaged Acadian girl in southeastern New Brunswick would express her adolescent angst to her best friend over the phone. So in that sense, it has a certain poetic sadness that appeals to me greatly.

    Of course, I am enough of an armchair student of linguistics to know that chiac is a dead-end street for francophones in that part of the country. If you’ve heard Marie-Jo Thério interviewed about the song, you’ll know that she feels the same way as I do. But that doesn’t take away the fact that her song is a masterful, albeit sadly beautiful, piece of contemporary Acadian reality.

    Acajack

    January 7, 2009 at 3:35 pm

  15. “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.”

    I am not sure what issue this would settle. French is the only official language in Quebec. If that does not “settle it”, I do not see how independece will. What will change? Unless English language education is abolished or the various levels of government stop dealing with people in English (and Parizeau in 1995 said that all Anglo rights will be preserved in an independent Quebec), I do not see how things will be much different. Most immigrants to Quebec are already French speakers and we will still be sending probably over 90% of over exports to English speakers (US & ROC). And those belligerent Anglos, are they going to be more likely to learn French if they can always “opt out” by moving to TO? Are you not going to be able to get service in English at the grocery store or from Videotron??

    AM

    January 7, 2009 at 3:41 pm

  16. “I am not sure what issue this would settle. French is the only official language in Quebec. If that does not “settle it”, I do not see how independece will. What will change? Unless English language education is abolished or the various levels of government stop dealing with people in English (and Parizeau in 1995 said that all Anglo rights will be preserved in an independent Quebec), I do not see how things will be much different. Most immigrants to Quebec are already French speakers and we will still be sending probably over 90% of over exports to English speakers (US & ROC). And those belligerent Anglos, are they going to be more likely to learn French if they can always “opt out” by moving to TO? Are you not going to be able to get service in English at the grocery store or from Videotron??”

    Things don’t normally change overnight like you are alluding to. But there would for sure be a slight yet constant erosion of English as a public language. It would be inevitable, what with a unified school system (primarily in French with part of the day in English), the disappearance of the overarching Canadian federal system that functions mainly in English, and other changes. It would never disappear completely it is true, but it would retreat to a similar status as English has in Scandinavia or the Netherlands: lots of people speak it, and don’t mind speaking it, but they just happen not to on most days.

    There wouldn’t be a Quebec-wide (or Montreal-wide) ban on English at the grocery store. Rather, things would slowly evolve to the point where the person demanding English service would either be perceived as either 1) a completely lost dumb tourist or 2) an extra-terrestrial. Sort of like how people who demand retail service in French are treated these days in formerly francophone parts of Ottawa like Vanier and Orleans, or in the St-Boniface section of Winnipeg.

    Acajack

    January 7, 2009 at 4:01 pm

  17. Thomas Dean Nordlum:

    Another quick point – Not everyone shares my positive views on the song. It was actually quite controversial (both in Quebec and New Brunswick) when it came out, with many people feeling it glorified the Acadians’ marginalization/anglicization.

    Acajack

    January 7, 2009 at 4:30 pm

  18. “Things don’t normally change overnight like you are alluding to. But there would for sure be a slight yet constant erosion of English as a public language.”

    I don’t think these things would change at all, let alone overnight. You seem very certain that English would fade over time, but we are still hearing about how English is dominant in Montreal so many years after loi 101. A unified school system could have a big effect, but I am not sure how much political appetite there would be for that (just see the reaction to Marois’ recent proposal). The biggest effect of a unified school system I think would be an outflow of English speakers from Quebec and significant emigration is something Quebec -like many other western countries with ageing populations- can ill afford.

    And I am not sure how important an English federal system is. Other than paying their taxes and getting your passport, how much “contact” do people have with the federal government? Education and health care are mainly provincial jurisdictions so there should not be a big difference there, unless again, Quebec stops dealing with citizens in English.

    AM

    January 7, 2009 at 4:42 pm

  19. Acajack–sorry to bug you for statistics again, but can you tell me where you get your figures for anglophone Americans who say they can speak Spanish?

    I have alluded to this elsewhere on this blog, but I sense that a lot of Anglos who claim to be able to speak Spanish here really can’t. Even in places like Texas, New Mexico, and southern California, I have been told that functionally bilingual Anglos are the exception rather than the rule.

    littlerob

    January 7, 2009 at 5:10 pm

  20. Hey littlerob,

    Just wanted to put my two sense in about American Anglos’ ability to communicate in Spanish. It is rare, as far as I am concerned. The only people I have ever met who were functional/fluent in Spanish were almost always from Spanish-speaking Latin America or their parents/grand parents were. I have only met a few anglophones here or elsewhere who spoke Spanish well, and they were usually teachers. But, hell, even teachers are sometimes awful speakers (there’s a girl from my french circle who is a high school french teacher and I am embarrassed for her when I talk to her). Of course, many will tell you that they speak Spanish, though the word “speak” is used loosely. They can’t read books/newspapers, nor understand the news, hardly write at a good level, have poor vocabulary, etc . . .for me, a few years of high school or college Spanish doesn’t really do anything. I ask people whom I meet in Minneapolis who speak Spanish if they come across many anglophones who can communicate in Spanish. Answer is always “it’s very rare.”

    But I have high standards on what it means to “speak” a foreign language. I don’t consider pidgen or ‘getting by’ the equivalent of speaking a foreign language. I guess that’s why I always ask people after they say they speak this or that language, even though it’s rude, if they are really any good at it or just speak pidgen.

    What use is pidgen?

    hey, is there an expression in Quebec for pidgen that isn’t so blantantly racist as petit-negre?

    Anonymous

    January 7, 2009 at 5:48 pm

  21. lately i seem to be forgetting to type my name.

    Thomas Dean Nordlum

    January 7, 2009 at 5:49 pm

  22. J’entends qu’il y a environs 13% des gens de ROC qui peuvent fonctionner dans une convérsation basique en français. Pas si mal étant donné que dans les jours de ma jeunesse, on ne commençait qu’à la neuvième année (en sécondaire) avec des études françaises.

    J’espére que BILLY BOB n’habite pas à Montréal ou autre part en Québec, parce qu’il est un cul putride qui peut aller se culbutter. BILLY BOB! “Allez vous faire foutre, pute pouriée que vous êtes, putain de merde de hostie de calice de tabernac! Imbécile des sottises. Poltron! Quoiqu’il soit.

    There, tout le monde, is what, in English might be termed:
    “an appropriate and measured response” to the vacuous irrelevance of certain forms of “low-life-ery”

    Is there still hope for intelligence in the universe?

    Avec tous mes excuses sincères si aucunes oreilles ont été choquées ou des sensibilités étaient offensées.

    Je m’attends toutes vos corrections grammaticales ou lexicales qu’il faut. Ou l’enseignment morale si l’on préfere.

    Aussi avec mes remerciements personnels, fort profonds, à gcl, celui qui m’avait donné une leçon rudimentaire dans ce fil, au sujet des jurons et des blasphèmes appropriés pour de certaines bonnes occasions.

    Anonymous

    January 7, 2009 at 5:54 pm

  23. @ Billy Bob

    Yeah, it’s the you leaving part that solves all the problems. Your mother felt the same way when you left home. Well, that’s what she told me last night, anyway.

    gcl

    January 7, 2009 at 5:56 pm

  24. Desolé! ‘Chus pas dans l’ordinnateur chez moi. J’accepte la culpabilité de ci-dessus.

    bruce

    January 7, 2009 at 5:59 pm

  25. Bruce:

    You have learnt well, grasshopper. The student has indeed become the master.

    gcl

    January 7, 2009 at 6:08 pm

  26. Dean:

    The word “pidgin” can also be used in French, at least in linguistics. If you are speaking more generally, I think you might say “jargon.”

    gcl

    January 7, 2009 at 6:33 pm

  27. Mathieu:

    I don’t know how I missed your post from Jan 5, but I just read it, and it’s excellent.

    gcl

    January 7, 2009 at 6:35 pm

  28. Mathieu,

    Ditto pour moi à quoi GCL vient de dire. Vous avez de bon sens, et je suis absoluement d’accord avec tout que vous avez proposé là. Bravo!

    bruce

    January 7, 2009 at 6:52 pm

  29. Thomas–er–would the word you’re looking for be “baragouin?”

    Hispanics here (PA) are usually functionally bilingual; a good sized minority speaks Spanish only. The monolingual ones tell me the same thing that your Hispanic acquaintances in MPLS tell you, not omitting to say that they find it difficult to communicate with most Anglos who try to speak Spanish with them.

    I believe that the situation is the basically the same all over the US, even in those states with large Hispanic populations. If there are any Texans, Californians, etc. here who wish to contradict me, I’d be interested in hearing from them.

    littlerob

    January 7, 2009 at 6:59 pm

  30. Billy Bob: Ta mère était un hamster et ton père avait l’odeur des sureaus. Maintenant, va t’en ! Ou je vais te railler une deuxième fois ! (Pitche la vache !)

    Nom

    January 7, 2009 at 7:00 pm


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