A reader of OffQc will be travelling to Montréal and had some questions for me about informal and formal language. I’m going to answer here because I’m sure others have similar doubts.
In your blog, you make it clear when something is informal vs. formal. So, in my interactions, which will be mostly buying things and asking directions, I can stick to the formal usage but perhaps it would be helpful to recognize the informal usage, is that about right?
In the situations that you’re likely to find yourself in as a tourist, most of those situations are probably informal language situations. By informal, I mean normal sounding and feeling language.
Consider this sentence pair in English:
I do not think I am going to go.
I don’t think I’m gonna go.
If you were to say these to someone in a conversation, which one feels more normal to you? The second one, right? The way that second sentence feels to you is what I call informal on the blog. It feels normal. It doesn’t feel stiff like the first one. Is there even a time when you’d be likely to say the first one to someone?
Speaking with friends, talking to shop assistants, addressing a stranger in the street, all of these situations call for normal language. Even in situations where you’re on vous terms with someone, it’s still common to hear informal contractions and dropped words — y’a (for il a, il y a), dropping ne in ne…pas, using the informal yes-no question marker tu (like ça se peut-tu?), j’su’s (for je suis), etc. Contractions are a normal part of usage and there’s no escaping learning them.
Other than using vous with certain people, I really can’t think of any typical situations as a tourist in Montréal where you’d be required to speak formal language (no informal contractions, no dropped words, no informal vocabulary). That said, if the only French you know is a more formal sounding French, then go ahead and use it. Use whatever French you know.
He also asks:
Furthermore, verbs like pogner and niaiser and capoter, are those considered standard or are they more colloquial, or perhaps even vulgar? Are they ok to use on a crowded métro?
These three verbs are never vulgar. Go ahead and use them in a crowded métro. Their use is perfectly normal. The Québécois use them all the time in regular conversations. On your trip to Montréal, I really can’t think of any situation at all where they’re likely to be inappropriate. Fire away!
He also asks:
[...] but when I’m in Montreal, when they hear my metropolitan accent and hear me struggling with verb tenses, if they start talking to me in English I will be mortified! Would the best way to prevent that be to just focus on the accent and master some quebecois vocabulary, and not focus too hard on things like contractions?
It’s going to happen. Someone’s going to switch to English on you — I can almost guarantee it. It’s not worth getting worked up over. It hurts the pride a little, but let it go, and don’t be mortified. I’m sure your French is really good.
When you’re in Montréal, remember that it’s okay (and necessary) to make mistakes, and that includes saying inappropriate things in French and saying them with a horrible accent. Enjoy your holiday and speak lots of French!