Posts Tagged ‘speaking French in Montréal’

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.

He asks:

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!

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Phillip writes in to ask me how to integrate into French in Montréal.

Maybe you’re stuck in an anglophone bubble because you’re a student at McGill or because you just haven’t figured out how to meet francophones yet.

I want to share with you what I feel is the best approach based on what I’ve observed among foreign friends who’ve integrated.

There are many different approaches you can try, but there is just one that I feel stands out among all the others as the most effective way.

And no, you don’t have to go running around approaching all the strangers you can find to strike up a conversation! (Not too many lasting bonds form that way to allow you to integrate anyway.)

So, what is the approach I recommend?

Find work.

Find employment where you’ll speak in French with co-workers.

You don’t need perfect French to start working.

If you think about the closest friends in your life, there’s a strong likelihood that you met them at work or a place of education.

You can develop many strong and lasting bonds with people by studying at a francophone university. I’m assuming that integration isn’t so much of an issue for you if you’re at a francophone institution. But if you’re at an anglophone institution, there’s still hope!

Even if you’re a student, consider finding part-time work.

Integration comes primarily through work.

When I look to my foreign friends who’ve integrated, it’s largely through work that they acheived their integration.

They used a few other methods too, but these methods weren’t as effective. You could however combine them with work to strengthen your chances: do volunteer work, find a language exchange partner, start dating a francophone, take a course in something other than French.

If you can make those approaches work, then do them. I say they’re less effective though because they tend not to last enough to work (even dating, which ends in a lot of break-ups!).

But if you’re unwilling to find paid work or unable to work legally, then consider volunteer work. Just be sure that it’s something that will require a long-term commitment and that you’ll be in regular contact with francophones.

I sometimes hear people say that it’s important to live in a francophone area of Montréal if you want to be immersed. In fact, I’m not so sure that it matters where in Montréal you live.

What matters far more is with whom you spend your time.

You’re far more likely to make lasting bonds at work than with neighbours.

Even if you lived in an anglophone part of Montréal but studied at the Université de Montréal and held a part-time job with francophone co-workers, then your chances of integrating are very strong.

But you could live in the most francophone part of Montréal and not integrate into French if you’re stuyding at McGill and working part-time with anglophones!

If you’re a student, you might be thinking that I just don’t understand because you’ve got way too much on your plate already. I hear you. Only you know what your priorities are. But even part-time work is far more effective at helping you to integrate than a French course.

In the end, integrating is no different in Montréal than anywhere else. Put yourself where the people you want to integrate with are. Work requires you to be around them regularly.

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Language in MontréalSome people will tell you that Montréal is a bad place to learn French.

It’s a very common myth, one that’s easy to believe if you don’t take a closer look.

If you’re serious about learning French (and by serious I mean someone who’s committed to learning over the long term), then Montréal is a wonderful place to learn French.

It doesn’t matter that there are anglophones in Montréal. It doesn’t matter that some bilingual francophones may switch to English on you.

Why don’t these matter?

First, look at the language situation in Montréal.

Who speaks what native language in Montréal
(and why it’s not a problem)

If the city of Montréal (not including the metropolitan area) were reduced to 126 people like in the image above, roughly 66 of them would speak French as their native language, 17 would speak English, and 43 would be native speakers of some other language, most of whom have also learned to speak either French or English, or both.

Montréal is clearly not exclusively francophone. You may be looking at that image thinking, “oh boy, look at all those people who don’t speak French as their native language!”

It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter that not all people in Montréal have French as their native language.


Because there is simply no shortage of francophones to speak with.

You choose who you let into your life. If you want francophones in your life, go find them. There is no shortage in Montréal.

What about the language switchers?

People in Montréal have a high rate of knowledge of both French and English. This may lead to some francophones switching to English on you in the beginning stages of your learning, especially if they do not know you very well.

Learning French is a long-term endeavour requiring a long-term approach.

The best way to learn French (or any language) is to develop a strong bond with someone who speaks it.

Why a strong bond is important

A strong bond isn’t just a girlfriend or boyfriend. It can be a close friend.

A person who you share a strong bond with is far more unlikely to switch to English on you. In a certain way, that person accompanies you on your journey to fluency over the long term.

There is a vested interest between the two of you.

There is also regular contact between the two of you, which is essential in maintaining the “fire” to learn French.

If you’ve got a strong bond in your life, it’s much less of a concern or annoyance when someone else (a weak bond) switches to English on you. Learning French through weak bonds is not an ideal long-term approach, no matter where in the world you learn French.

You just need at least one strong bond with a francophone in your life. A few more people are good too — but you can start with just one.

The bottom line

In reality, you can learn French anywhere. All the francophones in Montréal are just icing on your cake.

If you’re in it for the long haul, learning French in Montréal is a wonderful choice.

Here’s what you need to do:

Make at least one of the very significant people in your life a francophone. Montréal has nearly one million of them to choose from.

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Another delay in the métro? No problem.

Montréal is full of great opportunities to improve your French. Be a little creative and adventurous and you’ll see them all around you.

The next time the métro goes down, don’t just stand there — improve your French!

Here are 7 ways to make the most out of your next métro delay.

1. Find another passenger to strike up a conversation with in French. Yes, this may take a lot of courage. Know that it’s usually not too hard to make at least simple conversation with strangers in Montréal, though. I once had a stranger approach me for help with his French homework! Find someone to help you pronounce the station name Honoré-Beaugrand like a native. While you’re at it, you might also ask for help with Lionel-Groulx, Angrignon, Henri-Bourassa and Longueuil—Université-de-Sherbrooke!

2. If approaching strangers to talk with really just isn’t your thing, move closer to some people speaking in French and eavesdrop on their conversation instead. Make a mental note of anything interesting that you hear. I get a lot of ideas for this blog just by being more observant to the language that people use spontaneously around me. You can do that too.

3. Study the French used in the advertisements on the walls. You may be surprised at how many words and expressions you can learn by reading them and paying closer attention to the language used. In fact, there’s French around you at all times in Montréal. You just have to take the time to observe it.

4. Read one of the free Métro or 24 heures newspapers cover to cover. Study the new vocabulary and expressions that you find. If you normally read these newspapers, maybe you often just skim through them quickly. This time read them very carefully for the language used.

5. Become an STM expert by reading the regulations posted beside the network maps on the walls, referred to as codification administrative. That will keep you occupied reading French for a while! If you’re new to Montréal, study the maps on the walls. Not only will becoming familiar with the layout of Montréal be incredibly useful to you, you’ll learn station and street names used in French all the time.

6. Visit OffQc on your smartphone if you’re in a station with a signal. Listen and relisten to the videos in the Listen section. If you’re on a limited plan and don’t want to use a lot of data, just read through the transcriptions. Prepare ahead of time too for moments like these by putting French listening material on your phone.

7. Hunt down an STM employee with whom to express your displeasure about the delay. If you’re into uniforms, you could try flirting in French if you see an agent you think is cute roaming around the station instead.

Photo credit: Pierre Obendrauf for The Gazette, via Andy Riga’s Facebook page about Montréal roads, transit and cycling.

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Rumours suggest that residents of La Tuque, Québec may be warming up to the idea of biting anglophone tourists when requested.

If you’re worried about your English accent when speaking French in Québec, don’t be.

Every so often, I receive an email from a reader concerned about how his or her accent isn’t “good enough.” My answer is always the same: it’s more than good enough, and don’t let your accent stop you.

Here are four reasons why.

1. Nobody’s going to bite you

Maybe you feel the need to hide your accent because you worry (needlessly) about an anti-English sentiment in Québec. If that’s the case, don’t waste another second harbouring this thought. You’ll be very well-received in Québec.

Some people will be interested in you because of your English accent, others will simply be indifferent. More importantly, nobody’s going to bite you because of your accent or because you’re anglophone.

If you ask nicely to be bitten however, somebody might oblige, especially in Montréal. Not sure about La Tuque.

2. Conversations will be easier

If you had no accent, other people wouldn’t bother to slow down a little when they speak. That’s fine if you already manage well in French, but less so when you’re still learning. Your accent can sometimes help signal to other people to not break out the pompoms in French just yet and to slow down a little, making the conversation easier.

You don’t need to worry about bilingual francophones switching to English because of your accent. It’s not usually the accent that causes a bilingual to switch, but the impression that you don’t understand what’s being said (work on your listening) or that you’re having trouble expressing yourself (work on your speaking).

If you do ultimately get the switch, remember that it’s not a Linguistic Blue Screen of Death (a fatal-error message in your head telling you that it’s game over). Rather, it’s an opportunity to try again, or to start a conversation, or to get feedback on your French, or something you simply brush off and carry on.

3. You’ll build confidence

If you’re worried about your accent, you’ll avoid speaking and begin to stagnate. Acknowledge your accent for what it currently is, then forget about it. Go find people to speak with and let your accent hang all out.

When you discover that nothing bad happens, you’ll feel confident about speaking more often. And the more often you speak with people, the more you may just find that your accent starts sounding québécois.

4. Everybody’s got an accent

And that’s especially true in Montréal, where people are used to hearing every accent imaginable in French. You’re not going to shock anybody with your accent.

When people hear your accent, they’ll know it means that you had to learn the language. That’s always impressive to people. Let your accent win you a few compliments from time to time. You’ve earned it.

It’s perfectly understandable to want to make your accent resemble the native speakers’ as closely as possible. For many learners, it’s an enjoyable and challenging goal to work towards. But don’t ever let your current accent prevent you from pursuing what you want from your efforts to learn French.

Photo credit: bouchecl/Wikipedia

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