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July 9, 2011 8:04 AM   Subscribe

Am I expected to speak French in Montreal?

Visiting Montreal for the first time next weekend. My understanding is that the city is pretty solidly bilingual but that French is the default. I dont speak French. I don't want to be rude. Is it acceptable for me to waltz into cafes, restaurants, shops, etc., and just start speaking English? Or am I expected to make an attempt at French before the locals take pity on me?
posted by eugenen to Travel & Transportation around Montreal, QC (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Almost everyone I've spoken too in Montreal in the couple of times that I have been there speaks English as well as French. In the rural areas outside Montreal, this is less common.
posted by dfriedman at 8:06 AM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes. Make an attempt. It's a wonderful learning opportunity.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:06 AM on July 9, 2011

I found (in both Montreal and Paris) that if someone greets you with "Bonjour-hello!" (both in one greeting), it's a kind of "I speak both, so feel free to do as you please". If someone greets you with only "Bonjour!" it's polite to make whatever attempt at French you can muster, even if it's only "Bonjor! Parlez-vous anglais?" Montreal, however, is a thoroughly metropolitan place, and I don't think I encountered anyone who wasn't completely bilingual, and I didn't encounter any expectation that I would speak French.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 8:09 AM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's polite to make an attempt.
posted by J. Wilson at 8:10 AM on July 9, 2011

When we went to Montreal for a vacation a couple of years ago, I was unsure as to this myself, but absolutely everywhere we went, everybody spoke English and nobody seemed to care if you didn't even make the slightest effort to speak French, particularly in restaurants/hotels/tourist sites.

However, we also visited a water park and had lunch at a restaurant away from the city and nobody at either venue seemed to speak a word of English.
posted by briank at 8:10 AM on July 9, 2011

My experience in Montreal is that in many shops, at least in touristy areas, you'll be greeted with 'Hello Bonjour', and then the clerk will continue in whatever language you reply in, unless you say Bonjour to be polite and your accent is terrible enough for them to realize you don't speak French. They won't care that you're English. At all.

If you're going outside Montreal proper, however, your mileage will vary, as you'll encounter shops where they don't speak English or very little English. Most of them still won't be insulted by your lack of French-speakingness, they just might not be able to help you.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:13 AM on July 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Two year Montreal resident here. I spoke some French, but the majority of my anglo friends didn't. Anyway, you'll be totally fine. If you have the chance to learn a phrase or two, that would help, if only because the language issue is such a big deal.

Have fun! Be sure to check out the Mile End if you have time.
posted by vecchio at 8:13 AM on July 9, 2011

If you're going there as a short-term casual tourist/traveller, it's fine not to speak French. Make an attempt if you can, say "Merci" for "thank you," etc. Montreal is pretty easy to get around without speaking French.
posted by arcticwoman at 8:14 AM on July 9, 2011

Speaking english is absolutely fine. I live here, I'm bilingual, but I still speak english half the time in stores and restaurants. People who deal with the public can usually speak both languages, though as you go further east of St. Denis you're more likely to encounter unilingual french. But downtown and anywhere that's popular, you're absolutely fine in english.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 8:14 AM on July 9, 2011

You've got nothing to worry about. I've been to Montreal a few times in the past year, and have never run into a problem with speaking only English.
posted by hunter2 at 8:17 AM on July 9, 2011

One thing I'll say is that my experience was just about the opposite of that annoying Parisian thing where, if you try speaking French to someone, they immediately switch the conversation back to English without even giving you a chance. If you speak French, even really bad French, people will plod on with you in French. If you initiate a conversation in French and ask, "do you speak English?", many people will say no and force you to press on in broken French.

So either the city is much less bilingual than popularly imagined, or Montrealers are by and large a bunch of language sadists who get off on forcing Anglophones to speak French.

That said, the week I spent in Montreal was largely in le Plateau and other non-touristy parts of the city.
posted by Sara C. at 8:32 AM on July 9, 2011

No. If you speak passable French, go for it, but everyone there speaks fluent English. Even the people who pretend not to (and yes, you will encounter a few of those).

That said, have a great time - I consider Montreal the single nicest city (I've visited) in North America. Beautiful architecture, clean streets, laid-back cops, great food, and friendly people.
posted by pla at 8:35 AM on July 9, 2011

I traveled extensively worldwide on business in the late 90s and early 00s, and my "language rule" can help you here - if you know Hello, Please, Thank You, Yes, No, One, Two, Ten, and "I'm very sorry but I don't speak [language]", you will be welcomed because you at least make an attempt. Granted Montreal is a pretty rare example (honestly, I don't speak much French and I don't at ALL in Quebec because the response will be WAY more than I can handle!), but this general rule has worked really well for me.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 8:43 AM on July 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

In general, it is nice to make an attempt, at least along the lines of what OneMonkeysUncle said. However, it seems to matter less in Montreal, where pretty much everyone is bilingual. Seriously, when I was there (given, this was nine years ago, but there's no reason to think it has changed), nearly ever Montrealer we encountered was not only bilingual, but switched effortlessly from perfectly-accented French to perfectly-accented English. It was pretty astonishing. And nobody seemed to mind that we didn't speak French. The city itself has a large Anglophone population.

If you go to Quebec City, or other parts of the province, different story, though.
posted by breakin' the law at 8:56 AM on July 9, 2011

Montreal is not Paris. Speak all the Englsh you like.
posted by rokusan at 9:29 AM on July 9, 2011

Last time we were there, we knew about as much French as OneMonkeysUncle suggested, and if we could work it into conversation that we weren't from Toronto, at least a few previously French-only people would switch to English. Who knows, maybe we were there during a rival soccer game or something.
posted by arabelladragon at 9:49 AM on July 9, 2011

A few years ago, Mr. Ipsum and I were in Quebec City for a few days (short business trip for him). We found that most people at shops and restaurants were bilingual, although they would usually greet us with "bonjour" when we entered. He would reply "Hello" but I'd say "Bonjour" to be polite. However, as he later pointed out to me, when he said hello to the clerks, they would start speaking to him in English. When I said bonjour to them, they would start speaking to me in French and then I would have to sheepishly say that I only spoke English. He thought that replying in English from the get-go was the better way, and I'm thinking that maybe he's right.
posted by LaurenIpsum at 9:56 AM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had the opposite experience from Sara C. I went to Montreal as a student specifically to practice speaking French, but every time I spoke to someone in French (besides an incidental "merci"), they recognized from my accent that I was an English speaker, and switched to English. A few people who I had longer conversations with entertained my desire to speak French after I explained, but most people had the attitude "I speak better English than you speak French, so why slow things down?"
posted by telegraph at 10:03 AM on July 9, 2011

Learn "Bonjour", "Merci" and "Désolé, je ne parle pas français" to show you're making an effort and you'll be fine. Everyone will switch to english once they realize you don't speak french.

Have a good time ! Montréal is really fun in the summer !
posted by agregoire at 10:10 AM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you're going outside Montreal proper, however, your mileage will vary, as you'll encounter shops where they don't speak English or very little English.
This. The few times I've visited strictly Montreal (that is, took the train directly there as opposed to driving from Detroit and stopping in other cities along the way) almost all of the service people (hotel, restaurant, shop workers) were bilingual and didn't express any disdain or difficulty when finding out I was more fluent/comfortable in English. Just a few years ago, however, Mr. Adams and I and my elderly parents took a road trip to New England, cutting through part of the province of Quebec (we had business appointments in Ottawa) en route. We stayed two days in and around Gatineau and found very few English speakers. I was the only one in our group that speaks any French, so it was kind of fun for me to have to act as translator, but it thoroughly frustrated Mr. Adams and somewhat enraged my 84-year-old Dad ("We saved their [France] butts in World War II, why can't they show some damned respect and speak some damned English!") But even at Tim Horton's and McDonald's the wall menus were all strictly French and none of the employees (at the time we visited) spoke English.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:17 AM on July 9, 2011

It is civil - not just in Montreal (about which I know next to nothing), but anywhere you go where English isn't the default language - to at least learn a few basic handy phrases in the host language and begin conversations by using them. The most useful of these is:

"Hello. I'm afraid I don't speak [your primary language] very well. Do you speak English?"

This is not difficult, and people appreciate it. It will make almost every conversation you have go more smoothly. This is especially true in Paris, by the way. :-)
posted by Decani at 10:21 AM on July 9, 2011

"Bonjour hi" means that they speak both languages, so continue in English if you so desire. There are always some assholes and some ideologues, but the majority of people don't really care that much which language they speak, and will switch easily depending on who they are talking to.

If you leave the island (proper, not just go to Ile Ste Helene or whatever it's called now) there is less bilingualism.

Bear in mind that a lot of restaurants only have French on the menu, even if every employee is fluently bilingual.
posted by jeather at 10:55 AM on July 9, 2011

One thing I'll say is that my experience was just about the opposite of that annoying Parisian thing where, if you try speaking French to someone, they immediately switch the conversation back to English without even giving you a chance. If you speak French, even really bad French, people will plod on with you in French.

Agreed. I can certainly conduct very routine transactions in French, but I run out of vocabulary and grammar pretty easily beyond that, and yet folks would keep going in French, repeating things for me and speaking more slowly on request, but not switching to English.

Sometimes, when I would finally give up and ask if we could speak English, the reaction was "Ohh, why didn't you just say so!" Soooo, funny thing, it turns out that not everyone leapt to the assumption that I'm American, which is why they weren't switching to English.

Nthing that outside of Montreal proper, it's much more common to meet people who really do have very limited English.
posted by desuetude at 11:38 AM on July 9, 2011

I've been to Montreal twice, each time for a week, and I speak no French. I had absolutely no issues.
posted by mikeh at 3:04 PM on July 9, 2011

I spent some time in Montréal this past March. I'd studied French in high school and college, but hadn't used it in the last decade, and my skills had really atrophied. During my time there, I learned that my French is best when I'm apologizing for my French. I also learned that that's a good strategy to begin a conversation: to make some effort, and allow the other the opportunity to offer to switch to English. That way it's an invitation on their part, rather than an imposition on my part. It seemed more polite, and it was effective.

I found that many folks would switch quickly. Some would humor me until I faltered. And the few who were as uncomfortable with English as I was with French hoped I could fumble my way through the circumlocutions and half-remembered phrases. While I'm sure that there are assholes and ideologues (every city has them), I either didn't meet any or I didn't raise their dander.

The situation may be a little different for you, as you don't have the rudimentary skills that I had to fall back on. But if you take the time now to learn a phrase or two, the dynamic of giving the other the opportunity to offer to switch could still work well for you. You'll get pretty far with the ""Désolé, je ne parle pas français" that agregoire suggested. Add a "Bonne chance!" to the poor francophone who's stopped you on a city street for directions, and you'll do just fine.

I'll never have a more appropriate chance to share this story. Once, while attempting to speak French in Paris, a shopkeeper responded to me in Italian. Only I didn't know it was Italian; I just thought I was really in over my head. When I told him that I didn't quite get what he'd said, he switched back to French, asking "Vous n'êtes pas Italien?" I said "Non" and he replied "Vous parlez français comme un Italien." I couldn't resist asking if that was good, and he said "Cela dépend. Vous êtes... ?" Only when I told him I was American did he switch to English. "Well... it's better." This is, for the record, the closest I've ever received to a compliment about my French-speaking abilities.
posted by .kobayashi. at 9:17 PM on July 9, 2011

I lived in Montreal for four years and had the same experience as telegraph, though in stores I tended to plod on in French, for the practice, which was usually greeted with forebearance.

I also found that few people in my day to day interactions demonstrated political views about language. English, French, they didn't care.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 4:40 AM on July 10, 2011

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