Mais je ne parle pas francais... Is it foolhardy to move to Ottawa without knowing french?
March 4, 2012 12:45 PM   Subscribe

Need a new start in a new place. But my only fluent language is English. Is it foolish of me to try Ottawa?

These past few years I've lived in a small northern town where I experienced a lot of boom and bust. At the end of April I'm going to move (gave my notice to my landlords, it's happening). Even though English is my only fluent language, I am thinking of relocating to Ottawa.

Backstory booms: Successfully distanced myself from my toxic family, with the help of my ex-SO. I knew only my SO when I moved here, networked and volunteered strategically, went from a part-time research position at a university to teaching full-time at a college. For a while it felt like everything good that could be happening for me WAS actually happening.

Backstory busts: Relationship with SO ended. College job which I was excelling at ended with a lot of bad feelings (got dismissed just before probation was up). Another potential relationship failed to launch (still getting over this). In the past year I suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of the job stress, which cued family of origin issues to surface. Basically everything that could have gone wrong was happening. I bottomed out hard on many personal issues I had been avoiding of out necessity for survival until then. I was really sick (psychosomatic symptoms) and withdrew from the world for a while to deal with these issues.

What I do realize is that I NEED to move. Part of the struggle is the nature of the town I'm in. I'm a late 20s professional female, in a town where everyone leaves as soon as they're done high school and come back when they're ready to start their families. I keep reassuring myself that I have been meeting nice single-type people, but every year they leave. There is no one place I can envision myself moving where I would magically be around a few good friends. The single place with the most potential for me (on a personal support level) appears to be Ottawa.

Pros: I am seeing a therapist. I have EI until November and a nest egg to tide me over until I can land the next job. I have a networking contact in Ottawa from my old university who I know I can connect with once there. I'm not afraid of having to start over or working hard -- will be making use of employment agencies and building up networks once I'm there. In particular, Ottawa does have meetup groups that I can use to meet people with common interests -- something sorely lacking here.

Cons: I am TERRIFIED... I've never lived in a big city before. I'm afraid that because I don't speak french, it's really going to hold me back employment-wise. But I have met people, even originally-french people, who are employed with no bilingual requirement. I took french until grade 11, am currently taking french classes, and will continue to do so once there.

FWIW, I have a masters of science (biology - natural resources and environmental science stream). I got really burned out on teaching, so I'm not sure if I want to go back to that. I'm working through "What Color is Your Parachute?" to see what else I could be considering for employment options.

In summary, I'm looking for ideas/opinions/advice/encouragement on:

(1) Will moving to Ottawa be a terrible idea for an anglophone? Even though I'm not gunning for government positions? Are there any anglophone Mefites who've walked this particular road?
(2) I feel like a failure -- I'm 29 and have so little to show for myself in terms of friends and a personal support network. Am I foolish to think that relocating to a larger city will provide me with more opportunities to address that?

I'm posing this question to Mefi because I'm sure there are some veterans of unnecessary survival out there who might be able to relate to the underlying anxiety (which I can't deny having) in my post.
posted by human ecologist to Work & Money (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Ottawa is mostly anglophone, n'est ce pas?
posted by empath at 12:54 PM on March 4, 2012

Come to Ottawa. You'll have no problems with the lack of French considering you're not looking for government work. There's plenty of all scenes here to reinvent yourself. I guarantee you there are tons of options!
posted by Meagan at 12:58 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Canada is great. Spent some time in Montreal and didn't want to leave, and I know maybe ten words in French. Ottawa has even fewer French speakers, so you should be absolutely fine. And again, Canada is great.

As for not having much of a support system, a) don't beat yourself up about it and, b) a bigger town with a more diverse population will provide someone who is moderately outgoing with more opportunities to meet new folks. I wish you the best of luck.
posted by littlerobothead at 1:01 PM on March 4, 2012

The thing about a big city is that it's relatively easy to find a neighborhood that you'd be comfortable in. You never need to engage in the city as a whole if you don't want to. I moved to my current city almost two years ago, and I've never really explored much further than bout 10 blocks away from my apartment. I can tell you a lot about my neighborhood, couldn't tell you much at all about the rest of the city.
posted by empath at 1:04 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ottawa is absolutely fine as an Anglo. Unless you want to rise up the ranks of the government bureaucracy, or go into politics, it won't matter one whit. Also it's a wonderful city, I'm currently trying to find work there (rusty french) myself!
posted by Lemurrhea at 1:05 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've known lots of people who've lived in Ottawa. There's a benefit to being bilingual in terms of finding government work, but it's far from a necessity. Go for it, and have fun!
posted by no regrets, coyote at 1:07 PM on March 4, 2012

I don't really agree that it doesn't matter one bit if you speak french. As an anglo who has lived in Ottawa for most of his life and done a mix of public sector and private sector work, I've found that most communications/media jobs here (from PR to call centres) require english and french.

Ottawa is great, and while I left for Toronto in the fall, I still love the city. But I did regularly bump up against the problems of being an anglo while looking for work, which is part of the reason why I moved.
posted by Jairus at 1:17 PM on March 4, 2012

Best answer: Yeah, you totally don't need French in Ottawa. People certainly often speak both, and you'll hear both when walking down the street (along with other languages), but the lingua franca on this side of the river is English and on the other side in Gatineau, it's French. Really though, most people speak English if that's all you speak.

The only thing that might be on the more challenging side here is that most people seem to work for the government, so it splits a bit into government employees and not government employees groups. That being said, it seems like most people who live here are not actually from Ottawa, but are rather transplants from elsewhere in Canada, so lots of people come here with little to no support networks; I certainly did, around 3.5 years ago, and I was able to build up a friend network in fairly little time.

If you DO want to work for government, you can without French fluency, but there will definitely be a glass ceiling in Ottawa for you until/unless you learn. Luckily, there are lots of people to practice with!

I'm originally from Vancouver, so to me Ottawa seems a bit on the small/un-exciting side, but I really like the wide variety of activities there are to do right around here, so I quite enjoy myself in this city. Ottawa's not a very big city, really, and doesn't really feel like it.
posted by urbanlenny at 2:17 PM on March 4, 2012

Don't be scared of not speaking a language. It's hard work to learn but you CAN do it. Remember: 50% of your brain basically evolved to deal with language. It's what your brain is for. The only thing that holds us back when learning is fear of embarrassment. When we were children we learned language by trial and error and had no embarrassment about making mistakes. As adults we feel shame. Lose it. It holds you back.

I promise you that if you immerse yourself (and I mean *really* immerse yourself - i.e. refuse to hang out with anyone who speaks English) and you take some intensive language courses, (say 2-4 hours a day for a couple fo months)you will be basically fluent within 3 months. Writing might take a little longer but speaking, you'll be totally fine.

I'm 42 years old. I learned Spanish in 9 months (I hung out with too many English) and learned Portuguese in 3 months (by being in Brazil with people who didn't speak any English).

So - maybe broaden your horizons beyond Canada?

Try this: Imagine there was no language problem. Where in the whole world would you most like to experience? Now move there!
posted by JohnnyForeign at 2:31 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

PS: Don't beat yourself up about being "29 and have so little to show for myself in terms of friends and a personal support network". I moved to Barcelona when I was in my 30s, knowing no-one at all. Best time of my entire life. Met my wife and some of the most wonderful friends I could wish for.

posted by JohnnyForeign at 2:34 PM on March 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

This will never be an issue for you, outside of potential work requirements (i.e. government jobs).
posted by ssg at 2:43 PM on March 4, 2012

You seem detiremined to learn French (yay you!). How do you feel about moving to Gatineau instead? It gives you the immersion, French classes (aren't a certain amount free if you are a resident of Quebec?) and access to Ottawa from within a smaller community. FWIW, I live in a smaller Ontario town and Ottawa felt small town to me. I think you will flourish there.
posted by saucysault at 4:23 PM on March 4, 2012

One thing I will say about "moving to Ottawa", outside of the language part: I found Ottawa to be a bit cold to outsiders. I found two major groups of people there -- folks who grew up there, and civil servants -- and as an outsider to both found it really hard to meet people.
posted by mendel at 5:37 PM on March 4, 2012

Best answer: Hmm... Ottawa is not really a big city. Its a small city, or big town. Its also incredibly easy to get out of when you need to walk in the forest or swim in a river -- like, 20 minutes and you're in a rural place. I grew up very near Ottawa (on the Quebec side, in the hills), and would generally recommend it as a fine place to live and work. (Not knowing you specifically...)

The lack of French will have zero impact on your non-work life, but that's not what you were asking. As far as jobs go, having French competency is a plus, but not a requirement, for the types of civil service jobs you might have imagined applying for. But that's not what will be your biggest problem in that regard. Rather, the Harper government is extremely hostile to the civil service, and the expected big cuts and hiring freezes are likely to rule that out, even if you had Victor Hugo's French.

However, your background makes you a good candidate for environmental science/engineering consulting work. In Calgary, it would take you a week or two to get a job. In Ottawa, the big shops (Stantec, Golder, etc..) have a presence, but I suspect that most of their staff is policy-side, or stewarding EA's and suchlike.

One thought I have is that you might recast your approach. Instead of thinking: "I'll move to X, and hope I can find a job there", perhaps you might "get X job, and consider whether I'd like living there". Of course, you'd probably find yourself in Alberta then (which I will happily sing the praises of, at length and beyond good sense).
posted by bumpkin at 6:03 PM on March 4, 2012

I'm in the same situation as you are, french-wise, and I never had a problem getting work in Ottawa in my field of expertise (which is admittedly rather english heavy anyhow) where I contract to mostly government and some private industry.

I never had much luck making friends here (usually the youngest person working in my team/group/company) and now that i'm pretty much single again it's starting to make me realize how difficult this kind of thing can be as you reach (or pass) age 30. But I wasn't really motivated to make friends before so don't take my word as gospel or anything. Plus I don't think this is a problem that is exclusive to the area, merely my own particular situation I guess.

I'm sad and lonley though so take what I say with a grain of salt.
posted by some loser at 7:51 AM on March 5, 2012

Also, you don't sound like a failure to me, it just sounds like maybe you're stagnating where you are currently located. A move may be a good idea. But don't take my word for it, I'm just some loser on the internet after all ;)
posted by some loser at 10:34 AM on March 5, 2012

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