I just spent the weekend in Montreal. Everybody speaks French. They speak English also, but French is the primary language. Someone told me that there are all sorts of strict laws mandating everything to be written in French in an effort to preserve its identity, I guess from being swallowed up by the rest of the mostly English speaking continent.
You walk into a store and it’s bonjour, and I never know just how to respond. Because everybody speaks some English, I don’t want to respond back with bonjour, because I don’t want to then give the impression that I speak French. They might then say something else in French, probably more than just a hello, probably a whole sentence. And I don’t know any French, none at all. So then I’ll have to get all awkward and say something like, “uh … sorry, I don’t speak French,” and they’ll be thinking, “Well, thanks for making me waste a whole sentence in French. Why didn’t you say so in the first place?”
And sometimes they never even give you the opportunity. Sometimes there is no hello, it’s just right into the French. Like somebody might approach me on the street and ask me a question. What’s the best way to respond? It’s definitely not to make a pained face and then stutter something out in English.
But I really don’t want to come across as arrogant. Even though most of the people there know English, I don’t want to just barge into a situation and impose my language. It all just stems from the fact that English, my native tongue, it just happens to be this quasi-universal means of communication. So where it would be crazy for somebody to approach me in New York and start talking in a foreign dialect, that’s eventually what I’m going to wind up doing abroad. Because yeah, it’s an advantage, and yeah, ultimately it’s the only way I’m going to be able to communicate.
On previous trips to Montreal, I’d get a little anxious after a while, like I’d rather not talk at all. But what am I going to do? It’s not like I’m going to stay totally silent. This time around I practiced a trick, where if I were greeted in French, I’d respond with the same greeting in French, and then immediately start talking in English. “Bonjour/Hello,” like so fast that the other person wouldn’t really have a chance to make it awkward or difficult.
I figured that I covered all of the problems that I was talking about earlier. I wouldn’t be ignoring their French but I wouldn’t really be participating in it either. I guess when I say it like that it still sounds kind of arrogant, but definitely a little less arrogant. It’s kind of like I’m acknowledging the French, paying my respects.
I’ve also heard that if you’re from the US and you speak French, if you try to speak French to a French Canadian, they’ll just switch to English. But that seems like a huge stereotype, and even as I’m writing this paragraph it sounds like a stupid generality. But I don’t know. Maybe it’s true. I don’t know French.
Also, how big is the difference between French spoken in Canada and French spoken in France? When I try to look for an answer on the Internet, it’s always people writing stuff like, “There’s a huge difference,” without really elaborating. Is there an equivalent in English? Like American English as compared to New Zealand’s? Like how dramatic are we talking?
I’d like to abruptly end by talking about how cool Montreal is. The food’s great. The people are really friendly. And yeah, even though it sounds like a foreign country, everybody speaks English. It’s a real win-win-win. Go see for yourself. Tell them Rob sent you. Tell somebody that. And they’ll just stare at you and say, “What?” but they’ll say it in French.