A Question about Bilingualism


From “Big Bang” at the Musée des Beaux Arts de Montréal.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about bilingualism. For political reasons, Montréal is outwardly very French, but English is right there everywhere you listen. Half the people walking down the street are speaking French, the other half English. When we walked into a shop, often we were met with “Bonjour/Hello.” And often we were just greeted in English. (I guess we look American or anglophone—or maybe they heard us talking. Who knows?)

Lisa doesn’t speak French, and it seems rude to carry on a three-way conversation with a bilingual person in a language she doesn’t understand. (It’s Canada, not France, after all.) So I was happy enough to use a little French here and there, to speak with people en français when it was easiest, and to read plenty of French throughout the day. (I even picked up some new words.)

But it got me wondering about how to navigate the English/French divide. What’s the most appropriate way to initiate a conversation or interaction?

In France, if you just start speaking to someone in English, it’s very rude. In fact, even a simple «bonjour» and «Parlez-vous anglais?» is usually enough to negotiate the “I don’t speak your language well, so please bear with me” barrier with sensitivity. And when I spoke the French that I knew, it got me through quite well.

Quebec being bilingual, though, is different. If you answer a «bonjour» in kind, you invite continued conversation in French, just like in France. That leads to that eventual moment when your partner in conversation realizes you don’t really speak French as well as they do. At one such moment, a friendly clerk at the HMV, where I was buying francophone music CDs, kindly said, “You can just speak English; we’re all bilingual.” But I’ve had a few conversations where it’s clear that not everyone speaks English . . . or that their English is only about as good as my French, and that French would be better for everyone.

So, my dear Canadians, Canadiennes, and fellow travelers to Quebec, what is the “right” way of getting by? Do you just start out in the language you want to speak? Do you ask whether they speak English? Do you start in French and go until it becomes painful? Something else entirely?

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One Response to A Question about Bilingualism

  1. I must preface my advice by saying that while I am Canadian, I am from the most non-French speaking part of Canada, and have only been to Montreal once (an experience I very much loved!)
    So, here’s what I would do, probably because while I’ve been to Paris three times, I don’t really speak much French beyond, Bonjour. Parlez vous Anglais? Ou es la salle de bain? Ou es toilette? Toilette? As you can see, knowing where the washrooms are is a bit of a priority for me :) Oh right, the advice. I would suggest greeting them with a Bonjour. And then following it up with a polite Parlez vous Anglais? And then, you’re good to go… hopefully :)

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