The conversation between the two friends at the table beside me would probably not have caught my attention were it not for one very peculiar detail: the constant mixture and seemingly random use of sentences in both French and English. I’m in Montreal and, apparently, bilingual dialogues are quite normal around here.
Even though I arrived in the city with minimal knowledge about its history of French colonization and English rule, I was fully aware that both languages are spoken in this part of Canada. However, I must confess that I had no idea that people use both at the same time during a conversation.
Of course, this is not always the rule. Most of the time, people communicate using either English or French — and the language in which the conversation will take place tends to be decided upon quite easily, without the need to explicitly ask for a preference. Just walk into any store or go to any information desk and you’ll see: you will always be greeted with a “Bonjour, hi!” From that moment on, simply continue the dialogue in the language you prefer.
That’s what happened when, to escape the colossal amount of falling snow, I walked into a café, ordered a brownie and a café au lait, and looked for a place to sit down to read for a bit. But my reading was soon sidetracked when I found myself distracted by a conversation between students Michael Galante (21) and Cedric Huet (22), both born in Montreal, but with different mother tongues.
Michael comes from an anglophone family, but, as a child, he was enrolled by his parents in a French-speaking school to learn more about the language spoken by most of the inhabitants of the city. Before starting high school, he chose to move to an English-speaking school. Cedric, on the other hand, grew up speaking French at home and always studied in French-speaking schools — in his case, English was the foreign language. “I really like to speak English and mix both languages,” says Cedric, “but since my family is francophone and I study at a university where classes are mostly in French, I end up using my own mother tongue more than English in everyday life. That’s why I try to speak English whenever I’m with anglophone friends. This way, I feel more and more comfortable with the language, and I learn it better.”
Despite not having been raised bilingual — the ability to express themselves in two languages was acquired later on — the two friends say they don’t have much difficulty in practising code-switching, that is, the alternation between linguistic codes during the same conversation. “In fact, I think both in English and in French. And sometimes, I even dream in both languages,” explains Michael. “What happens is that, some expressions or sentences, I just end up using them more in one language or another. When I’m going to talk to someone, I end up choosing the first language that comes to mind without actively thinking about it. In the end, the result is what we call a franglais, the mixture of French (français, in French) and English (anglais).”
Of course, this situation varies depending on who’s taking part in the conversation. In Michael and Cedric’s case, it’s not surprising that they’re used to using two languages simultaneously. After all, most of their friends are also bilingual. In fact, according to the 2011 census, more than half of the population of Montreal speaks both French and English fluently. This percentage is even higher among young people aged 15 to 24: 79.3% of them claim to be able to communicate in both languages. Nonetheless, there are also people who are not bilingual in the city, with a higher number of those who can speak French but not English. According to the same census, 37% of the population only speak French and 7.4%, only speak English.
When they know that the person they’re speaking to is bilingual, some Montrealers I spoke to said they experience a certain feeling of freedom and trust. This is not only because they can express themselves in their mother tongue, with the assurance that the other person understands what they’re saying, but also because they are granted the opportunity to improve their second language without the fear of committing mistakes, since they can always use their mother tongue in case of any doubt or misunderstanding.
In fact, speaking of misunderstandings, it would be prudent to avoid one here too: it’s important to clarify that the reasons that lead a person to decide on one language over another when talking to someone else are not purely selfish. Quite the contrary. The alternation of languages practiced by the inhabitants of Montreal also has a lot to do with cordiality, as far as I could see. For example, if, when entering an elevator, you greet the person inside with a “Bonjour!” and hear an automatic “Hi!” as a reply, you can be sure that when that person leaves he or she will wish you a “Bonne journée!” and you will instinctively wish them farewell with a “Bye!”
I can’t remember now if I said “Thanks” or “Merci” when I thanked the boys for the conversation and walked out of the café. But I do perfectly remember that, a few meters away, I found a handmade poster for a missing cat. The poster was written — like almost everything you see around here — in French and in English. Nothing new there. The most curious thing, however, was to find out that the cat in question could obey commands in both languages. Now all we have to find out is if he prefers to show affection to his owner with a meow! or a miaou!