Bilingual Montreal: A City of Two Languages

Montreal is a city where you can speak two languages: English and French. Our contributor shares his experience of having to constantly switch between these two languages.
illustration of peaceful houses on a street in Montreal

Though I arrived in Montreal with minimal knowledge about its history of French colonization and English rule, I was aware that both English and French were spoken here. Yet, I must confess that I had no idea the extent of bilingualism in Canada. I definitely didn’t know that people of Montreal used both languages interchangeably — sometimes during a single conversation.

I witnessed such a thing one afternoon when a conversation between friends at the table beside me caught my attention. The two spoke with a constant mixture of what seemed to be a random use of sentences in both French and English. It was then that I learned in Montreal bilingual dialogues are quite normal.

The Languages Of Montreal

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 ask for a preference. Walk into any store or go to any information desk and you’ll see for yourself. You will always be greeted with a “Bonjour, Hi!”. From that moment on, simply respond 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. My reading was soon sidetracked when I found myself distracted by a conversation between students, Michael Galante (21) and Cedric Huet (22).

Michael comes from an anglophone family but was enrolled by his parents in a French-speaking school so he could learn the language spoken by most of the city. Before starting high school, however, 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 schools. For Cedric English was the foreign language.

Both of them were born in Montreal, yet they claimed different mother tongues.

“I really like to speak English and mix both languages,” says Cedric. “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.”

French, English, Or Franglais?

Despite not having been raised bilingual, the two friends have learned how to effectively express themselves in both the French and English languages. They say they don’t find code-switching, the alternation between linguistic codes, difficult.

“In fact,” explains Michael, “I think both in English and in French. And sometimes, I even dream in both languages.”

“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 are use to communicating in two languages simultaneously. After all, most of their friends are also bilingual.

According to the 2019 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. However, there are also people who are not bilingual in the city. According to another census, 37% of the population only speak French and 7.4% only speak English. Some Montrealers I spoke to said they experience a certain feeling of freedom and trust when they know that the person they are speaking to is bilingual.

What Languages Should I Speak In Montreal?

The alternation of languages practiced by the inhabitants of bilingual 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 they 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 remember that, a few meters outside the cafe, I found a handmade poster for a missing cat. The poster was written — like almost everything you see around Montreal — 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 meow! or a miaou!

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