What’s It Like To Live In One City With Two Languages? Welcome To Montreal!

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.
Author's Avatar
What’s It Like To Live In One City With Two Languages? Welcome To Montreal!

Even though I arrived in Montreal with minimal knowledge about its history of French colonization and English rule, I was fully aware that both English and French were spoken here. However, I must confess that I had no idea the extent of bilingualism in Canada, or that people used both languages interchangeably, sometime at the same time during a single conversation.

That’s why a conversation between the two friends at the table beside me caught my attention. The two spoke with a constant mixture and seemingly random use of sentences in both French and English. It was then I learned that in Montreal bilingual dialogues are quite normal.

Code Switching In 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 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. My reading was soon sidetracked when I found myself distracted by a conversation between students, Michael Galante (21) and Cedric Huet (22). Both of them were born in Montreal, yet they claimed different mother tongues.

Michael comes from an anglophone family but, as a child, he was enrolled by his parents in a French-speaking school in order to learn 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.”

Franglais In Bilingual Canada

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 practicing 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.

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.

How Do You Decide Which Language?

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 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 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 meow! or a miaou!

Speak French like you've always wanted to.
Start now with Babbel

Recommended Articles

9 Things You Absolutely Need To Do When You Visit Canada

9 Things You Absolutely Need To Do When You Visit Canada

No matter where you go in Canada, here are 9 things you should do when you visit the the world’s second largest country — from ordering a “double double” to living underground to going for a really long drive, eh.
Which Are The Most Spoken Languages in Canada?

Which Are The Most Spoken Languages in Canada?

English and French are a no-brainer, but Canada’s other leading languages may surprise you.
French Expressions Even The French Don’t Understand

French Expressions Even The French Don’t Understand

French is not just the language of France, but of 29 countries around the world. Check out these French expressions from all over Europe, Africa and the Americas that even the French would struggle to understand.
Author Headshot
Denis Fracalossi
Denis Fracalossi was born in São Paulo, but his passion for languages led him to leave Brazil in 2012 in search of new adventures. He now resides in Germany.
Denis Fracalossi was born in São Paulo, but his passion for languages led him to leave Brazil in 2012 in search of new adventures. He now resides in Germany.
Pick a language to speak