So, you want to move to Montreal or Quebec City. Often billed as a slice of Europe within North America, it’s easy to see the appeal. As French-speaking cities wedged within majority English-speaking Canada, they’re the best of both worlds, offering francophone culture without the language barrier of France — right?
Not quite: There’s a lot more nuance to the language politics of Canada, especially within Quebec, the province where the vast majority of the country’s French speakers live. While Canada does have two official languages (English and French), this doesn’t mean the country or its population are generally bilingual by any means.
Most of the country (around 21 million people) speaks English as a first language, and about seven million speak French as a first language, with a stark geographic and cultural divide between the two, sometimes called “the two solitudes.” Those francophones are found mostly in the province of Quebec, where French is the sole official language. And while a few other francophone communities are scattered throughout the country, just one of the ten Canadian provinces is officially bilingual — New Brunswick, tucked next to Quebec, with a population of 750,000.
Quebec’s French-speaking status is further complicated by its largest city, Montreal, which is often regarded as bilingual but doesn’t actually have any official bilingual status. This means that while a good chunk of the population speaks functional English and French, French is generally still the lingua franca, especially in official settings like City Hall, hospitals and police headquarters.
With these nuances, it’s not totally clear whether you need to speak French if you’re planning to work, live or just visit Quebec — and it really depends on what you plan to do there.
If You’re Just Passing Through
If you’re visiting Quebec as a tourist or traveler, French is optional. It might help you get a better feel for Québécois culture, or it might help you avoid an awkward gesturing game if you encounter someone who speaks little-to-no English (which is somewhat likely outside of Montreal). But Quebecers are generally accommodating — even if you speak a moderate level of French, staff in restaurants and shops will often switch to English if they sense that you’re not comfortable in French. (As a former server at a popular tourist spot in Montreal, I did this too — although it seemed to annoy the few customers who were eager to test their French.)
The same goes for students (at least if you’re studying in English). Universities like McGill in Montreal are English-language “bubbles”, with some students reporting that they rarely get the chance to practice French, even if they want to.
Speak French In Quebec — It’s The Law (Kind Of)
Students aside, most people who want to live in Quebec for a longer period should probably nail down some basic French. The reason for this is a ‘70s Quebec law called Bill 101.
Sometimes known as the Charter of the French Language, Bill 101 basically made French the primary language of everyday life across Quebec — in workplaces, shops and even on street signs.
Under the law, customers in shops and restaurants have a guaranteed right to service in French, most companies are required to operate primarily in French, and signage and documents usually have to be written in French first. (This latter rule also explains why English signage is relatively rare in Montreal, despite the city’s higher number of English speakers.)
Perhaps in spite of Bill 101, it’s certainly possible to get through daily life like going to the doctor or finding an apartment in Quebec with minimal French (at least in Montreal — it’s harder in most places outside the city). You can opt to live in neighborhoods that are predominantly English-speaking. But according to Concordia University student-turned-committed Quebec resident Lucy, who moved from Ontario about ten years ago with decent (but not perfect) French, you may still end up feeling a bit cut off from local culture.
“You’re limiting yourself in where you can be in Montreal, where you can be comfortable talking to people. You’re really missing out if you’re not engaging in the language,” said Lucy. “I’ve lived in a francophone neighbourhood for the past nine years, but I would not have found a great neighbourhood, great neighbors, a community, if I was limiting myself to anglophone-dominated areas. I speak to my landlord in French, I do my business in French.”
Chase, a McGill graduate student who moved from Alberta to Montreal for several years, would agree, although in part due to the McGill bubble, his French proficiency remained relatively low. This made it all too easy to become separated from what’s going on around you.
“I found the biggest issue with living in Quebec without proficient French was isolation from the culture,” he said. “It’s very easy to end up in these little anglophone [or] expat groups. I’ve seen it lead to some pretty bad ‘out group’ mentality.”
Finding Work In Quebec
Even if you choose to live in Quebec without speaking French, you’ll likely hit one stumbling block: finding a job.
Contrary to the opinions of some “angryphones” (anglophones in Quebec who vocally oppose these laws), Bill 101 didn’t outlaw English, but it did make English into somewhat of an “added extra” in the province — particularly when it comes to finding work. Bill 101 states that employers can’t require workers to speak any language apart from French. While there are quite a few potential exceptions, the employer still has to prove that their staff really needs to speak English if anybody complains about it.
This means Quebec can be a tough place for a casual move like a working holiday or gap year, because many casual jobs like bartending, or working in a restaurant, are completely off the table. If you can’t speak to customers in French, bosses won’t take a risk on you. If someone complains that they can’t get served in French, it’s the business that’s on the hook for a possible penalty.
This hypothetical situation isn’t an exaggeration. I arrived in Montreal with a bunch of experience as a server and six solid years of French education. Yet I still handed out over 40 CVs to restaurants before getting a job offer. Because I had never worked in French before, it seemed that bosses were wary of my language abilities and reluctant to take a chance on me.
As a result, there’s an underclass of less-desirable jobs that don’t require French: cleaning, dishwashing and call center work (making calls to English Canada, of course).
Perhaps unexpectedly, it can be easier for non-French speakers to get a professional job than a customer service role — for example, at an English university, or as a software engineer (since French isn’t really necessary for working with programming languages). But even then, employers may still prefer someone with modest French language abilities for the sake of communication. And if you’re planning to land a job without French skills outside greater Montreal, forget it: Except for a few small anglophone communities, other towns and cities in Quebec simply aren’t bilingual enough for this to be an option.
Even if you land a cushy job without French, it wouldn’t hurt to know the basics. Chances are that you’ll eventually encounter a government official with no English, or a French-only menu in a restaurant. And while it may seem like Quebec has unusually strict language laws, the government does balance that out with extraordinarily cheap language courses for newcomers who meet certain requirements.
After all, you wouldn’t move to France for five years without learning French — and the same applies to Quebec.