The English Language and Montreal

January 8, 2014 § 8 Comments

An interesting oped appeared in the Montreal Gazette today.  It was written by a guy, Nicholas Robinson, who teaches Japanese in Montreal, an expat American who has been there for the past 30 years.  He is critical of the Anglo community of Quebec when they kvetch about not getting service in English, whether at the hospital or on the STM.  He says that learning French is just as essential to living in Montreal as learning Japanese is to living in Kyoto.

I tend to agree, the fact of the matter is that Quebec is a French province and Montreal is a French city.  Last time I looked at census data, just a shade under 600,000 Quebecers identified as Anglos, as defined by speaking English as their mother tongue.  That’s 7.7% of the population of Quebec.  The largest group of Anglos live in and around Montreal, where 16.8% of the population is Anglo.  Statistically, that’s a sizeable minority.  And yet, most Anglos, at least in Montreal are at least functionally bilingual.

Robinson goes on to argue that “the French speakers of Quebec have been incredibly tolerant of the anglophone “community,” and a vast swath of them have gone to the immense trouble of learning English — when they don’t have to at all.”  I also tend to agree here, though I will note something based on my experience of teaching CÉGEP for 6 years.  I would say that somewhere between 40-45% of our students at my Anglophone CÉGEP were francophone, some of whom did not have great English-language skills upon entering the school.  But their reason for wanting to go to CÉGEP in English (they often went onto French-language universities) was simple: English is the dominant language in the world today, and is the lingua franca of global business (I would also add that about 70% of my students wanted to get degrees in business or related fields).  So there are practical reasons for Quebec’s francophones to learn and speak English.

But, as you might expect, the comments in response to Robinson’s missive are, well, predictable. And vitriolic.  They include exhortations that he remove himself from Quebec and “go home.”  But the first comment I saw was perhaps the most instructive of all.  The commentator lambasts Robinson and notes that Canada is a bilingual nation.  And Quebec is a province of that bilingual nation.  That much is true.

But.  Quebec is not bilingual.  In fact, there is only one officially bilingual province in Canada: New Brunswick, though Ontario and Manitoba will also provide services in French to their population.  Moreover, despite the fact that, say, British Columbia is a province in a bilingual nation, good luck getting anyone to speak French to you in Vancouver.  Canadian bilingualism functions in reality a lot more along the Belgian model: insofar as it exists, it’s regional.  Canada has something called a “bilingual belt” that stretches from New Brunswick along the St. Lawrence River valley to Eastern Ontario.  Within this belt, you will find a sizeable amount of the populace that can speak both English and French, and you’ll also find some bilinguality in Manitoba.  Aside from that, though, forget it.

So, in reality, the Anglophone population of Quebec and Montreal, as Robinson notes, has it relatively good.  An Anglophone in Montreal can get an education in English, and healthcare in English, and there is a robust Anglo media in the city. And, I might add, while I can speak French, when I had to deal with the government of Quebec, I tended to at least try to get service in English, in large part because I, like many Anglos, don’t trust my French all that much.  This was especially the case when dealing with Revenu Québec or the Ministère de la Santé et les services sociaux.  Much to my surprise, this was never a problem. I always got responses in English.  A francophone in Toronto gets none of that.

Having said that, Montreal has a robust Anglophone community because it has jealously protected itself and its “rights”, especially since the rise of the Parti québécois’ first government in 1976 and Bill 101 in 1977.  But that doesn’t mean that Robinson doesn’t have a point.



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§ 8 Responses to The English Language and Montreal

  • Having been raised in Montreal I can speak from personal experience; I encountered both French & English stubborn people who refused to speak the opposite language! Sometimes (20 years ago) French speaking bus drivers were rude to elderly people who addressed them in English & I found that unfair because as an elder it’s much more difficult to learn a second language.
    At the English speaking hospital where I worked some of the French speaking patients would be really rude to anyone who dared address them in French. Overall it used to be pretty stressful if you approached certain people in English, but in my recent stays in Mtl, over the last 5 years, I’ve found the French speaking people to be more tolerant to those who don’t address them in the typical Quebecois accent!
    I learned to speak French during my high-school days & truly don’t understand why other intelligent beings don’t take advantage of this learning opportunity to become bilingual!

    • I have certainly seen the same phenomenon these days, especially on the bus and métro, though oddly, this has never happened to me. But, like any big city, Montréal has its share of rude people, including working for the STM. But, if my experiences in Boston, Toronto, Vancouver, or even Belfast are anything to go by, the stress of being a transit operator makes many men and women grumpy.

      I think the other problem that comes along with language in Montréal is confidence in the other language, I know plenty of people, myself included, who are somewhat reluctant to speak the other language because we aren’t perfect in it, accents, weird sentence structures, and the like. This is true of both francophone and anglophones.

      But, the fact remains, it’s a French city. One needs to speak the language there to get by.

  • ejensen says:

    Thanks for the reflection. It was really interesting to compare it to my (fairly limited) experiences with bilingual Finland / Finns. (Also, makes me think maybe I should consider learning rudimentary Mandarin or Cantonese.)

  • Valerie petit says:

    As you know, Prof Barlow, I was born and raised in Montreal within (what used to be) and anglophone community (Mount Royal). I consider myself to be perfectly bilingual speaking but have not mastered the french written language more than 60% and therefore am not considered to be fluently bilingual from a career/job advancement standpoint. Up until the last recession, most of our generation (baby boomer) who excelled in their chosen career had administrative assistants to translate documents and correspondence etc…but nowadays we are expected to be not only fluently bilingual (oral & written) but completely up to speed with all aspects of social media. People like myself who have achieved success in their chosen fields are now blocked from advancement because they can’t write french perfectly….so it’s not really enough to be able to communicate in french, they really expect us to transform into “pure laines” also……..which I’m pretty sure I am already having lived in Quebec all of my life with a french/anglo family background. Are you sure you won’t consider returning to this wonderful, contradictory province if for no there reason than to perfect your spoken french?

    • Eurolanguages-Pt says:

      I agree with Valerie about how difficult it can be to become fluently bilingual, especially when it comes to writing the second language, I use Word whenever I write in French…
      It is very difficult to acquire the pronunciation of a new language in adult life, and I always do feel insecure when I speak French; as a youngster in Mtl I felt intimidated by my accent because certain people weren’t too nice when they detected a non-Quebecois accent.
      That’s why children should be introduced to the second language as early as possible, and in Mtl everyone has that possibility!

    • Thanks, but no thanks, Ma Cousine. But you’re also stuck in a horrible position. My generation are the kids of Bill 101, so those who grew up there learned both languages, for the most part, and then there’s your kids’ generation, like mine, they can switch from French to English to French again in one sentence. I’ve known more than a few people, my generation, older and younger, who have just become frustrated with that entire scene and left, some to Ontario, BC and Alberta for the Anglos, and some to France and Belgium for the francophones. Unfortunately, we can’t combine our talents, you speak it perfectly (I’ve heard you) and I can write it. Ugh. Vive le Québec.

      • Valerie petit says:

        Well said………and I refuse to be chased out of my own city / province so I have decided not to define myself by what I DO but by who I AM…….an anglo/franco well-educated middle-aged mongrel who might eventually end up employed as Mme. Marois’s maid!! LOL…….(but I don’t do windows or french doors)

      • Québec is our home. Full stop. I think La Marois is a horrible politician, this whole charte des valeurs mumbo jumbo is horrible, a ploy at the lowest common denominator. Even my separatist friends think it’s horrible. I hope the PQ turfs her.

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