When I first visited Canada in 2003, I anticipated a thriving bilingualism given the country has two official languages: French and English. In this I was disappointed – except in Montreal, where everything seemed to be going on in French, but as soon as my stumbling efforts failed, everyone I met switched to flawless English, without ceremony.
After moving here, I soon concluded that this seemingly effortless bilingualism, which I have encountered pretty much everywhere in the city, is one of Montreal’s most impressive features. While in simple terms most of Québec only speaks French, and most of the rest of Canada (particularly the further west you go) only speaks English, this city is something like that bilingual utopia I had anticipated years ago. It’s all the more extraordinary because of the impediments to its success: the dominance of English in North America, and the world, on the one hand, and on the other some understandable but sometimes ridiculous laws that enforce the use of French in the province. Like when an Italian restaurant was told to replace the word pasta on its menu with the French word pâtes, or bilingual dog parks were introduced. OK, only one of those things is actually true …
Before I tell you which one is a nice bit of satire, and reveal some other farcical examples of Québec’s so-called Language Police going to extremes, some historical context. When the British took over this part of the colony of New France in 1763, more than 200 years of French language and culture was sidelined – though probably not as brutally as indigenous cultures and languages had been sidelined before that. In any case, English speakers had the power and wealth in what became the province of Québec. Just as civil-rights movements effected change elsewhere in the world during the 1960s, Québec’s French-speaking majority demanded change too. While those who want the province to separate from Canada have been disappointed (so far), the French language and Québec’s distinctive culture have been strongly, even stridently promoted here since then.
Millions of words have been written, spoken, even angrily shouted on both sides of Québec’s language debate: just how far should the province go in asserting its difference in North America’s ocean of English, and what rights should those whose first language is not French have here? The debate will continue. Meanwhile, clever, accommodating Montreal essentially gets on with things in whichever language suits the occasion (at least as far as French and English go; many people speak a third or even fourth language, while some migrants struggle with both French and English).
It’s why the standard greeting in many shops is “bonjour, hi”, so customers can choose which language they want to use. It’s why the city responds with a mixture of outrage and laughter (and a little bit of shame because of the publicity beyond the province) when the Office québécois de la langue française goes too far. This provincial government body ensures, among other things, that signs, menus and labels are in French; any other language used must be no more than one-third the size, in many cases. So, yes, an Italian restaurant here in Montreal really was threatened with fines for not translating pasta, and other words such as antipasti and calamari, into French.
This 2013 farce made international headlines and became known as Pastagate. The OQLF relented, but other businesses are not so fortunate: a while later, Caffè In Gamba was slapped with a $1900 fine and had to change its name – because it included the Italian word caffè rather than café as it is in French. The other day I read about a games shop that may be forced to close because it must stock every game in both languages – maybe not so difficult for Monopoly, but for most others …? Major international brands have different names in Québec: KFC is PFK (Poulet Frit Kentucky), office supply store Staples is Bureau en Gros, while others have got by with a French explanatory modifier, like Café Starbucks Coffee. Interestingly, these businesses have not changed their names in France.
In some ways the “Language Police” are even more militant than the equivalent in France (which is saying something). There, places for parking cars are called parking, while here it’s stationnement (though bizarrely the symbol for said places is still a big P!). Street signs, as with most matters controlled by the provincial government, are in French only. You always know you’re on a federally funded bridge or road when the signs are bilingual (otherwise you’ve just crossed the border into Ontario or New Brunswick!). For French speakers, many English words are part of everyday speech, however, while in Montreal at least, English speakers use French terms occasionally.
The language laws may be annoying, even costly for some, but they are also good for a laugh. Local comedian Sugar Sammy has found huge success in recent years with his bilingual humour (even quadlingual since he also speaks Punjabi and Hindi). He delights in teasing the OQLF, actually incorporating mock censorship in an advertising campaign late last year (see photo above). Then of course there’s the satirical CBC radio show, This is That, which aired a faux interview with a Montreal councillor who wanted to introduce bilingual dog parks. Please have a listen – it’s hilarious!
As long as the realities of life, and the province’s place in the world, are borne in mind, I support Québec’s desire to preserve and promote its dominant language and culture. It’s a pity that non-French-speaking visitors have to navigate their way around with French-only signs (though tourists seem to manage in France). Better, I think, to have bilingual signs across Canada. In any case, if they are in Montreal a local will almost certainly be willing and able to help out (but remember that a bonjour or merci does not go astray). As an English speaker whose French is still far from fluent, I’m eternally grateful, humbled and impressed by the hundreds of people here who have shown me such patience and linguistic brilliance. Merci beaucoup!