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Aug 13, 2008 05:31 AM

English v. French in Montreal [split from Quebec]

Ok, so I'm getting closer to anniversary time, and I'm starting to look more seriously at my plans. We'll be doing a lot of stuff while we're there, like going to the science museum and such. I'm really looking forward to some nice lunches, as well. And dim sum (though I'll search already existing threads for those things :). One thing I'm wondering about is something I heard somewhere (not sure where) and I don't want to be a jerk guest in your country... I'm lousy with languages, and I promise you my high school French might manage to get me through some pronunciations, but generally speaking, I think I'd slaughter the language. I was told by a few folks (none of them especially reliable, which is why I'm asking here) that if I didn't at least try to speak the language, people would think ill of me, and might go out of their way to make things difficult for us. But if I at least made a game effort at speaking the language instead of trying to do everything in English off the bat, people would take pity on me and speak English to me. I know that no place is all 100% one way or another, and there's different folks everywhere, but I'm just wondering how genuine locals feel about this issue. Are you offended when people don't try to speak your language? Or is it more offensive if they slaughter it utterly. :) I'm assuming that any restaurant that I go to that has an English version of the website will likely have English speakers available, but is that a bad assumption to make? I just keep hearing conflicting reports and I want to be a good neighbor/guest. :)

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  1. a good server in any restaurant will speak english to you (or at least try), and recognize that you are in fact english from your first awkward "bonjour". Worry not.

    a smile is your best weapon.

    2 Replies
    1. re: C70

      Ha! I've got the opposite problem. My French sucks, but I've managed to squeak out a decent "Bonjour" over the years. So people assume I speak French and start yapping away, then notice my deer in headlights look, seem a bit annoyed and start over again in English.

      1. re: Miss Needle

        I have the same problem. Damn our good pronunciation!

    2. I personally find it very rude when American tourists assume that they'll be understood and start yapping in English right off the bat. They could at least muster up the effort and ask the person they're talking to whether he or she speaks english (Parlez-vous anglais?). I little bit of politeness will go a long way!

      I think at least a small effort by tourists to speak in French is appreciated. You'll find that most people in the Montreal downtown core will switch to English the moment they detect your accent.

      3 Replies
      1. re: mainsqueeze

        It's generally preferable to highlight one's ignorance "Je ne parle pas Francais" as opposed to asking people about their knowledge base "Parlez-vous Anglais?"

        1. re: Blueicus

          Huh. Who says?

          If the answer to, "parlez-vous anglais?" is no, then at least you've established that you're willing to try your hand at French, and you've opened up the possibility of an exhange. On the other hand, if you just declare you don't speak French and launch into English right away, that's just as presumptious as if you hadn't said anything in French at all.

          1. re: mainsqueeze

            I think what Blueicus was getting at is not to say "je ne parle pas francais" and break out into English, but to use it prior to "parlez vous anglais?"

            Eg. "Excuse-moi. Je ne parle pas francais. Parlez-vous anglais?"

      2. Having been to Montreal dozens of times and having many, many Montrealers as close friends, I can assure you that your lack of French should not prove a hindrance in Montreal. If you do try to use of French, most folks will be appreciative. Even if it is just greeting like bon jour or thanking the doormen or server with merci.

        This is a very big tourism year in all of the province of Quebec because their provincial capital in marking its 400th anniversary, so there will be lots of English-only tourists everywhere.

        Not that you asked, but the BioDome is not to be missed.

        And the food in Montreal is wonderful. No trip to Montreal is complete for me without a trip to what I think is the best deli in Canada - Schwartz's. It is an institution. Here is the link. They are the gods of smoked meat -- or as the rest of the world knows it Montreal smoked meat.

        The other thing to try is Montreal style bagels which are smaller and more pretzel like that New York style bagels. Many corner stores, known as depanniers, will have big baskets of them each morning and people often eat them while walking to work.

        Have fun -- bonne vacances!

        9 Replies
        1. re: pengcast

          They're actually called dépanneurs, not depanniers, and I don't know of any dépanneurs that have bagels. Lots of coffee shops and grocery stores have them though.

          1. re: pengcast


            Just a note that we split this discussion from Morganna's thread on the Quebec board, so that the discussion there would remain chowish.


            If you have more tips on places for her to eat, please post them on that thread.


            1. re: The Chowhound Team

              Thanks, I shoulda thought of that myself! :)

              1. re: Morganna

                Just a note - when you go for a smoked meat sandwich (I prefer Dunn's to Schwartz's but that's a Montreal Holy War akin to Mac vs. PC), your server might ask if you want it "medium". This doesn't mean "cooked medium"; it means "medium fat", as opposed to "lean". You want it "medium fat" (trust me on this - forget your diet, your cholesterol, whatever). The extra fat gives the meat a melting sweetness that contrasts with the smoky flavour. If you get a lean, chances are you will find the meat too dry unless you douse it with mustard, which obliterates the meat's taste.

                Schwartz's is quite small (although I've been told they're expanding), and at popular times, the line will extend out the door. If the weather's nice, and you want to take your sandwich to one of Montreal's many parks, you can walk past the line to order take out. They're on St. Laurent (aka "The Main").

                Dunn's is on Metcalfe, a block away from St. Catherine. Less frenetic, much nicer atmosphere, and certainly many more menu choices (including a fantastic Reuben). Asking if you can get your meat hand-cut instead of machine-cut may win you a little extra respect from your server.

                And no matter how you pronounce it, order a poutine!

                1. re: KevinB

                  Schwartz's are adding a takeaway counter next door to the restaurant. Remember that they also make very good smoked poultry.

                  There is only one way to pronounce poutine - obviously with different accents according to your natural origin. I couldn't imagine eating that with a smoked meat, though. I know Schwartz's aren't kosher, but still...

                  1. re: lagatta

                    There is definitely only one correct way to pronounce poutine but there is another french word that means something different entirely that non french speakers sometimes inadvertently use - when trying to say "pou-tin"...they sometimes say it more like, advertised in the back of The Hour ;)

                    1. re: maplesugar

                      "Donne-moi ce putain de poutine!"

                      (wow, that's quite rude...!)

                      1. re: Das Ubergeek

                        Er it went more like "Je veut un putain(poo-tain) et un pepsi s'il vous plate" when they mean poutine... happened when a friend of mine from Halifax was visiting and tried out his french... big oops! I explained my dear friend wasn't trying to be cute to the cashier and he'd like the poutine and 'suis désolé. I explained later (after a few drinks) what he accidentally tried to order... he turned beet red poor guy :)

                      2. re: maplesugar

                        I've never heard any anglophones (or anyone else), saying that. It doesn't make sense in English - the only mispronunciation I would have expected is saying poo - TINE - like the tines of a fork, or of course, putting the stress on the first syllable.

                        Don't worry, there are just as many embarrassing mispronunciations in the other direction. Can't go into them too much here as they don't relate to food enough for this site.

            2. What I'd recommend is the following approach:

              1) say (with a big smile, as someone else suggested!) "Bonjour! Je visite des États-Unis. Est-ce que vous parlez anglais" (Hello! I'm visiting from the United States. Do you speak English?) I guarantee that unless you're in the heart of the East End (i.e. off the beaten tourist path) that most servers (and salespeople, for that matter) will probably switch to English after they hear your accent, and be pleased/amused that you even made the attempt. If they don't, think of it as an opportunity to practice your French and/or hand gestures. :-) Chances are, their English is probably better than your French, and they'll likely switch to English at some point in the conversation.

              OR if the thought of speaking even that much French scares you, try:

              2) say (with a big smile, as someone else suggested!) "Bonjour!" And then wait for a reply. Then continue in English, not speaking too fast in case the server's English is shaky.

              I don't think you'll have too much trouble using either of the above approaches. The idea is to let folks know (by your accent when you say "bonjour") that you're not from around these parts, and that you are at least making an effort to greet them in French. Keeping a Montreal tourist guide prominently visible on your table is also an idea.

              Hope this helps - have a wonderful trip!

              1. The only time I've ever received attitude on my several visits to Montreal concerning language was at a bakery in the Latin Quarter where an Anglophone barked nastily at me ("We speak English here") when I opened up in my minimal French. Never had a problem with Francophones in Montreal (in Quebec City, that's a different story...). Its' not Paris. (For that matter, it's not Madrid, where fluent non-Castilian Spanish was often met rudely with English. My German friends had warned me that Madrid was what Americans mistake Paris for in that regard.)

                4 Replies
                1. re: Karl S

                  Do you know if that attitude is Specific to Madrid or are a lot of bigger Spanish cities this way?

                  1. re: mainsqueeze

                    I only experienced it in central Castile.

                    1. re: mainsqueeze

                      I noticed that in Barcelona, it didn't matter if I spoke (reasonable) Catalan, I usually was met with a barrage of Castilian.

                    2. re: Karl S

                      Agree 100% about the attitude in Quebec City. They don't let you even attempt French.