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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, well....services 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.

                    3. i have a cousin who was seeking directions in Paris. His minimal French and English accent were met with lack of response or rudeness, Making gestures that he was lost, he asked one passerby in various languages if he spoke: Hungarian; German, or Russian. The answer was, "Non" in each case. Finally he asked, "Hanglish?

                      "Ah, oui!" and a bond was established. They chatted at length, directions, and even an invitation to dinner, were tended.

                      What do you think of that?

                      1. You should be fine. The downtown core is more or less bilingual. As long as your remain as enthusiastic as you appear to be in your OP you will be fine. People are usually glad to help in whatever language.

                        1. As an aside, don't assume every interaction is based on French/English dynamics. For example, my friends came to town and ordered "Chicken Shwarma", in English, from a Lebanese place on St Laurent. Well, St Laurent in general and this place in particular are pretty "allophone". Sure there are Francophones, but also lots of anglo students from McGill and shopkeepers from all over the world who may speak 3 languages fluently. So in this case my friends assumed they got funny reactions because they spoke English, but it was actually because everyone in Montreal, French or English, orders "Shish Taouk", never "chicken Shwarma", shish taouk being a favourite there.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: julesrules

                            Yes, what is referred to as shish taouk here in Montreal is not actually shish taouk. Calling it shawarma would be more appropriate. I have no idea how people here came to call it by the wrong name.

                            1. re: mainsqueeze

                              I did not know that, but I think it's a great example of chow-based Montreal common ground... loved hearing all the different accents ordering their Shish Taouk after leaving the bar at 2am.

                          2. In Montreal, you can order in French or English in about 90% of the restaurants with NO difficulty. Let's be blunt. Restaurant owners want to make money and will go out of their way to help customers out. You may find it MORE difficult to deal with employees of the train system who generally speak French only.

                            Once you head toward Quebec or the Eastern Townships, expect 100% French speakers. However, you will still be able to order quite easily because most servers are pretty outgoing.

                            There is a small minority of Quebecois that go out of their way to let you know that your French is lousy. However, those people are few and far between.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: jlawrence01

                              One point about the Eastern Townships/ L'Estrie: I did my BA entirely in english at Bishop's U. There are a decent number of people who speak English in the Townships - Bishop's University is english, service in pubs and restos in town will also be in english or french. The beautiful little B&Bs in North Hatley and whatnot the names might be french but the owners are either usually english or bilingual. The city of Sherbrooke, definitely more french.

                              In my experience most people whether in Montreal or the Townships will accomodate english/broken french with conversations sometimes taking place in Franglais :)

                              1. re: maplesugar

                                Agreed; our family cottage is on Lake Champlain (Baie Mississiquoi), and has been for nearly 100 years. We never have any problem at any of the groceries or farmer's markets, restaurants, or stores in St. Jean, Bedford, Cowansville, Sabrevois, Henryville, Lacolle, etc. I'll often practice my high-school French, much to the locals' amusement, but if I get in to trouble, they'll switch to English in a heartbeat. I've often felt that the French and the English get along better in the townships than anywhere else in Quebec.

                            2. I too only have high school francais....so i feel your pain ! I visited Montreal for a long weekend this past fall, and found my way around quite easily, and I even managed to find my way after I got lost once ! From what i'd been told, the effort to speak the language is appreciated, and I found that people switched into english in all but one occasion, whereby the speaker was unilingual french. I was staying in a very french area of the city as well, and even managed to order my morning coffee's etc there...my problem was that i was so self-conscious with my frenc that I mumbled my way around, so they probably couldn't have understood me even if i'd been speaking it perfectly !!

                              Ok, so for restaurant recommends ! I had one of the best meals ever at this place:


                              Divine !! The almond soup....oh my ! We sat at the bar, and our server was excellent, the seating comfortable, and the overall experience in this restaurant was one to remember.

                              If you are interested in vegetarian cuisine at all, i'd highly recommend Chuchai

                              as well as Lola Rosa, which is just a tiny place really, but such good food.

                              Definitly recommend the markets, I visited Jean-Talon market while there, and came home with many many good eats !!

                              Also, had a fantastic lunch here one day (Guido and Angelina):
                              We had worked up a big appetite from walking that day, but the spinach salad and the pizza con quatro di formaggi were ooohh so good ! Finished the meal with the cannoli.

                              On my last evening there, I got some sushi to go from Wow Sushi
                              which was also very very good !

                              Enjoy your trip !

                              6 Replies
                              1. re: im_nomad

                                I'm pleasantly surprised that you liked Guido & Angelina, with a rep as a cartoonish fake-Italian resto (like the cartoon postwar couple on its sign), considering that your other choices are nothing like that - so I'll know what to order if I should ever be in a group eating there.

                                I confess that being from Québec, I'd be embarrassed not to speak any Catalan in Barcelona, but I'm sure Catalans would not be annoyed about speaking Castillian to outsiders.

                                1. re: lagatta

                                  They do it by default, really. I felt the same way and so I learned a bunch of Catalan, but in the "zone turistic" I found that 95% of people spoke to me in Castilian, and the other 5% in British English.

                                  In Barcelona, however, the law says menus must be written in Catalan, so for visiting Americans there's a double whammy: foods that are unfamiliar, written in a language that looks like a mixture of Italian and cat-walking-on-keyboard. However, like Paris, it's difficult to get a truly bad meal, and you end up trusting your instinct and occasionally hitting the jackpot (I am STILL thinking about the "galta amb llor" at Cal Pep, which we couldn't figure out -- got served what looked like a bowl made of bone with the most amazingly tender and juicy meat in it. We figured out "llor" pretty quickly (bayleaf) due to the taste, but not until we got back and I looked up "galta" and found it was veal cheek.)

                                  1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                    Indeed, "galta amb llor" might have stumped me - I did guess llor, which is not dissimilar from the French laurier and the Italian alloro, but cuts of meat names vary greatly even within the same language.

                                    Ubergeek, this is a US based board, but not everyone on it is American: there are visitors from quite a range of countries.

                                    We haven't even started to discuss Basque! No way I'm attempting to learn Euskera.

                                    1. re: lagatta

                                      "Eskerrik asko" and "TXOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOTX!!!!" was as far as I got. You don't need to speak Basque to drink that wonderful cider.

                                    2. re: Das Ubergeek

                                      Very interesting. I had wondered whether it would be worth it to learn some Catalan phrases before visiting Barcelona (still haven't visited, I'm more of an armchair traveler for now.) But seeing as it is the second city of Spain, I suppose it's no surprise that Castillian dominates. I imagine that Catalan would be more helpful in the rural areas/small cities of the region.

                                      1. re: Agent Orange

                                        It's not that... it's a bit more like going to Bombay and having people speak Hindi or English to you because it's apparent that you don't speak Marathi. Catalan IS the language of the city, but they have realistic expectations about the ability of outsiders to speak it. When you into a restaurant, though, the law says the menu must be in Catalan. They have have it in other languages, but Catalan must be first.

                                        It's a nice opportunity practice, anyway... "jo voldria una escalivada, la galta amb llor i una crema catalana, amb vi nègre de casa, si us plau."

                                2. We had a terrific vacation in Quebec this summer and received only warm, welcoming service from all waiters around the province. We spent most of our time in Quebec City where our four children all attempted to speak (very!) rudimentary French. They were encouraged and coached by several waiters.

                                  Have a great time in Quebec. We had a blast, my kids want to move there!!!