Quebec language notes

My wife and I have just come back from a ten-day trip to the province of Quebec, a place that we had both meant to visit for many years and had not managed to do until now. We were both enthralled by the beauty of the fall foliage and the charm of the historic old cities — old Montreal, Trois-Rivières and especially Quebec City — but for me there was another point of interest: to explore the bilingualism of Montreal.

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I am fascinated by by bilingual societies. Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, every bilingual society is bilingual in its own way.

I come from a bilingual family. My parents, Polish Jews born respectively in 1905 and 1913, both had Yiddish as their native language. But by time my mother started school Poland had regained its independence (in 1918), so that all of her schooling was in Polish, which soon became her primary language, while Yiddish remained that of my father. In their conversations with each other, as far back as I remember, he spoke in Yiddish and she spoke in Polish. To me, however, they spoke only in Polish, and I did not actually speak Yiddish fluently until I was ten or so, in different circumstances. Consequently, I am not a native bilingual, as are some of my Barcelona friends who cannot recall a time when they didn’t speak both Catalan and Spanish.

According to statistics cited in Wikipedia, only 0.8% of the residents of Greater Montreal reported speaking both English and French “as a first language.” (By contrast, 17% of the people of Brussels speak both French and Dutch at home.) On the other hand, “most of its residents” are said to possess a “working knowledge of both.”

That working knowledge can be quite variable. Except in Westmount and at an Italian restaurant near the airport  in Dorval, nearly all the people we dealt with were francophones (some of whom may have been French), and their English, on the whole, was not very different from what one hears from younger people working in tourist-oriented occupations around the world. I found this surprising, since I thought that these people were far more exposed to English — from their anglophone fellow citizens and from English-language television and radio — than their counterparts elsewhere.

There may have been one or two people that we met who were of the 0.8% — native-sounding in both English and French. Our English-language guide at the Notre-Dame Basilica spoke with an almost perfect North American accent, but gave herself away when she said “we are Monday” (a calque of nous sommes  lundi) when meaning to say “today is Monday.”

Another difference from Brussels is the near-absence of bilingual signage. Even streets whose names are untranslated  English (such as University, McGill College, or City Councillors) are prefixed rue, with no “street” (see here for a Brussels example). Largely anglophone Westmount (now a separate city) gets away with neither rue nor street. All signage on freeways throughout Quebec, even warning signs, is in French only — I wonder how English Canadians driving, say, from Nova Scotia to Ontario, through their own country feel about that. Station announcements in the Montreal metro are in French only. Only federal institutions such as post offices carry bilingual signs consistently.

Once outside Montreal, even in a nearby suburb such as Repentigny, one might as well be in provincial France. Except in tourist-heavy old Quebec and nearby Ile d’Orléans, bilingual menus are less common than in Paris, and seem to be found only in chain restaurants.

I have to confess that I have written two novels, books 2 and 3 of my Wilner Trilogy, whose respective protagonists are Montreal native bilinguals (they are brother and sister), and whose action takes place to a significant degree in Montreal. I wrote these books without ever having been in Quebec, that is, in direct defiance of the “write about what you know” dictum; what details I needed I got from the Web. My visit satisfied me that I made no big blunders. But much of the action takes place in what was then the town of Saint-Laurent (now it’s a Montreal borough), and this is an area that I didn’t have time to visit during this trip. I’ll have to take another one.

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