How Important is French in Montreal?
If you move into the Quebec province, you may be surprised to find that it is not a bilingual province. It is a French province, despite being in Canada. Although many people in Montreal speak English, in any other part of the province you will find that English is rarely used. This is also true of parts of New Brunswick, the province to the east of Quebec.
My daughter, who grew up in the United States, went to McGill University in Montreal to major in French. She married a Canadian and has been working in the IT industry in Montreal for 20 years. I gathered insights from her on what it is like living and working in Montreal.
French & Business
English is the language of business in an international company, but if you want to chat informally with your colleagues, you will find it much easier to become part of the group if you speak French. I asked about setting up a new business, as many of our participants consider doing that. She was quite definite that if you want to open a storefront or provide services to the public in Montreal, you must speak French.
Several years ago, when the French separatists were very strong in Quebec, many people refused to speak English. In fact, English was erased from signage. When visiting, I used to go to a breakfast restaurant called “The Toaster”. One day it became “Le Pan Grillé”. In France, you see English words that have become part of the French language, such as “le shopping” or “le weekend”. You will not find those words in Quebec. The correct terms there are “magaziner” which is the verb “to shop” in Quebecois and the French “la fin d’semaine”.
French & Culture
The French language is an important part of Quebec’s cultural identity. Learning English is not encouraged by the government. These days, in Montreal, people will speak English to an Anglophone when they can. In other towns, they may be more reticent to do so because their English is limited. Foreign-trained professionals, such as nurses and teachers, will find that they must pass a French proficiency exam to be hired. All services must be provided in French, as speaking French is a requirement to work in any job that deals with the general public. Locals who run small businesses will speak English if their client base is Anglophone and/or if they deal with other Canadian provinces. But when you need an electrician or take clothes to a drycleaner, you may find that she or he speaks only French.
Unless children attend private schools, children must attend French language public schools unless they are specifically exempt from the requirement. One exemption is for children who are in Quebec temporarily. If permission to attend an English public school is granted, it will be for the permitted temporary stay. More information about exemptions is available at this site.
French & Settling In
Certain parts of Montreal – the Western Island and the western sections of the city – traditionally have a greater percentage of English speakers. Many Anglophones left Montreal during the Separatist years, but they are returning. Because of this and because of the arrival of immigrants from many countries, those neighbourhood distinctions are disappearing.
Non-French speakers can be very happy in Montreal. It is an exciting city with excellent infrastructure, great public transportation, large parks, many cultural events, and many activities for children. Information for newcomers is readily available in English to help one settle in. New Anglophone arrivals can find resources and friends, such as the Montreal Plateau Playgroup (you can join by invitation), through Meetup groups, churches, sports groups, dance groups, libraries, cultural associations, etc. When people complain, they complain about Montreal’s two seasons – the winter season and the road construction season – in both French and English.