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I'm going to be in Montreal for several weeks-months for work this fall. I don't speak a word of French. It's my understanding that Montreal is the primary anglophone enclave for Quebec and that English is widely spoken. I've also been told that once you get outside of the Montreal metro area, English fluency drops off considerably.

My concerns are twofold:

  1. While I'm not concerned with people not speaking English in, say, bars and restaurants and convenience stores, I am a little worried about getting yelled at angrily in French while working in an outer suburb and not having any clue how to respond. (I work in public spaces, and drive a vehicle with a graphic wrap from my employer that attracts attention, both positive and negative). Alternately, I tend to like local dive bars and off the beaten track restaurants that might not be used to catering to travelers. Should I be concerned? I understand that the city proper will be fine, but I'm wondering just how far out from the city that advice remains useful.

  2. Would it be useful for me to try to learn some rudimentary French before going? Would it make a difference? Or just be wasted effort. I do know enough to know that Parisian french is just different enough to be of reduced helpfulness.

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I'm going to edit and remove the 'good podcasts' part, as that's a separate question, but otherwise it's an interesting one that I may be able to help answer. –  Mark Mayo Aug 23 '13 at 1:00
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You should learn (or at least try), if you plan to stay that long. True you will be able to live and work in english, but do not forget there is only one official language in Quebec which is french. Also, technically, every business are supposed to first offer services in french. It is often avoided, but you will find native french speaker more friendly if you throw a Bonjour from time to time. –  Zonata Aug 23 '13 at 3:00
    
I had friends that moved to Vancouver from Montreal and based on what I have heard from them, you don't need to know much French to live there. however if you are visiting other cities like Quebec, knowing French is very recommended. –  Benjamin WeblySpeaking.ca Aug 23 '13 at 5:10

2 Answers 2

up vote 20 down vote accepted

I was in Montreal a few months ago, and I was worried about this. I tried my best to learn some French through podcasts (Coffee Break French - I really liked Coffee Break Spanish), but I still felt like I was floundering.

Be aware though, that just 10 words can get you very far, if they're the right words. Hello, Goodbye, Please, Thank you, Yes, No, "Where is..." and Sorry". Learning those words in other languages (eg Russian) has gotten me a long way.

In Montreal, however, I needn't have worried. Almost everywhere I went - and they weren't always tourist-centric places, I'd start to try and speak broken French in response to a French question, and they'd smile and switch to English for me. Very hospitable.

Now, of course, that was just for a few days. And I was travelling, not working. And dealing mostly with the service industry, who are nice as part of their job.

However a friend moved to Montreal a few years back, with zero French. (@Jonas on this site has as well, although I believe he spoke some beforehand). She found (as I did with other countries) that you start to pick up a lot of words, just from adverts, conversations in passing, and practise as well.

Some people will of course mock you, yell at you and blast you for not speaking their language. English speakers do it too, I've heard many people saying "why do they come to Australia/England/America if they can't speak English". In this modern world where people move around the globe a lot, it's a very narrow mindset. But don't worry about that, accept that most people will be understanding, as long as they can see you making an effort. If you believe you have a chance of knowing some of the French words in the sentence you're about to say, use them, and look apologetic as you say the others in English, they'll possibly even help you out with the French words you're looking for.

Enjoy Montreal, it's a beautiful city.

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Really good answer, especially the:"as long as they can see you making an effort". Every place I go I try to learn few words and peoples are always more friendly. Especially in Quebec, where many feel like their language/culture is threatened. –  Zonata Aug 23 '13 at 3:05
    
Just don't make too much effort, otherwise they will think you can speak French fluently which can cause confusion. –  Jeremy French Aug 23 '13 at 9:05
    
I assure you, they were in no danger whatsoever of thinking I could speak French fluently ;) –  Mark Mayo Aug 23 '13 at 10:14

To answer your question, it is useful but not that important. You are correct in saying that the majority of people in Montreal understand English. The majority also understand French too. You will also find that there are many people who live here which speak neither of these languages and have been in Montreal for a decade or more!

You should be prepared for some negative remarks if you work in a position where you have to interact with the public. This will happen when a customer who only speaks French asks for something from one who only speaks English. While this is certainly not a comfortable situation, it dissipates quickly, just stay calm and polite.

As for you being served, it will happen that people will not speak English and it seems more common in among cashiers and waiters the further east you go from downtown. Knowing a few words help but if they can tell you are not from here, you will get a break. Trying to speak French helps but, if you make too much effort, it can backfire and you may end-up with an English-speaker serving you in French because they think that is what you want to. I've been living in Montreal for 15 years and it still happens to me :)

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You will also find that there are many people who live here which speak neither of these languages and have been in Montreal for a decade or more! - I'm a New Yorker. I'm perfectly comfortable dealing with that sort of language barrier. :P –  LessPop_MoreFizz Aug 23 '13 at 1:51

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