Every Anglo who has moved away from home to Montreal, for any length of time, have all been asked the same question: Oh you live in Montreal? I didn't know you were fluent in French! And in response, we have to say "Yeah, well I'm not 'fluent'...". This is also moment when many of us will begin judging ourselves, wondering ''...but why aren't I fluent, yet?''. Stop punishing yourself! Learning French is a process, and not an easy one at that. We need to let go of the romanticized vision we all had of just moving to Montreal, learning French (simply through being here) and living bilingually ever after. Languages are not acquired through osmosis! It takes a lot of time, effort and humility from a person to become 'fluent' in any language. Not to mention, Montreal constantly poses it's own special obstacles, considering it's bilingual dynamic, implicit communication norms and a particularly unique dialect.
Yet, regardless of the reasons why learning French has been particularly difficult for you; We understand what you're going through, and we want to help. That's why we've not only broken down the struggles we know our fellow Anglos will/are going through when trying to learn French, but also provided some suggestions on how to overcome them:
1. Customer Service Workers Are [Almost] Always Bilingual
Trying to practice your French when out shopping or just doing your errands can sometimes feel like a futile effort. There have been countless times where a masterfully structured and flawless French question has escaped my lips when speaking to a Customer Service worker, only to have them respond back to me in English. With a Francophone accent, at that! This was always the most infuriating struggle I faced when trying to learn French, and the fact that I would immediately feel bad about my skills and continue in English is something that held me back from improving for a long time.
Solution: Explain to them you're practicing! In most cases, they're not intending to be rude, but rather, they're trying to offer you exceptional customer service. If you let them know you're practicing your French, they will not only help, but they will probably try to teach you a new word and offer a friendly smile in seeing you make the effort.
2. The French You Learned In High School Will Feel Useless
After the first few weeks of moving to Montreal, most Anglophone's will have the initial shock of realizing their French is not that the level they thought it was. You took 5 years of French, but you do not remember learning any of what you're hearing around you...
In reality, the foundation of vocabulary, syntax and pronunciation you have is great; the accent and expressions commonly used in Quebec however, can be very different than the International French you learned. Since it is essential to understand what locals are saying in order to converse, it might feel at times like you're starting at square one (unless they want to chat about de quelle couleur sont vos pommes?)
Solution: Start listening to Quebec radio (94.3, for example, is super Quebecois and very funny), watch Quebecois films with French subtitles ... pick up any habit to help acclimate yourself to the accent. You'll be surprised how quickly you find yourself picking out the words you know, starting to follow the conversations and growing your vocabulary. Remember: The first step to speaking, is understanding!
3. English Has Become A Basic Work Skill In Montreal
In my experience of both studying and working in Centre-Ville, I've never met someone who could not speak any English. Many people who make the choice to work in Montreal understand that it is simply a business benefit to speak both languages. Although this is a huge part of the city's charm and what makes Montreal awesome in the eyes of the rest of the world; this seriously limits the amount of opportunities where you are truly hard-pressed to practice.
Solution: This may sound ridiculous... but it works. Pretend you don't speak English! They will have to work with you if you only speak "French".
4. Making Francophone Friends As An Anglophone Is Tough
I think by now everyone knows that the best way to learn a language is by making friends who speak it. However, Montreal has done a pretty good job separating the two crowds (schools, parts of town, job opportunities, etc.) so finding a friend that prefers to speak French isn't the easiest task. I mean, it's hard enough to make new friends in general.
Solution: Take a good look at who your current friends are! There's a good chance you know at least 1 bilingual Montrealer who may prefer to speak English in your clique, but probably has other Francophone friends, too. Ask if it would be cool for you to tag along to a party/dinner/outing so you can practice your French. Just make sure you charm the pants off of them so they will ask you come around more often!
5. Francophones Like To Practice Their English Too!
We have already discussed how crappy it feels when someone switches to English on you when you clearly made the effort to speak French. However, what's worse, is even if you try to insist on speaking French, sometimes they also push back! ''Oh, no problem, really! I need to practice my English anyway...''. At this point, you feel obligated to help them practice their English, and another lost conversation goes...
Solution: You really need to insist on speaking French in order to have the opportunities to practice. As we've established, these opportunities are not always easy to come by, so don't let them get away! It is nice that you want to help others, but it's also okay to help yourself! Even if you do this strange French/English verbal wrestling match, it's better than just giving in all together. Even if it feels awkward at first, you won't regret it, I promise.
6. Taking French Classes In Montreal Won't Seem To Help Much
At the beginning of learning any new language, you need to sit down and spend time learning the boring grammar crap before jumping into the fun stuff. Many choose to do this in a class setting, as the benefits of practicing with classmates and having the information dictated to you is ever-present. However, what can be frustrating with taking French classes in Quebec, is that most times, the teacher isn't even Quebecois. In these cases, even though learning a more ''International French'' can help you make yourself better understood, it will not help you understand local conversations much. Simply put: If you cannot understand a lot of what people are saying when you speak to them, you will feel as if your efforts were wasted.
Solution: When shopping for any course in French, try to request a Quebecois teacher. The teacher may still follow a curriculum that is more "Quebecois" , but that's okay. If this isn't an option for your classes, don't get discouraged! A class certainly won't hurt your French skills, so keep with it and ask as many questions as possible!
7. Some Neighbourhoods In Montreal Are Actually More Anglophone Than Francophone
So you've moved to Montreal and you want to practice - that's great! However, if you ended up in an primarily Anglo neighbourhood, this can effect your ability to speak French on the day to day. What do you do when someone addresses you in English first. Or worse, they learn over time you're English speaking and never give you the opportunity to speak French again?
Solution: Make a point a couple times a week to spend time in ''French" part of town. Now's your time to get to know the East End of Montreal a bit better, or even those little cafés in Le Plateau. Make sure to take every opportunity while you're there to speak . Also, keep those headphones off! You'd be surprised the difference spending an afternoon in a café just listening to conversations around you can make!
8. Some Locals Will Get Pissed That You Don't Speak French
I think every Anglophone will have/has had the experience of someone telling them off because their French isn't ''to par" yet. Whether you're having an off day and you decide to speak English at the register, or you caught a Government worker on the wrong day and you prefer to pass the phone call in English; eventually, someone will tell you ''You've been here long enough, why aren't you speaking French yet?''. Ouch. This is always shocking to hear, and always immediately puts you on the defensive. We are in Canada, aren't we?
Solution: Try not to take it personally. They don't know your story, and you don't know theirs. You know that you're making the efforts to learn and you don't need to prove it to anyone. It's perfectly normal to want to make certain transactions in your mother tongue so you can really understand and express yourself well. It's your right while being in Canada to have that. Just brush it off and know that you're not alone in learning, and you will get there.
9. Even If You Speak Well, Locals Will Still Point Out Your Anglo Accent
Have you ever been in a back and forth with a Francophone, when you suddenly notice the conversation is going super well. You're not skipping a beat. You understand everything and respond appropriately. You're feeling confident. Finally, all of this hard work is paying off! But then, out of nowhere.... they say it. ''.. Té un anglophone hein? Tu viens d'où?''. UGH. I know. It sucks feeling like your accent is terrible, and even worse when people point it out to you. WHY must they draw attention to you??
Solution: Stop worrying about it! If they understand you, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with having an accent. For most people in any second, third, fourth, etc. language (unless they grew up speaking it) will have an accent; and in fact, it makes you special! I have had many people tell me that my accent is charming, and this is why they point it out. Don't feel bad about it, and realize that they are more impressed with the fact that you speak French so well and want to learn more about you. Get out of your own head, smile, and take the opportunity to speak with a local!
10. You Will Find Yourself Apologizing For Your French
Don't you hate when someone starts off a conversation in perfect English, saying ''I'm sorry in advance for my terrible English''. Well what if I told you that you might be doing the same thing? Countless times have I heard my Anglo friends shoot themselves in the foot by starting off a conversation with an apology for their French. Nothing beneficial has ever come from this disclaimer. All this does, is prompt them to search for errors and let them know that they're not confident in your French. After all of that, can you really blame them for switching to English?
Solution: Stop apologizing! There is absolutely nothing to be sorry about when you're trying to learn. Native Francophones will know you're Anglo, but if you're confident, they won't try to save the integrity of the impending conversation with their English. Just be confident, and the rest will come.