College Kid Doesn’t Get French

Posted by on June 5th, 2010 at 11:55 PM

My part of Montreal is right near McGill University, which is the equivalent of a second-rank Ivy League school, a Cornell or University of Pennsylvania. The kids sometimes say dumb things, as recorded here.

Most people in Montreal speak French, most kids at McGill do not. They’re not just from out of town, they’re from out of the province, and in Quebec that’s very much like being from another country. Most of them, of course, also come from families with a nice packet of money, which has grave implications for the kids’ ability to catch on to their surrounding realities. Hence you get the occasional remark like this:

Girl 1: So how are you liking Montreal?

Girl 2: I really like it, but there’s so many people who speak French, you know?

Which is from the site linked above. I can’t top the quote, but I did witness a follow-up of sorts.

At my favorite cafe, a very pretty brunette girl was speaking into her cell phone. She said this: “So how would I say ‘I found the pencil’? . . . ‘Le crayon.'” Then, to make sure: “‘Le crayon.'” And then, doubtfully: “Okay . . . but even though I’m a woman?”

Because in French, as in all romance languages, nouns are masculine or feminine, with consequences for the rendering of the adjectives applied to them. But the identity of the speaker, of course, has no bearing on the gender of the nouns being . . . aw fuck it, you anglophone nitwit.

In other news, drunk girls have the ugliest voices in the world, and that’s the case no matter what language they speak.

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3 Responses to “College Kid Doesn’t Get French”

  1. patricer says:

    Hello there.

    I lived (and still kind of do) in Montréal too, and I went to McGill for a little while when I was an undergrad (in the early ’90s), and I speak French (although, like most French-speaking people in Québec, and more specifically in Montréal, I speak fluent English too). My memories of McGill in terms of being a French-speaking guy in an English-speaking environment are (perhaps surprisingly) good: teachers were nice and accomodating when I made mistakes switching from one language to another or when I made a mistake pronouncing something, and (to be honest) the fact that this university gets a lot of students from afar means that an important portion of the student population spoke an okay-but-not-that-much-better-than-mine English anyway.

    What struck me more when I was there, to be honest, was people in the immediate environment; I got mean remarks when being nice to old ladies in the bus because I spoke French to them first (a reflex) when offering them my seat, for example. Every unpleasant moment I can remember from my passage there was a small thing. Universities host a variety of people, from the very nice to the very unpleasant, and McGill is no exception; still, even though I have only been there one semester, my memories of the place and the people are positive overall.

    What I appreciate when I meet English-speaking people in Montréal or elsewhere in Québec (in particular if said people are staying for a while, or making the place their home) is the effort: keeping an open mind, trying to communicate and learn some of the language, enjoying the difference. I know that my understanding of English enriches my understanding of French, and the reverse is also true, since each of these languages has influenced the other. Montréal is a beautiful city to live in, and it’s much more interesting for those who choose dive in and _really_ live it.

  2. Tom Crippen says:

    Great to hear from a fellow Quebecker. I expect you’re right about McGill, but I’ve been here 10 years and talked to a lot of people, so I’ll be so bold as to disagree with you about the following:

    “like most French-speaking people in Québec, and more specifically in Montréal, I speak fluent English too”

    Your English is indeed very good, but my experience is that most French-speaking people in Québec speak French and nothing else. In Montreal proper, francophones are more likely to speak passable English than anglophones are to speak passable French. But passable isn’t the same as fluent, and it’s easy to find neighborhoods where people speak next to no English at all. It isn’t a question of ill will, of course. They just don’t have occasion to speak any language but their own.

    I find that the one group that really is French/English fluent is the anglophone kids who grew up going to French-language public schools here. Listening to them switch back and forth from one language to the other has always inspired me with wonder.

    Next come the out-of-province kids who took part in multiyear French immersion programs. Those things really work. The kids have an accent, but they can talk quite comfortably.

    Next come me and the rest of the schmucks, French or English, who study our grammar and piece together our vocabulary. One of the many great things about Montreal is that this is usually quite enough. I find that most people on either side have the same attitude that you do. They’re not out to take offense or impose linguistic tests on people. They just want to communicate.

    So even if you and I disagree about who speaks English, I think we can agree about Montreal and what it’s like to cross over linguistically here — that is, most often it’s quite a pleasant experience.

  3. patricer says:

    Hi again!

    Out of curiosity, I checked at Statistiques Canada and the most recent analysis I found was based on data from 2007 ( It is a French document, but my guess is it won’t really be a problem for you (if it is, I can look for the English equivalent, which I’m sure exists).

    On pages 28 to 30, we can see that in 2006, over 68% of those who speak English first in Québec also claim to speak French fluently (the numbers are much lower elsewhere in Canada), while 35,8% of those who speak French first in Québec also claim to speak fluent English (elsewhere in Canada, the numbers are much higher, which makes sense). This seems to fit in with your perception.

    There is an interesting (potential) explanation on page 31, which refers to a document that circulated on the Internet when data was being collected for that study, which invited French-speaking people to claim not to speak English at all in order to fight a perceived attempt by the federal government to reduce services in French throughout Canada; the document invites us to take into account the possibility that «French-only» numbers are overestimated while «French-first but English too» numbers are underestimated when analyzing the data they have managed to muster.

    Interesting, in many ways!

    Anyway, they key point is: summer is beginning, and with all that is happening in the streets (festivals and events of all kinds, including Formula 1 racing this week-end if you’re into that stuff), Montréal’s just such a cool place to be, in either or, even better, both languages :)