How does bilingualism work? The etiquette is a mystery for those of us who come from monolingual places. In Montreal, the approach is actually very pragmatic, and I think the question of service in shops offers a good glimpse of how we muddle through. I’ve been meaning to write this up for a while, and this question from an American reader has spurred me into action.
Here then is a spectrum of greetings you are likely to encounter from staff in a Montreal shop, and what they mean:
- Bonjour - I am probably French mother tongue and I prefer to speak French. I might not speak English very well.
- Bonjour-Hi - I am perfectly bilingual and am happy to serve you in the language of your choice. Although I am probably from Quebec, I might not speak French as a first language.
- Allô! - “Allô” is a tricky one as it sounds a lot like “Hello.” Sometimes counter staff use it to be ambiguous and will serve you in the language in which you respond. Sometimes, however, they are unilingual francophones who are attempting to be informal. In fact, as “Allô” is only used when answering the phone in the rest of the French-speaking world, it took your correspondant about a year to work out that it wasn’t an heavily accented “hello”! Bonjour is almost always the best response to an Allô.
- No greeting - I am probably waiting for you to say Bonjour or Hi so I know which language you prefer (by the way, your editor considers this rude.) I am probably not French mother tongue.
- bonjour-HIII!! - I am stressing the “HI” because although I can serve you in French (and am required to by law), it is not my first language and I would rather serve you in English.
- Hi - I only speak English or I strongly prefer to speak English.
Image: The Office québécois de la langue française on Sherbrooke Street works to ensure that the legislation surrounding the use of French is respected and to promote the use of the French language. Photo by Michel Ferraro.
Despite all of the above, it’s not unusual to flip back and forth between the two languages during a conversation, especially if complicated vocabulary is required. Do you have any bilingual Montreal stories you would like to share?
This seems pretty accurate to me. There’s also a second stage of bilingual negotiation, in which the well-meaning anglophone customer attempts to reply in French, and depending on how good their accent is, the staffperson will either immediately switch to English, continue in French for one or two more exchanges before switching, or stay in French. Upon the staffperson switching to English, the customer might switch as well, either relievedly or grudgingly, or persist in speaking French.
The most dramatic incarnation of this is the codeswitching politeness battle, in which the anglophone insists on speaking French while the francophone insists on speaking English, although this is pretty rare and eventually one side generally capitulates.
I considered myself to have reached a milestone in my French-language abilities when salespeople stopped switching to English as soon as I greeted them in a store.