Features | Adventure: Totally bilingue: French immersion outside the classroom

My well-meaning anglophone parents enrolled me in a French immersion elementary school where my classmates and I mastered the art of not speaking French. Hapless teachers told us we could only speak English if we wanted to ask how to say something en français. Big mistake.

“Comment est-ce qu’on dit ‘can I go to the washroom?’”

“Comment est-ce qu’on dit ‘the answer is 24?’”

Our teacher would sigh and tell us comment on le dit. We would nod, say, “d’accord,” then resume our conversation in English.

I never thought I’d move to Quebec.

Imagine my shock when I came to my senses behind the counter of a Second Cup in Montreal and found myself struggling to explain the contents of a brioche to a disdainful Swiss tourist – en franglais, bien sur.

I was born and raised in Vancouver. My move to Montreal was executed to the tune of well-wishers reassuring me I “wouldn’t even need to speak French at all.” “It’s okay, because I’m almost fluent anyway,” I replied again and again.

Nine months and an insular residence experience later, I was being force-fed my words in the form of stale café pastries. Determined to live in Montreal year-round, I had ventured out to find myself a job. I was looking for work in a coffee shop. Describing beverages and reading numbers off the cash display – how hard could it be?

The one and only interview I secured with my (entirely in English) CV was at the Second Cup by Place des Arts downtown. It was a disaster. My resolve dissolved like biscotti into lukewarm coffee the second the manager decided to conduct the interview in French. In a state of anxiety so acute as to provoke an out-of-body experience, I watched my brainless body stumble through French like it had never spoken it in its life.

By the end of it, an enormous smile was pasted to the front of my flushed face. I looked mildly hysterical. The manager leaned forward and fixed me with a pitying look.

“To be honest, your French is really not very good.” He gestured towards the employees chatting behind the counter. “Some of the people who work here don’t even speak English. And I don’t think you’d be able to work in a francophone environment.” I nodded dumbly, mortified, already resigning myself to telemarketer work. Instead of delivering the final coup de grâce, however, the manager took pity on me. “There’s another Second Cup in Phillips Square, a few blocks west of here. It’s more English. I’ll ask the manager if he needs someone.”

To my astonishment, I was hired at the Phillips Square location two weeks later. My hysterical interview smile must have made me seem friendly instead of panicked. Customer service managers find it hard to resist smiling young girls.

Every anglo asshole complaining about immigrants not speaking English should be sentenced to a week working at a coffee shop in Quebec. It’s the perfect place for a good humbling. Despite the manager’s insistence that I wouldn’t be able to work at his café, I was brought back there for my training. My coworkers were mostly friendly and tolerant, aside from a glaring Quebecoise or two. I had never worked in a café before, and had no idea what I was doing. I sentence any xenophobeto do exactly what I had to: complete their first week of training during Jazz Fest. Jazz Fest goes down at Place des Arts. Where was I working? Place des Arts. Trial by fire.

The line consistently snaked out the door, and I was the wrench in the gears of the counter operations. I never went to Second Cup before working there, so I didn’t know the menu at all, nevermind in French. I could barely make head or tail of the Quebecois accent. Yelling over the din, I asked customers to repeat themselves again and again and again, then gave them the wrong orders anyway.

“Il y a quoi dans ce gateau?”

“Pardon?”

“IL Y A QUOI DANS CE GATEAU?”

“Uhhh…pardon?”

“LE GATEAU!”

“[clears throat, clearly still not understanding] Uhhh…”

Post-Jazz Fest, it got better, as it always does. I took up permanent residence at the Phillips Square location, which was indeed more “English.” The traditional geographical divide in Montreal – anglo West and franco East – does still exist in a way. However, we did get enough French-speaking customers that my ego was constantly being battered, or at least slightly bruised.

To be honest, those first months were tough. I was living in a shitty apartment and still recovering from a break-up that had dragged my self-esteem down to levels not seen since early adolescence. I was vulnerable as hell and still eating humble pie almost every time I worked a shift.

In retrospect, I had it easy. My coworkers were patient. The rent got paid. Most people in Montreal speak at least a little English, so I did have that to fall back on if the French completely eluded me. While I did, admittedly, feel a little sorry for myself, what I really took away from that summer was a greater empathy for those who have it a lot harder. If a Canadian with some knowledge of French struggles, how is it for someone coming from another continent?

A year and half later, I have a new job and can’t imagine not speaking French every day. I am definitely not fluent, but I’m working on that. My boyfriend is pure laine Quebecois, and we moved in together in July. We speak a kind of pidgin, flowing smoothly in and out of languages mid-thought – Frenglish at its best. I baby-talk our cat in French and whisper “hostie” when I’m frustrated. We flip between the CBC and Radio-Canada and irritably tell each other to wash “la fucking vaiselle.” It’s beautiful.

And when he says “Je t’aime,” I always understand the first time ‘round.


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