From English to French and back again

Both sides of Canada’s linguistic divide

The worst Canada Day our cab driver in Ottawa said he ever had was when he was working the late shift and he picked someone up at 4 a.m. — who promptly threw up all over the place.

Turns out, the young man had been drinking all day and then decided to eat a pizza, which turned out badly.

Fortunately, our driver from the train station to our hotel said that during this year’s Canada Day July 1 — the celebration of 150 years of confederation and the swan song for the world’s greatest news anchor — he would be working a day shift and just eight hours, which shouldn’t be too bad.

The hardest part about the conversation was that our driver didn’t speak very loud … and that I had to recalibrate my ears to something other than a French accent.


Our cab ride from the airport to our hotel outside Montreal late last week didn’t go especially well.

The driver’s English was about as good as my wife’s and my French, so we got crossed up on where exactly we were going because our “Longueuil” came out in a way he didn’t recognize (and I still can’t spell it right).

Had he not made some kind of inquiry about … something … that caused my wife to show him the address to our hotel, we might have ended up in Nunavut, which for those unfamiliar with Canadian geography is in the Arctic.

Not every conversation ended in near-disaster, but they pretty much all went the same way — being greeted in French before one of us answered in English and the conversation continued in English.

As was the case in Quebec City when we went a few years ago, everyone we dealt with spoke English, much better than we speak French; it just wasn’t their first choice.

The accents can be a bit thick, but with patience (mostly on their part, to be honest, since we’re foreigners speaking Quebec’s second language), it’s not too hard for everyone to know what everyone else is talking about.

Another thing I knew from previously going to Montreal and to Quebec City is to end a conversation in French, but not to start one. Sure, “bonjour” is a word most everyone knows and a nice way to be respectful to the locals, but using that as a greeting means the conversation will go to places you don’t understand.

Better to end an encounter with “merci.”


I also knew from previous trips that not having a great knowledge of French isn’t too terrible a hindrance once you get used to it.

A lot of the signs are in French and English, just with the English on the bottom, and they also use a lot of pictographs that are easy enough to figure out.

Context will also tell you that a “sortie” sign with an arrow pointing toward a flight of stairs means “exit,” although I struggled with the meaning of the translation for the Couche-Tard convenience store chain until I looked it up on Google. Given its logo, the “night owl” translation makes sense.

The thing I hadn’t realized, and didn’t realize until today, was how quickly I got used to adjusting an English speaker in a French-speaking environment.

I first noticed it a little bit as we were on the train to Ottawa. Most of the trip was through the Quebec countryside, where there wasn’t much written at all that you could see.

I was aware that we had crossed into Ontario when I saw something or other written in English, but the real surprise — other than working out the lack of accent — came as I was looking around the city.

Since French and English are Canada’s official languages, many signs (and museum labels) are written in both. In Quebec, however, the French is written on top, with English on the bottom.

Elsewhere, the English is on top, but as I was riding through the streets of Ottawa, I found myself instinctively looking at the bottom of signs for the English translation. It had become a habit in just three days!

I’m sure it will wear off in time, but I thought it was pretty funny.

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