Tale of Two Languages

Montreal seems like it would be the perfect city for me – it’s a large city with lots of activity, populated by several tens of thousands of students around my age. It’s also one of the more bilingual cities I have ever visited, let alone lived in. In fact, as a fluent French-English speaker (both from birth), Montreal’s bilingualism was one of the major factors that motivated my decision to study at McGill (at least, it sure as hell wasn’t the weather that helped me make my decision).

But with every blessing comes a curse. For me, that curse is confusion.

See, both the city and I are very bilingual. I speak both languages often enough (although being French, my accent is a little different). I read both languages fluently. I think and dream in both languages. The point is, I can communicate effectively in both languages, and so can the city.

Now, if that doesn’t seem too problematic to you, that’s because that part isn’t. I actually love being able to communicate in both French and English. But there are little things that get to me.

For starters, the standard greeting in a store in Montreal is “Bonjour, hi”. This gives the customer the option to shop in his or her preferred language. Simple enough, right? Except that I automatically respond with “Bonjour, hi” each time. The look on the poor cashier/salesperson’s face when I say that – basically, most of them have looked back at me trying to figure out which language I want to complete the transaction in.

Or when I try to communicate with two groups of people who each speak a different language, like I did at a club a while ago. I was at a club in a more French part of town with a group of my anglophone friends from university, trying to talk to the French-speaking bouncer, so naturally, I told him something in English, turned to my friends, and started speaking French. Needless to say, pretty much everyone was confused.

I also have the wonderful tendency to slip in French words into English conversations where I need them, and vice-versa. Granted, I would do this back when I was living in San Francisco and spoke mostly English with the people around me, but since moving to Montreal, that habit has only gotten worse.

But by far, the worst isn’t what I say aloud, it’s what I say in my head. Ever since moving here, I have begun to think French and English words simultaneously. Since I study math, it’s not too bad (because there aren’t too many words for me to think simultaneously) but I still have a tendency to think about variables in both languages – so for example (phonetically) ‘ex’ and ‘eex’, ‘why’ and ‘eegrec’, and worst of all, ‘zee’ and ‘zed’.

On the other hand, I love living in such a wonderfully bilingual city, and being able to speak both of my languages on a regular basis. So while all of the little inconveniences I mentioned above (and all of the other ones that were too long or too hard to explain to list) are annoying, I still love being able to speak both French and English and having almost everyone understand me.

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