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Frenglish: Living a Bilingual Life

Living in Quebec, Canada…

You know what’s funny?  Not really funny “ha, ha!” but funny “weird…”? I had to double check how to spell the word “future”, all because I couldn’t remember if “future” was the way to spell it in English…or in French.  You may think that’s totally bizarre, but living in Quebec and growing up around both French and English has brought on many confusing moments like that for me.  Especially when it comes to spelling.

Growing up…

Quebec, Canada

As a kid, I remember being transferred to another school (as I understood it back then a “better” school) where classes would equally be divided.  You would have half of your classes in French and the other half in English so that you’d have a well rounded education in both languages.  If my memory serves me well, the English speaking students were grouped together in the quest to further their education and learn in French and the French speaking students were grouped together in the same manner, but to learn English.

Now, that time is really hazy to me and most of my memories are of recess and playing “Murderball” with my friends, but I distinctly remember the feeling of us all not really getting along.  My classmates would often refer to the other Grade 5 class as “The French Class” (not in a derogatory way, but for a lack of a better name for the other class)   Even though the school was called an International School, it never really seemed to be able to blend us together.  Rather, it seemed to put us up against each other.  It was a constant war between the two classes.

Murderball: A game with many players where one player throws a tennis ball against the wall in hopes that when it bounces off…no one will catch it.  If someone does, in fact, catch the ball, the player who threw the ball must run and touch the wall before the person who caught the ball whips it at you.  If you touch the wall before the ball hits you, you’re safe.  If you don’t and you get hit by the ball you get an out.  3 outs and every player lines up next to the wall, puts on hand on the wall, and the person with 3 outs runs under all the arms and everyone gets to slap their back as a penalty for getting 3 outs.

One way that we really felt the separation was those 5 minutes before the recess bell.  There was an area outside where there were three walls that dented in, creating a small, secluded box which was perfect for playing “Murderball” in.  If you were really good, you could whip that ball and it would hit 3 walls.  It was more interesting than just throwing the ball against the other one wall of the school.  So, before the bell, everyone would be ready to run out of their seats to beat the other class to that space.  Pretty much whoever got there first would be able to call shotgun.  If ever someone from the other class got there first, it meant that their class was playing there…and only that class.  If we got there first, well it was ours for the day.  No one ever asked students from the other class to join.

After that, it seemed we were always in a constant battle.   Who had the smartest student, who had more awards, etc.  At one point I remember wanting to walk out onto the soccer field we had and a girl from the other class pushed me away and said (in French) “You English people aren’t allowed to play here”.  The whole class had taken over the field and were refusing to let any of us use the field as well.  Unlike the small box space, the field was big enough to share.  Finally, we decided on a duel to the death.  Not literally, but one soccer game, French against English, and the winner took home the prize: the field would be the winning team’s territory.  I don’t actually remember the outcome, but I remember feeling really offended.  It no longer seemed to be class vs. class, but French vs. English.

That’s really the extent of how I felt different here in Quebec as I was growing up.  Afterwards, I went to an English high school, because all my friends were going there.  The only French class we had was actually French class.  I was put in a higher level because of the elementary school I went to.  To be honest, I’m really happy that I learned as much as I did.  It’s helped me more times than I can count, but especially when it came time to start looking for my first job.

In the work place

One serious problem I have sometimes is forgetting words in French…or not remembering them in time.  I stumble to find and remember words constantly.  Speaking of looking for my first job, I remember an extremely embarrassing moment at my first interview.  It was for a clothing store called “L’Aubainerie” and it was a group interview all in French.  There were 5 other girls sitting at a large table, just hoping to get the job.  The lady conducting the interview asked who wanted to go first and nobody volunteered.  So I did.  I was nervous as hell!  Let me tell you, I had no idea what I was doing.  I was so afraid I wouldn’t understand the questions she would ask me and I’d look like an idiot.  So when she asked “What position are you applying for?”  I pretty much got a huge burst of confidence, seeing as how that was the simplest question besides “What’s your name?”.  Then…my heart stopped.  What’s the French word for “cashier”?   I knew I had to say something.  So, I opened my mouth and blurted out:

“Casheuse” I told her.

And cue the chirping crickets!

A girl sitting across from me laughed out loud.  The others were snickering quietly.  My face turned red.  For those of you who don’t know, the French word for “cashier” is “cassière”.  Even though my face was red, I sat up tall and looked at the interviewer right in the eye.  And the wonderful woman she was, she didn’t skip a beat.  She went right on to ask me a few more questions, then went around the table to the other girls and the group interview was over.  I ended up getting the job.  The others didn’t.  Maybe it was my confidence when volunteering to go first, maybe it was my ability to stand my ground even when making a mistake….I don’t know.  But, I was proud of myself for not crawling under the table in embarrassment.

In college, when it was time for me to take a French class, I was extremely grateful for the education I had gotten growing up.  Everything in those classes were so easy.  It was pretty much what I had been learning all my life.  Now, I slightly regret not moving up to a harder class, but at the time I was ecstatic that I had one less class to worry about.  It meant I could focus more on my music courses.

At the end of my college days, when I started working at the restaurant I’m working at now, I started to get a lot of practice with my second language.  Not only that, but I really started to see a lot about French vs. English (or English vs. French).  Sometimes I would give an English menu to a French speaking customer by accident and they’d just about throw it in my face saying “This is disgusting! We’re in Quebec! I WANT A FRENCH MENU!”.  I’d feel like yelling at them “Sometimes menus get mixed up! It was a mistake!”, but what good would that do? Sometimes people get really offended by that and there’s not much you can do except say “I’m sorry.”  I once saw a man yelling at a waiter saying “I never want to be served by you again!” all because he spoke French with an English accent.

I have to say, most of what I see at work is negative behavior towards English, but that could be because I’m more sensitive to it.  I don’t often see it the other way around, but it doesn’t mean it’s not there.  I’m sure it is and on a regular basis, too.  I’ve had my fair share of negativity towards me as a waitress, as well.  I’ve had people dissecting every word I said and correcting every mistake I make in French.  That’s kind of annoying.  I’ve been made fun of by people who ask “Where are you from? You have an interesting accent” and I reply “I’m from Quebec, I just have an English accent”.  Sometimes they start to speak in a funny “English from Quebec” accent in a mocking tone and everyone at the table laughs.  Maybe I just don’t get the joke, though.

The Good

My favorite thing when it comes to the “language barrier” is when there is none and  everyone is understanding.  I’ve had customers who compliment me on my French and say that, besides a few minor mistakes, I speak very well.  Sometimes I ask them questions about the correct way of saying things and they are very happy to help.  I can tell that they greatly appreciate my efforts in trying to communicate properly. Some have said “I’ll speak to you in English while we’re here because I need to practice!”.  Even an English speaking woman asked if I could speak to her in French because she was learning.   Even better is when people are bilingual and you can talk to them in French or in English and it doesn’t matter either way.  That’s what I really love about my coworkers.  Some waiters speak mostly French but can get by very well in English and understand better than they speak, so we carry conversations in both language.  I’ll speak in English and they’ll reply in French.  It’s a win-win situation because everyone understand and everyone can speak in a language they feel more comfortable in.  I absolutely LOVE that we can do that.

Sometimes, I even find myself realizing that some things are better expressed in French.  I love saying “en face de”.  I don’t know why, but the English equivalent “across from” or “in front of” doesn’t quite do it for me.  Some expressions in French are just better suited, and I don’t know why.  Maybe it’s the feeling behind it, or the accent, but it just feels more right. There are even times when I can’t remember English words!  So, I say them in French.  It’s all good, because people understand.  Even stranger is when I take the “French way” of saying things and translate it, literally, into English.  Need an example?  I say “Can you open the lights?”  all because in French you can say “Est-ce que tu peux ouvrir les lumières?”.   “Ouvrir” means “Open”, but I should be saying “Can you turn on the lights?”.  I’m telling you now, that’s probably not going to change.


All in all, I’m proud to say that I can speak two languages.  There is so much shit going on in this province, though, most of which I know nothing about and would like to keep it that way.  There’s too much to get into about this subject and I don’t want to go talking about things I really know nothing about.  But, you need to know that French is the official language of Quebec and there have been many problems and discussions based on this, whether it’s for or against it.  I just wish that everyone could get along and be proud to be living in a province where we have the means and resources to be bilingual.  Why does it have to be “language vs. language”?

How about you? Have you grown up with a language barrier?  Do you speak many languages?

See you tomorrow morning!

Good Morning, Joe

Other posts about Marie’s Thoughts:
The Mathematics of Regret
Would You Eat This Food After Reading The Note Attached To It?
The Spice Of Life
Kids in Restaurants: A Server’s Point of View
Do Not Let the Evil Inherit the Earth
Remember to Tip Your Waitress: a Guide to a Better Dining Experience



16 thoughts on “Frenglish: Living a Bilingual Life

  1. I enjoyed this, Marie. Good for you for getting that cashier job when you did. I am 7th generation French on my father’s side, and I would love to speak French. I will learn one day. Even when I don’t understand a word, I love to hear the language spoken.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Maddie. Gives everyone a little look into my life. It’s funny because I’ve never really talked about this before and the post just kind of came out of me. I find French to be a very difficult language. Mostly because of all the verbs and feminine and masculine pronouns (at least I think that’s what they’re called….I’m terrible with this stuff!).

  2. Your “Murder ball” is like dodge ball here. I used to hide when they played that as I hated being hit with the ball. My sister as an adult actually played on a female adult league! (Until she broke her wrist, that ended that…) I am sad to say I only speak English. I took highschool French and wish I would have stuck with it. I went to Paris after I lost my hubby to have a fun vacation with a girlfriend. We spoke our high school French BADLY, but I must say, people were so kind and would speak English to us. I think they appreciated us trying, or at least the pleasantries were always spoken. My brother taught English in Japan and is fluent in Japanese (his wife is from there) so I am always in awe that they can speak together and teach their kids a second language.

    • I was actually really good at Murderball! I was one of the few girls who could actually catch and throw. The guys were really sweet when it came to getting a girl “out”. They would gently throw it. It was cute, when I look back on it, but I still ran like hell to touch that wall.

  3. Really interesting post! Thanks for sharing. (‘Casheuse’… great word!)

    As an anglophone who teaches French immersion in Ontario, I totally relate to those words you forget how to spell (‘literature’ was a bad one in university).

    I absolutely agree with you about attitudes – we should appreciate each other’s efforts, without fail. I don’t understand why some people have such chips on their shoulders that they would insult someone who IS making the effort. They’re just making themselves look like assholes. Let’s be proud to live in a country where we can learn from each other and we don’t all have to talk alike, n’est-ce pas?

    • Thanks, Dilovely!
      Every time I think of that moment I want to slap my forehead, but then laugh instead. Ah, the things that come out of us when we’re nervous!

      I hate it when people obviously DO NOT want to make the effort. It really irks me. Even if you make a million mistakes in your sentences, it doesn’t matter to me at all. I’m not going to correct you, or laugh. The point is to communicate with people and if you can do that…well what does it really matter?

  4. Marie,
    Tu m’excuseras… J’ai rarement l’opportunité de faire un commentaire en français. Pour moi, ton meilleur billet. Je suis d’une famille francophone, mais j’ai grandi au centre-ville de Montréal, et j’ai fréquenté une école francophone de Westmount. Même si à la maison nous parlions en français, c’était l’anglais partout ailleurs. Quand j’ai décidé de bloguer, j’ai longuement hésité… “My Life, Scripted in Frenglish” a été mon premier tagline. Je pense dans les deux langues, avec ses avantages et ses désavantages… On me demande souvent aussi lorsque je parle français si je suis un anglophone. Voilà ma petite histoire… Merci pour ce billet, Marie.
    Le Clown

    • Thank you so much for the comment, Le Clown. I’ve often wondered what language perfectly bilingual people dream in. Do you speak English or French in your dreams? Does it depend on who you’re talking to? I find, even if I’m dreaming about work, I’ll always be speaking in English.

      Crazy that people would ask if you’re anglophone! From what I’ve seen from you, you seem very well spoken in both languages. Maybe it takes a good ear to know .


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