The Shame of not speaking French in Montreal

Hi readers! Thanks for visiting my blog as I continue to enjoy the rich and vibrant city of Montreal.

Oops, I got my arms backwards! Nice pic taken by friend Naomi.

I wrote two blog postings last week, but decided not to publish either one. They were both about language tensions I’ve experienced in Montreal and how different neighbourhoods seem to differ greatly regarding that. The thing is, I don’t want to focus on that, nor to I want to pull anyone else’s focus to it by describing the situations at length.

What I will mention relates to my main topic of inquiry the past couple of weeks.

One of the varieties of Montreal row houses.

Another variety of Montreal row houses.

It would seem that in the recent past many French speakers were shamed by English speakers. The English tended to hold the top jobs, afforded the most expensive homes, and it was felt or experienced that many of them looked down on the French. Even though French is firmly in place as the first language of Montreal today, there is some hangover from that previous era. That is to say, an English Canadian who speaks French very poorly is not always embraced with enthusiasm.

I know there are many Canadians who feel that Canadians should speak both official languages, whether they need both or not. Feel free to write that on your blog. Here, I’m sharing my perspective. In my life, I have not experienced enough necessity to learn French as to dedicate much resources to it. That is just true. It’s not a personal thing, it’s just not something on which I have chosen to dedicate my focus.

For me, language is a means to communicate. It’s not a status symbol, it’s not a means to judge one person better than another, it’s not a measure of someone’s place in society, it’s neither good nor bad. That fact that learning French has not been a priority in my life doesn’t mean I dislike French, or have any ill-will towards French. I don’t think English is better than French. But, for an international traveller I think it it has to be agreed, English is a very handy bridge-language. In Korea I heard Japanese people speaking to Koreans in English (rather than in Japanese or in Korean); in Thailand I heard Germans speaking to Thais in English (rather than in Thai or in German); in India Indians conversing with other Indians in English rather than learning the over 200 languages in their country alone. (Twenty two of them have more than a million native speakers each.) This happens in many countries and across many cultures around the world. English is a very convenient language to know. So much so, that studying other languages can become less of a priority when one’s interests are multifold. I do not have a fixation with one particular country.

I spent some time in Montreal with a new friend who is a polyglot. It was fun wandering around Chinatown watching people’s reactions to her being a Quebecois who is fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin, among other languages. She is gifted linguistically, and has a strong interest in learning languages. Like most people, we tend to enjoy the things that we are good at (such as one’s interest in music, sports, math. . . ) I put a good effort into learning Japanese when I lived there, but someone with a natural talent may have learned three times what I was able to with the same effort. Music makes natural sense to me, so I pick-up musical things more easily than does someone for whom it is a challenge. We’re simply all different with our strengths and weaknesses. These are not moral issues, there should be no shame involved.

I will make an effort to learn polite greetings as I travel the world, but if I were to focus on learning one language well, it would probably be Spanish, due to it’s usefulness in quite a few countries. Worldwide, there are only about 200 million speakers of French. If I decided to live in Montreal, I would certainly make a push to learn French. But I wouldn’t do it here, I would need to come to Montreal with an intermediate ability to be able to practice it without people immediately replying in English or with rapid-fire French responses I can’t comprehend. Bringing me back to my topic.

I have sometimes experienced shame in Montreal for not being able to speak French. When someone asserts, “You should be able to do this”, that can inspire feelings of, “I’m not good enough.” Especially if that feeling is already lurking just below the surface. This mostly happens when I’m trying to speak French here. What does that do? It makes me stop trying, as to avoid the shame. Instead, it is easier to play the role of ignorant tourist who doesn’t care. That makes it easier not to care. Easier to shrug-off a negative reaction to someone not being fluent.

According to shame researcher Brene Brown, shame is basically the fear of being unlovable. It is more global than guilt. Guilt is about our behaviour – I did something bad. Shame is about who we are – I am bad. And according to Brown, the problem with forcing ourselves to “not care”, is that when we are doing that, we ALSO do not have the ability to fully connect with others. That is what happened to me in Le Village. In the past 7 weeks I’ve made a number of authentic friends who I am grateful to know here in Montreal. Both Francophone and Anglophone. During my four weeks trying to do so daily when staying in the village (which is East), I connected meaningfully with only one Montrealer. I’m very thankful I was able to extend my stay and continue building friendships here from my new location with friends in Outremont.

Shame is a universal emotion experienced by all humans with the exception of sociopaths/psychopaths – those to also do not have the ability to experience empathy. Guilt can serve us purpose – to do better in the future, to make a better choice next time, to not repeat a poor behaviour. Shame does not serve us well so we need to learn the tools of shame resilience.

Wandering around Old Montreal.
Join me next time when I will continue talking about shame resilience and finally deal with the question posed in my last blog post too – what can we do to feel loved and accepted?


A Month in Montreal


Overlooking Rue Ste Catherine in Montreal’s Village. View from the living room window of my one-month rental.


A group of slim, sophisticated women mingle on a outdoor patio (terrasse) in Montreal’s summertime pedestrianised gay district, known as “the village”. Most of them wear muted, tasteful slacks and blouses accented with jewellery. Black and beige the sensible colours of most, two of them punch up the scene with pink and red sun dresses. Their hair is perfect. Too perfect.


A security person silently ushers me to walk past on the other side of a white screen as I approach walking along Rue Ste – Catherine, less than a block from my temporary apartment. The cameras are rolling. A film set or the scene for a television production. The actors, unfamiliar to me, are speaking English.

I cross the street to the Second Cup, which has become my preferred coffee spot after having tried the nearby competition. My apartment overlooks a Starbucks. I do like their coffee but it’s generally my last choice, only in the event that the other options have poor coffee or are uncomfortable.


I practice ordering my coffee in French before leaving the apartment but then am greeted amicably and fluently in English. I’ve been here a few times now so they already know I’m an anglophone. I will need to practice when in more unfamiliar settings. The thing is, I have found more meaning and purpose in having routines in my travels. Meeting people once has it’s charms, but becoming a regular somewhere has a lot more feeling of purpose to me. Trying to fit into a community and have a sense of connection when I visit places for me is so much more interesting than simply viewing the sights, taking photos, and having countless singular experiences. Feeling more like I live somewhere rather than am a tourist is perhaps what distinguishes my travel experiences from others. I’m not saying this is better, but it is what I seek in my own travels. I will long remember daily coming in to this Second Cup. I will not remember the other countless places I stop in one time here and there as I meander around the city. Not in any meaningful way.


I have not written for my blog since I visited New Brunswick in May. I was in a writing groove and then suddenly I wasn’t when I aborted my planned travels for that visit. And then for some reason I’ve felt like what I have to say is not interesting. Perhaps it never was. I know I’m not supposed to say that but it is how I am feeling. Nevertheless, I want to write and I want my writing to lead somewhere, so I need to keep at it whether it’s interesting or not. Because nothing leads to nothing. Something, even if not great, at least leads to something else.

Trying to get my groove back, back in Toronto I took a couple of writing courses that were exactly what I didn’t need. I want to polish and improve my stories. The journalistic rules I learned, when applied to my own writing, made them dull and without humour. I tested it further by applying them to some writing I aspire to. I discovered that even Sedaris stories could be made bland and pointless by blindly applying some formulaic rules learned from a successful journalist. It works for the journalist though. I need to read instructor’s bios more carefully when choosing writing classes in the future. The fill-in-the-blank and use only simple words approach is not what I want to do at all. When drained of all the “non-essential” information, my writing was also drained of all humour, connectedness, and personality. To me it was pointless, I would not share any of what I “achieved” in those courses. Just reading it irritates me. That is what goes in the junk pile.

I have continued to move my life forward having interesting experiences, but I’ve not been able to put them into words yet. The main purpose and meaning of my winter road trip was in the reunions I had with people who have been very dear to me in the past. I didn’t write about those experiences at all. These are the people who fall into the category of lifelong friends.

In my recent past I became very disconnected from most of the people in my life and being reminded that I have these pockets of friends who I love and who love me was very healing. It didn’t just happen, I had to plan it and I also had to step out of my comfort zone to arrive on the doorsteps of friends I had mostly lost contact with. The longest for seventeen years, nearly half my lifetime. I wouldn’t write specifically about my friends, but of my journey and experience of reconnecting. Reconnecting with myself and others.

Now in Montreal for one month I have goals for my time here. The main one is getting my groove back with writing. I will write everyday and hope that sometimes I will write things worth sharing and things to continue working on later. I will continue to work on learning to be connected. With meaningful interactions, by treating others with love, by reaching out to people, by staying in contact with old friends and new. By trying to make good decisions as to where to spend my time and who to spend my time with.

I may share some pics from recent weeks and months on here too. I am going to post weekly again, whether I have anything to say or not. Wish me luck!


View of the film set from inside the Second Cup.


Cameras rolling. I’ve seen this a few times now in the past week. The pedestrianised area of Rue Ste Catherine is very convenient for filming since they don’t need to shut down the street to cars.


The beginning of Montreal’s Pride Parade.


Was she the mascot of Pride perhaps. . . it was an enjoyable parade partially due to the wonderfully wide Boulevard Rene Levesque meant that crowds were not crowded. I’m not comfortable standing still for long and I was able to walk alongside easily which I did with and against the flow of the parade as I watched.


Thank you for visiting Personal Travel Stories! See you next week!