Montreal code-switching

Natalie Lark

Like most other North American cities, if you wander down the streets of Montreal and through its neighborhoods, you will hear most of the languages of the world spoken and brought to the city by immigrants.

However, Montreal offers a particular twist to linguistic diversity in urban areas by the number of native-born speakers using two languages in their day-to-day lives (French and English), while the immigrants can use three or more languages. So, this final post is dedicated to my favorite topic called code-switching in Montreal, in which I am about to discuss the reasons of code-switching mentioned in the textbook and based on my own observations.

Montreal is a city that I have lived in and fallen in love at first sight or since the moment I landed in Canada and stepped on Canadian soil. This city attracts thousands of tourists and visitors by its authenticity, beauty of the architecture, nature, and the most important, by the friendliness of people living here. Nowadays, Montreal represents an unusual language dynamic in North America which has its roots in a colonial past and a history of language contact between two communities: Anglophones and Francophones. Surprisingly, despite the growing bilingualism and multilingualism, which I mentioned in my previous post, very little attention has gone to how Montrealers communicate in their everyday lives. For example, if you live in the downtown of Montreal, you can hear mostly English spoken by everyone working or living there, but if you take a few steps towards the east of St. Catherine Street, you will notice that in the eastern part of the city, Anglophones don’t live at all, whereas the majority of population is predominantly French, but they can speak and understand English, if it’s necessary. Code-switching was defined by Van Herk as a language switching process happening subconsciously or on purpose to better understand the interlocutor.

But why do Montrealers code-switch?

On the basis of my own observations, I would like to point out the following reasons of code-switching in Montreal: a) to show respect to a speaker or interlocutor, b) to express emotions, c) to laugh at someone, d) to demonstrate bilingualism, e) to understand the content of the conversation, etc.

These days Montreal differs from other Canadian or North American cities by its bilingualism, multilingualism and code-switching. I remember my first week of living in Montreal was full of confusion about the languages used in the city, and the way people communicate.

For instance, my first visit to the grocery store Metro, located on Boulevard de Maisonneuve, where I went to purchase a detergent, turned out to be quite an unpleasant and bizarre experience for me, as a newly arrived immigrant actually, because the cashier, a woman in her fifties, couldn’t speak English, while I didn’t understand Quebec accent at that time. So, I remember asking her multiple times where I can find a liquid to do the laundry, and she kept telling me:“On ne parle pas anglais ici, au Québec.” First, I was stressed, then, I became embarrassed, and afterwards, I was so mad that she didn’t want to help me to buy what I needed. Finally, I left the store swearing in English… The next day, I went to the downtown of Montreal, to the grocery store called IGA looking for the same thing, a detergent for clothes, and you can’t image how surprised I was, when everybody spoke English and French. I was completely shocked. At that store, two shop assistants helped me to find the detergent, and they were code switching all the time talking to me and each other because one of them was Anglophone, while the other one was Francophone, that’s what I understood during our conversation.

In conclusion, in Montreal code-switching has actually become an inevitable process of all bilingual or multilingual residents of the city as it’s just the way Montrealers got used to communicate with each other. Also, a lot of Francophones use English to express their surprise or anger when they discuss something important or funny, while Anglophones use French to emphasize the meaning of some words or expressions. Moreover, allophones, everyone whose first language is neither French nor English, speak at least three languages, and they also code-switch for the following reasons: first, because it’s the manner of communication in Montreal; second, because they want to speak English and French in public; third, they can use their first language in addition to English and French to support the confidentiality of their conversation.

Finally, I believe that code-switching is an excellent communicative tool for all Montrealers, because there is so much to be gained in using people’s language awareness which could contribute to everyone’s understanding of the social world.



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