Bound For Quebec? Don't Sweat The Language Barrier

11 July 2015

During weeks of travel in parts of Quebec where few speak much English, I only encountered one problem arising from the language barrier. It happened when I broke into a guy's house.

Following a sign pointing to the tourism office in Dolbeau-Mistassini, I pulled up to the charming building and encountered a man who questioned me in a string of French that my grade-school language class from eons ago had never equipped me to comprehend. I shrugged and went up the stairs into the building.

I entered a tidy kitchen with a bottle of wine on the table, a tipoff that I'd just walked into the man's house. He smiled, sort of. The tourist place was next door.

 At first daunting, the language barrier is soon overcome

Otherwise, I found the tangle of mother tongues to be a non-issue. On both sides of the language divide, it created more good will than frustration.

An inventory of a dozen or two French words will take you a long way in Quebec, even in areas where English is truly foreign. Using those words, even badly, breaks the ice, shows respect for their language, of which Quebecers are fiercely protective, and encourages many to dig deep for whatever English they can speak.

'Burnt toast' is not a personal description

Translation apps can help in one of two ways. Sometimes, they translate effectively. Other times, the results are so goofy that a good time is had by all.

The latter occurred at an inn when I somehow described myself as "burnt toast" using my translation app at a breakfast table with a half-dozen people who knew hardly any English. This caused much amusement.

Several whipped out their smartphones and downloaded the same app so we could all talk sense and nonsense to one another.

On another occasion, a friend gave "I can't speak French" a spirited try in French, without an app. It came out, "I don't want to talk to Frank." More chuckles.

The lesson from both episodes: If you let people laugh at you, they'll soon be laughing with you.

 The signs can be confusing (image: Getty)

Outside multicultural Montreal, a few other sizable cities and the Eastern Townships, a lot of Quebecers don't speak English fluently, if at all.

You're more apt to encounter Europeans than Americans in the whale-watching waters of the Saguenay fjords and St Lawrence River, the bicycle paths of Lac-Saint-Jean and the ski hills of some rural regions, although Americans do come for snowmobiling and other winter play.


Peace aplenty on a Quebec river. Pick Your Peace On A Quebec River

Get to know the Paris of the North. Historic Montreal


Here are a dozen whales and even more Italians

On my river outing from Tadoussac, I spotted a dozen whales and even more Italians. The Lac-Saint-Jean area, which includes Dolbeau-Mistassini, is almost entirely French-speaking.

To be sure, American TV gives people a taste of English. More than a few bilingual Quebecers said that's how they got their start with the language.

At a Catholic hermitage near Lac Saint-Jean, the Franciscan Capuchin friar Sylvain Richer told me he grew up saying, "Beam me up, Scotty." At a tourism office in Saint-Pascal in eastern Quebec, a man named Christian said the first English words he learned were "Come on down!" thanks to Bob Barker on The Price is Right.

Quebec has strict laws supporting the primacy of French and the effect of them is immediately apparent to Americans driving across the border. They are suddenly seeing signs in French only.

Canada's ubiquitous Tim Hortons coffee shops go by the same name but KFC is PFK, for Poulet Frit Kentucky. Highway signs and road hazard warnings are French-only, too, which can make navigating Montreal an adventure.

Translation apps don't excuse home invasions

Any English-speaking traveller's little French inventory should include words for compass points (nord, est, sud and ouest) and for other boilerplate such as 'exit' — sortie — or they'll soon get lost. GPS is a big assist. (On my iPhone, Yahoo maps and directions usually worked in remote areas when Google maps didn't.)

As for translation apps, Google's free one and the free version of Frommer's seemed roughly equal in instant translation. Neither offers Quebec French, but the French of France is close enough.

 Yes, we are open for business (image: Getty)

With an app — and when you have a digital signal — words spoken into the phone will be quickly translated and spoken back, or typed, translated and displayed on the screen. Neither is going to help you much when you commit a home invasion and can't perform fancy linguistic footwork to save your skin.

But in addition to instant translation when you're online, Frommer's stores a limited selection of basic words and phrases for offline use and Google makes it easy to add your own in advance so you can pull them up in a jiffy. Even without a signal, Frommer's will tell you how to say "sorry."

But when it comes to something like "I thought this was the tourist office," or, "You're Canadian so I'm thinking you don't have a gun on you, correct?" you're on your own. I was, anyway.


Visit your local Flight Centre store or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to Quebec.


This article was written by Calvin Woodward from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

Calvin Woodward

Calvin Woodward is one of The Associated Press's lead writers and accountability reporters.