Even if you don't understand a word of French, it is a good idea to learn a few key phrases before you go to Montreal. Almost everyone there speaks English, but as a matter of good manners it is a good idea to greet people in French and then ask politely if they speak English. A simple, "Bonjour, Madame, parlez-vous Anglais?" will do.
So you ask yourself, "Should I learn french if I want to get by in Montreal?" Honestly? It all depends on what area you're staying in. You have to understand that french is the first official language in Quebec and alot of residents feel strongly about that. As alot of people have already mentioned, it's a good idea to know at least the basics if you want locals to be friendly to you.
If you're staying on the Island, especially Downtown, you can definately get by on little to no french. We do love our tourists and try to acommodate as much as possible. The further you get away from the island the more french becomes a neccessity, rather than a common courtesy. In certain areas on the south shore like longueuil and most of the eastern townships there's about a 60% chance you'll run into someone who doesn't speak a lick of english or will pretend they don't at least.:P do yourself a favor and learn at least a little of the language. it'll save you the trouble and embarrassment of gesticulating wildly and speaking slowly and loudly when you ask someone for directions or advice that doesn't speak any english:P
Even if you just smile a lot and say "Oui, oui", your effort at the language will be appreciated. It shows that you're not just a tourist in a "nosy" sense of the word. It shows that you're willing to try things their way. Most of them speak English, but some of them -- take the housekeepers in the hotels -- don't speak any English at all, so it would be good to learn their language, even if it's just the basics.
If you will only stay in Montreal, it is not necessary to learn any French. Although it is very appreciated and you will be treated a bit better, you can get around by speaking english. Outside the island, either on the south shore or north shore, there will be more french but important buildings such as hotels and restaurants often require their employees to speak english. You might have more difficulty in local small business like grocery stores. Finally, the important thing to remember is that the further away you go from Montreal, the more difficulty you will have if you do not speak French.
If the red octogon isn't obvious enough, "Arrêt" is the French word for "Stop".
Apparently the province of Quebec is the only place in the world where they have translated the word "Stop" on stop signs into French. That's saying something. In fact, though some may argue otherwise, I see the stop sign in Quebec as a bold political statement by francophone quebecers... and fair enough!
Quebec is a place where culture is synonymous with language. That is to say, they see themselves as a distinct society because of their French language. There is a fear that without fierce protection of the French language, English will ravish the province and French will wither way. The French language *is* Quebec, and to deny this is to deny the Quebecois people their culture. Without the French language, there is no Quebecois culture.
Some may have heard stories about the "language police", a body of government who enforce rules about how French and English should be displayed in public. For example, the French language must appear more dominant on signs than English. So French text might appear 2-3 if not 10 times as large on signs in Quebec than English... if there is even any English at all. After all, Quebec is the paradox in the so-called bilingual country of Canada. Quebec's provincial government only recognizes French as their official language.
Other examples of what you may see - an apostrophe followed by the letter "S" is an English phenomenon, not a French one, so "McDonald's" or "Tim Horton's" must legally change their names to satisfy the francophone public.
English speakers are known to laugh at this or take offence to this. Yet, if the roles were reversed - if the world was increasingly French-speaking and we were 9 million North American English speakers in a sea of 330 million French speakers, would we be translating our stop signs into our own language to preserve what self-identifying culture we had left?
I've worked in the tourist biz in old montréal for the last six years and I can assure you that you will have little difficulty getting around most parts of montréal, with very little or no knowleadge of french.
Nobody here expects american or european tourists to speak french. This being said, a minimal attempt is always appreciated. Most people, after hearing your honest but clumsly attempt to speak the language will save you further embarrasement by politely switching to english. (This can be quite a problem for people who actually want to learn french :)
This being said, if you encounter someone whose knowledge of english is minimal or non existant DO NOT get upset and start complaining. This is considered quite disrespectful and will get you angry glares from others who may have offered help.
It's important to remember that for french people any attempt to speak french is important. Even if you don't know very much and your grammar's not great speaking badly is still more appreciated than speaking in english.
~I speak and understand French pretty good and was looking forward to trying out my second language...I was quite disappointed to discover that 'Bonjour' and 'Merci' were the extent required of my French vocabulary.
~The only plus of knowing the language is that when the French talk about you "behind your back" the joke's really on them! (Yes, it happened to me and several people I was with.)
~Finally, never assume that because someone is only speaking French, they don't understand what you're saying in English. I'm not trying to generalize all French people, but a great number of them can understand english but won't tell you- so don't be fooled!
~The bottom line is this: you don't need to know a word of French to visit Montreal!
I find that English is a more common language in Montreal than French. Maybe it's to accommodate all the tourist (3rd most profitable industry in Quebec...after Maple Syrup and hockey??..not sure about the hockey one.) HAHAHA
Though it is nice to start off the conversation with a lil Bonjour, Bonsoir, Salut...etc and work my way down to using my highschool French as much as I can. heheheh
You have to know that in Québec province, the official languages are french and english. BUT, in Québec province, there is around 8 millions of people. In Montréal, we are 2 millions. So, out of Montréal, everyone speaks french, it is only in the metropolis that some people speaks english. So, wherever you are (on the street, in a museum etc), ask in french first the question you need answer at. It makes us smile and more friendly. As if you are in Italy and you try to speak italian (even if you are not good at), in Québec province we appreciate when you try more french. ;-)
Even just Bonjour and Merci, Bonne journée etc.
Even if most of the Montrealers are bilingual, you should learn some basic words in the official language: French. Because of the political situation of Québec, some persons may be a little colder to you if you accost them only in English... So, my advice is: have a try! Nobody will mind if you only know 'bonjour' or 'merci'. An effort is always welcome with a huge smile :)
I was really surprised when I realized the most part of the population speaks french. The french culture is really part of this city, the most european city from all North America. I was only disappointed by the rare museums and historic places dedicated to the american natives.
Anyway, I recommend to visit the Musee d´archeologie et d´historie de Montreal.
Try to speak french with the locals. They'll appreciate the effort. In the winter, dress warm. This city is more about warmth than style in the freezing temps. Here, Martine, Jess, and I bundle up for a walk around the city.
To the vast majority of people here French is the first language, not English. But the vast majority, especially those who work in service industry, do speak English. If you are coming from the US, this definitely feels like a foreign country.
Even though Canada is a bilingual country, english is not allways understood. you have to know basic freench to get around.
If you only speak french you are well off. not everyone speaks english. but everyone speaks french