Nomads Adapt

I seriously underestimated the disorienting effect of being surrounded by a language I don’t speak, don’t understand.

Because the friends we’re staying with speak perfect English (despite conducting much of their life in French) I assumed this part of Quebec would by like my experience in Ireland: everyone could speak Irish, but everyone also spoke English, often as their first language.


Brush up on your French before you visit Quebec. You can find English; there are, I’m told, towns nearby where everything is in English. Just not here. Road signs, labels in the grocery store, even the ‘Open’ sign on the door (if Ouvert means ‘Open’, as I assumed) is in French, with English added almost as an afterthought.

From the age of 8 I lived in California, nearly always in San Diego. Everything was bilingual there, too. English first, then Spanish, often spelled wrong or using bad grammar. (For years, decades, perhaps, the signs in the bathrooms said Lave Sus Manos which would be like seeing a sign tell an English speaker to Wash You Hands; it should, as an Spanish-speaker knows, read Lavese Las Manos; there was a parody adventure show on one of the radio stations where the bad guy was the notorious Lave Sus Manos, so dangerous his name was posted in every bathroom in the state.)

At least here, the English is correct. It’s just smaller. Underneath the French. Not where I expect it.

And that’s what’s wrong. Clearly it’s not wrong for folks in what is legally a bilingual country to speak two languages. (Yet another aside: what do you call someone who speaks many languages? A polyglot. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks only one language? An American.)

What’s wrong is, as is often the case, my expectations. Had I kept my eyes and ears open; had I allowed for the possibility that reality might not perfectly mirror the image in my head, I might have spent a little time learning a few phrases of conversational French; I might have planned for an experience I’ve already had before when we moved to San Diego and thereafter spent lots of time in Mexico where my father worked, surrounded by a language I knew even less than I know French today.

My Spanish is okay; as a kid, we spoke Spanish at home quite a bit ’cause Dad was too tired to switch over after a long day of conducting business in Spanish. I’ve lost and remembered it twice over the decades. It helps with reading French. It also helps that I used to read the etymologies in my Dad’s giant Webster’s as a kid so I’m familiar with the Latin origins of much of the English and Spanish and French languages.

But I still feel like a fish out of water; un poisson sortie de l’eau. Which is literal; even Cristina doesn’t know French colloquialisms. I’ll have to ask Fred what the locals say.

About a hundred times a day, I’ll have to ask what the locals say.


  1. Hi Joel,
    Great subject to write about. I am from The Netherlands and nobody in the world speaks Dutch. So, we every time we move across our border we are surrounded by a different language. More than that, as soon as we receive tourists, it starts. So, we learn languages and speak them.
    Nice to see someone put into words what is our reality.

  2. Well I think I did mention that the French was first on signs in Quebec and the English smaller (if at all)…:-)

    And now that I think about it, I forgot to teach you my number one rule about foreign languages – learn all the swear words first so you know if the locals are swearing at you! For reference, a lot of the French Canadian swear words deal with the church – chalice (pronounced “coal-lease”) , tabernacle (pronounced “tabber-nack”), and the host (pronounced “ostie” or “ess-tea). Sheesh – wikipedia does a better job here:

  3. You did indeed. Clearly, you thought a) I was listening or b) I believed you or c) all of the above.

    Monty Python should perform that Wikipedia entry.

    Hilde, I notice you’re in Spain now, is that right? Your English is much better than my Dutch (which is non-existent.) How’s your Spanish?

  4. Bonjour,

    Les Canadiens d’ouest ecoutent le Francais Parisienne. Une insulte a les Quebecoise, je pense. Le pays n’est pas de bilingue vrai.

  5. Pretty witty, Caitlyn.

    Yes, the locals hear my French lessons online and they wrinkle their noses and say, oh, Parisian French, sort of like they found a fly in their soup.

    We’ve met folks who’ve lived here for decades and don’t speak a word of French; one chap who was born here said he still feels out of place since he speaks absolutely no French . . . not even Quebecoise ;)

  6. Joel, are those people STARING at you in French too? Never go out without a croissant to defend yourself. Interesting post—I’ll wager in the days to come, you’ll start to pick up on some of the language cues, because you’re language (and communication) conscious.

    Now go wash you hands.

  7. Oh, they stare in French. Fred and Cristina’s littlest one, who’s 2, glares at me in French, but I can always make her laugh in English (sometimes, by pretending to speak French.)

    A few nights ago Fiona decided to start teaching Ninian to one of her new friends. Since it’s her made-up language from the made-up island of Ninia, it was interesting to listen to . . .

  8. Ah, but Joel you do speak some Dutch (you just don’t know it):

    sleigh (you may need this one, judging by the weather in your other post).

  9. Astounding. I would have missed all those.

    Day after tomorrow we begin the 4-week trek back to places where ‘sloop’ and ‘buoy’ are much more likely . . . but, I hope, not pump.

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