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A very interesting French-language experience in Anglophone regions of Canada (#270)

This post is for Anglophone Canadians who are seeking ways to speak more French in Anglophone regions in Canada.

For those of you who are learning French, or who are trying to integrate a bit more of our country’s Francophone culture into your own life, this post might help to offer new avenues to expand your horizons, meet people and improve your French speaking and listening skills.

The French reality of my own background

To give you a bit of context, I’ll tell you a bit about how this fits into my own background.

Owing to decisions my parents took when I was still an infant, I was chosen to be one of the first “guinea-pigs” for the new “early-development immersion programs” in Western Canada.

When I was 3 years old, I was placed in the early pre-school immersion experiment.   Since then, my life has been a fairly even split between French and English:  Friends, school, work, and many other aspects of life.  Because of this, I have always considered myself both Francophone and Anglophone.

During my younger years, school (and school friends/peers) were key to this duality – regardless if I was living in British Columbia or Alberta.

Later in life, my Francophone university, friendships, Francophone communities in which I lived (in Western Canada, Eastern Canada, and also abroad) all played into this duality.  Over the course of years, I held numerous occupations which were sometimes 80% or more in French.

The challenge of living in French in Anglophone-dominant cities across Canada

It can be easier to have French interactions in certain Canadian Anglophone cities versus others.   Some cities have “Francophone districts” – complete with Francophone stores, social activities, universities and services.   Edmonton (Alberta) has a Francophone district, Bonnie Doon.  Winnipeg has St. Boniface.   Moncton’s downtown core is very bilingual (and Dieppe is a French-dominant district).  And of course, Ottawa-Gatineau has numerous French-dominant regions and is quite bilingual in and of itself.

However, most other Anglophone cities across Canada do not have a prima facie Francophone districts or quarters.

I left Canada for a number of years for work.  But when I returned to Canada, I moved to the very Anglophone city of Toronto.  Toronto is the first major Canadian city I have ever lived in with does not have a Francophone quarter, district, or a district with a French-only University.

This has presented me with a new challenge:  How to meet others in French.  This is the first time I have ever had this explicit challenge.

In the year and a half that I have lived in Toronto, I think I have encountered many of the “language challenges” which other people across Anglophone Canada regularly encounter when they seek to incorporate more French into their own lives.

I’ll explain…

Toronto’s Golden Horseshoe

The high-density, urbanized region named the Golden Horseshoe (the region around Toronto) has over 10 million people — which makes is the third largest urban agglomeration north of Mexico (it recently overtook Chicago, and is now third behind New York and Los Angeles).

Golden Horseshoe

According to statistics Canada (2011), this region has over 100,000 Francophones who have French as their first language.   This gives the Golden Horseshoe region the third largest Francophone population outside Québec (behind Acadia, and Ontario as a whole).

Again, according to statistics Canada (2011), there are 541,271 bilingual people who speak both French and English in the Golden Horseshoe.   This makes the region the second largest bilingual region in Canada, outside of Montréal.

However, unlike Montréal (in which most linguistic minorities and bilingual speakers are centred around the downtown core) those who speak French in the Toronto-Hamilton Golden Horseshoe region tend to be evenly spread over a vast urban region which takes over two hours to drive across at full freeway speed (at 120 kms/hour – from Bowmanville in the East to St-Catherines in the South).

This makes it challenging to meet people who also speak French when French speakers are evenly spread over such a large urban region.  Toronto and the Golden Horseshoe do not have a “French District”, per se.   Granted, I hear more French being spoken in downtown Toronto than other regions, but it is not enough to say that the downtown core is “French”.

The real challenge arises when there is no way to know whether or not the person you pass in the street, or the store you pass on the sidewalk speaks French.

Similar situations exist in other English-dominant cities across Canada such as Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatoon, St. John’s and Halifax.

A fascinating solution to speaking, living and interacting in French in English-dominant regions of Canada

I found a great “solution” with which to meet others who speak French, and thus evening out one’s social life in Anglophone Canadian cities.   I can tell you that this little trick has surpassed anything I could have expected.  If you live in an Anglophone dominant city in Canada, you too may be very interested in this.

Quite by accident, I came across an online listing of French, Francophone and Francophile “Meet-ups” in the Greater Toronto area.   These “meet-ups” are generally socializing groups – sometimes in cafés, sometimes in bars, and other times in restaurants.  They are basically random social “drop-ins” in which everyone and anyone is welcome.  The common language is French.  It is an opportunity to meet new people from all walks of life, share a beer, share a meal, and make new friends.

How good of an “in” are these meet-ups?

I was completely caught off guard when I came across these meet-ups.  I was even more caught off guard when I saw them with my own eyes.

There are so many “meet-ups”; one every two to three days in Toronto alone.   They are spread throughout the whole Greater Toronto Area (GTA).   Three of the meet-ups regularly take place within a 10 minute drive of where I live, and one within a 10 minute walk.   There are so many in fact, that it would be rare that anyone in the GTA would be far from at least one of them.

In total, there are

  • 37 separate French meet-up groups across the GTA with approximately 8700 membres registered online.
  • Organizers tell me they estimate that the real number of “attendees” (those who come to the meet-ups, but who have not registered online to receive emails) is three times this amount, or 30,000 attendees.
These are large numbers!

(You can count for yourself in the “members” listings online — I’ll give you the link a bit further down)

Out of curiosity, over a month ago I attended one meetup in Markham (in the Northeast of the Golden Horseshoe).   It was held at a restaurant.  Some people ordered food.  Others ordered drinks.   There were 15 other people.   Perhaps half were originally from Québec, but who have lived in Toronto for more than 10 to 20 years.  The other half were a mix (Franco-Ontarians, Acadians, and Anglophones who speak French).    I have since kept in contact with a couple of people from that meet-up.

A week later I attended another meet-up in a restaurant in North York (physically located in the middle of the Greater Toronto Area).   Almost 40 people attended.   This one was more than a pleasant surprise.   Over half of the attendees were French-English bilingual first-generation immigrants… mostly Chinese, Indian, some East-Europeans, and some Iranians.   These are not Francophone countries – but yet these people were fully embracing Canada’s bilingual nature.   It was great!  The other attendees were a mix of bilingual Anglophones, Francophones from elsewhere in Canada, and from other Francophone countries (France, Belgium, Switzerland, Mauritius, and Africa).

In the subsequent two weeks, I attended two additional events downtown, one in a pub, the other in the bar of a well-known hotel.   One event had around 90 people (mostly Francophones from Ontario, Québec and other Francophone countries – as well as a good number of fully bilingual Anglophones and first-generation immigrants).   Another event had over 170 people – with much of the same mix as the last event.

Last week, I attended a meet-up brunch in a restaurant, and met more people.  We were a good mix: Franco-Ontarians, Anglophones, Francophones from Québec, from France, and first-generation immigrants.


Not sure why I’m sticking out my tongue… but whatever.  Bad angle + lots of tongue = bad pic 😉
IMG_8988 IMG_8994

And the results?

One word:  unbelievable (I’m still shaking my head in semi-disbelief).

I only set out to perhaps meet a couple of people with whom to have a beer with from time to time (I value a bit of a French/English balance in my life).   I exchanged phone numbers and emails with just a few people.

But since having attended only a few of these meet-ups in the last five weeks, I have received,

  • 4 emails from individuals I met, inviting me to go for drinks after work or on the weekend (a couple of which I have taken up on their offer),
  • At least a dozen phone calls and SMS from other individuals inviting me for drinks, to dinner at restaurants, or to a dinner in their home with their families,
  • An invitation for brunch with another family and their friends (which I attended last weekend),
  • An invitation from three people to go camping in a couple of weeks,
  • An invitation to go kayaking with a couple of other people who have kayaks (like me),
  • A tentative offer from someone as a potential travel buddy to check out Gaspésie and Acadia this summer.

5 weeks, four meet-ups, and… well… holy crap!!

If you wish to find meet-ups in your own neighbourhood
The website where I found these meet-ups is http://www.meetup.com/fr/.

When you open the site,

  1. type “FRENCH” on the left side,
  2. choose a 100km radius
  3. enter your city


It will give you a list of many different French meet-up groups.


I checked other French meet-ups in a few other Anglophone cities across Canada which also do not have French districts.  Here is some of what I found:

  • Victoria, British Columbia: One large meet-up group, 402 members
  • Vancouver, British Columbia: 13 meet-up groups, 6278 members
  • Calgary, Alberta: 2 large meet-up groups, 1378 members.
  • Halifax, Nova Scotia: 1 large meet-up group, 593 members.

That’s almost 10,000 registered members in just these four cities alone — more than enough of an opportunity to meet others who speak French, and improve your language skills. (If the groups have more than 3 times the amount of unregistered members, like in Toronto, the numbers could very well be over 30,000 in these four cities as well).

And the last word?

It boggles my mind that a chunk of people in the sovereignist camp continue to say that French is dead outside of Québec.

On the contrary… I think with the advent of the internet and all the connections which can be forged, the net has basically become a “virtual French city”.  Things are taking off like we have never ever seen in the history of the country.  These sorts of opportunities to meet people, socialize and live in French have never been as easy to find as they are now.

I would even dare to say that this new meet-up movement is more effective and more efficient than traditional French communities were.   I say this in the sense that all of these people are out to meet others in a safe, public group environment – in cafés, restaurants and bars.   At least you can target your efforts for immediate results.

Combined with the massive French Immersion movement  (a good number of fully bilingual Anglophones I met at the meet-ups were products of the Immersion program), and what seemingly appears to be a good deal of interest on the part of first-generation immigrants towards Canada’s French fact… I would say things are looking pretty good as to the overall direction of things, and the interest in Canada’s French fact.  Wouldn’t you?

Anyway… I’ve been invited out for supper tonight with a small group of people I met at one of the meet-ups.   So I have to run!


Addendum:  2015-07-13

I went to the Mississauga Meet-up out of curiosity the other evening, and I found it to be one of the more interesting (and most “mixed”) groups.   Although it only had about 30 – 40 attendees, people were from everywhere in Canada (des Franco-Manitobains, une personne d’Abitibi, Franco-Ontariens, Acadiens, de gens de Québec et de Montréal, un Franco-colombien, une Fransaskoise, des Francophones d’origine de Toronto, Anglophones who are very fluent in French, Anglophones who want to improve their French, business people, government workers, white collar, blue collar, a good mix of women and men… a very nice and diverse mix – all with beer, wine, jokes, interesting conversations and a lot of laughs!!).

The irony…

It has been a few weeks since I started to go to the meet-ups… and ironically, I now am thinking I have to make an effort to make “Anglophone” friends to do things in English.  Considering all the people I have met through the meet-ups, and the social activities which have stemmed from it (camping, movies, boating, fishing, restaurants, day-trips & travelling – all in French, etc), it seems like my social life in and around Toronto is now more in French than English.

Perhaps I should look for English meet-up groups now to re-balance!  Hahaha!!!


The use of “VOUS” versus “TU” — in CANADA – Post 2 of 2 (#269)

The last post provided an introduction and the EUROPEAN guide and tips to using tu and vous.   This post will give you tips to the CANADIAN use of tu and vous”.

The CANADIAN & QUÉBEC use of Tuand Vous

For those who are learning French and who may not be comfortable with our use of tu and vous, I would wholeheartedly say that you cannot go wrong by using William Alexander’s guide (above) until you become more comfortable with Canada’s and Québec’s unique usage.

In effect, the difference is not as large as you would think.  Even on this side of the ocean, people sometimes find themselves in situations where they judge it better to play it safe by using vous.

I will say this upfront:

When in doubt, it is always better to address someone with vous”.  You can always transition to tu at a later time if feel the situation calls for it.

However, it can be awkward if you tutoie someone, only to later discover that it may have been more appropriate to address the person with vous.

As a beginner to French, when in doubt, follow what others do.   When others are not around, you can always use vousto be safe (until you become culturally aware with our nuances of when to use tu).

On the bright side, if you do make a mistake (either way), don’t sweat it.   Native French speakers are more than used to the notion that this is not always a cut-and-dry matter, especially for second-language French speakers – and people always cut you more slack than what you realize (ie: people generally don’t sweat the small stuff 🙂 ).

If it makes you feel any better, even I had a very recent “mess-up” of my own.  I have a business in a field where people often tutoie (use tu).   Almost all of my Canadian & Québec business acquaintances address me with tu, right from the beginning.   But I usually wait for them to first use tu before I use tu with them (ie:  I will first address them with vous – unless they are younger).

Recently contacted a new business acquaintance for the first time.   I called the person by his first name (which is standard practice in my field), yet I used vous a few times.  However, out of habit, a few tu inadvertently slipped into what I was saying.   This new acquaintance obviously noticed that I called him by his first name, and that I inadvertently slipped in a few tu.

I know he noticed because he made a firm point of calling me monsieur(with added emphasis).  This was his way of sending me a stern signal that (1) he was not willing to have me call him anything but monsieur, and (2) there is no way he would allow a tutoiment (the use of tu).   We have been on a monsieur” / “vous ever since (and now there is no chance of making an error).    But yet 85% of any of my other business encounters in similar situations have either mutually started off as “tu”, or quickly moved to a tutubasis.

What are the CANADIAN rules?

The rules on this side of the Atlantic are not so cut and dry.   William Alexander’s European rules (from the last lost) can serve as a foundation from which we can branch out and make adjustments.

The following scenarios mostly apply if you are an adult speaking to another adult (someone over 18 or 20).

Eminent positions:

Like in Europe, “vous” is generally used on this side of the Atlantic to address people in eminent positions (Prime ministers, premiers, government ministers, mayors, police chiefs, CEOs, high ranking officials, etc.).  I’ll leave it up to you to decide what is an eminent position.  But when in doubt, revert to vous“.

“(Considerably) older strangers”

Older strangers are addressed as “vous” in Europe. But on this side of the Atlantic, there is much more wiggle room.  In that sense, I personally use vous, unless I’m engaging in a regular joint activity with that older person for the purpose of a mutual goal or pastime.

Example 1:

I, and many others, will often feel comfortable using tu with an older stranger when playing tennis, hockey, if engaged in a social club, a motorcycling club, a discussion group, if we met in a camp ground or boating activity, etc.   These are all circumstances which have brought us together through mutual interest, and in this sense, we’re “peers through interest”, regardless of age.

Example 2: 

However, if I encounter someone considerably older in a happenstance situation (ie: I have to ask a considerably older stranger or senior citizen a question in the middle of the street, I will use vous.   Other people may use tu, and they may be able to get away with it, but it just sounds more polite and respectful to use vous (a little more politeness in this world is always a good thing).

When deciding to use vousor tu to address an older person, you should look at the overall situation.  If you have met under random circumstances, and both of you are not engaged in the same common activity, you should ask yourself the following question:  Would I hold the door for this person if both of us were entering a building at the same time?

If the answer is “yes”, then I’d recommend you’d use “vous” (I personally hold the door for others, especially for the elderly, for those in need of assistance, and just to be a nice guy – even though other people may not).

Another good question to ask might be:  Would I give up my subway or bus seat for this person?  If the answer is “yes” (and I do hope there are numerous circumstances under which you would be polite enough to give up your seat to others), then you should use vousto be polite.


This brings me to an interesting point…

If you are strangers (regardless of age), and you are polite enough to hold the door for such a person in regular circumstances, then just use “vous”.

General Rule of thum:  

Strangers + you’d hold the door for them under any other circumstance = Vous.  Pretty simple, isn’t it.


Formal and semi-formal situations / activities:

This is less clear.   The use of vous” depends on how formal the activity is, and who you are addressing.   But there are some rough questions you could ask yourself when judging whether or not to use tuor vous.  Your choice of tu” or vous” will be based on a COMBINATION of answers to the questions below.

(I cannot stress enough that you have to look at a COMBINATION of factors which all fall on a SLIDING SCALE).

  • How badly do you want something from this person?


  • What is the degree of knowledge / expertise / power / social standing of the person who you are addressing?


  • What is the other person’s social and profession standing as opposed to you?


  • What is the degree of formalness of the environment in which you are interacting?


  • Have you ever met your interlocutor in person, or only on the phone or by letter?


  • Do you work closely together for a common goal?


  • Do you often see this person?


  • Does the other person tend to keep their distance from you (either physically or figuratively because of rank), regardless if you perhaps see them often enough?


  • Is your interlocutor a friend, a near-level peer, near-level colleague – by way of age, job, or role?


  • Is your interlocutor speaking Joual with you and others around you instead of more formal French?

    (And are you conversely comfortable addressing your interlocutor in Joual?)  Note:  This is an excellent indicator which often sets the tone for using tu” instead of vous“.  


All of the above are major factors which can play into whether or not you would use tu or vous”.   They are all on a sliding scale which is libel to change based on the situation in which you find yourself.

Generally speaking, in Québec and elsewhere in Canada, unless you are speaking with a stranger, you could start off with the loose assumption that there would be perhaps a 60% – 70% chance you would use “tu”.

But for strangers, remember the “door holding rule”.   If you’re polite enough to hold he door, then you should be polite enough to use “vous” (a natural reflex).

Before taking the plunge to move towards “tu”, first take into account all of the above factors and adjust your assumption accordingly.


You want to order a drink in a bar = Tu.

You are in an informal environment.  There is no power-play situation, no social standing issues, no professional issues, and you’re in close proximity with the person.

You want to order a meal in a high-end, pricey restaurant = Vous”.

You and the waiter/waitress are in a very formal environment.  The waiter/waitress likely has a professional knowledge of the gourmet dishes and is expected to act in a very profession manner (which you would naturally reciprocate), and they are catering to you at a non-peer level.

If the restaurant is middle-of-the-road, some people may say tu”, whereas others may say vous”.

If you are not sure if the restaurant is formal or not, a good measure might be the formality of the language used by the waiter / waitress.  If they use Joual or informal French, that can be a good measure if you are in a tuor vous” environment.

You call a government call-centre = Vous”.

There is physical distance between you and the other person.   The person is expected to render a service in a formal, professional maner.  You have never seen the person before.

  • You ask a grocery store clerk to help you locate a specific item = Perhaps 60% of people would say “tu”, whereas perhaps 40% would say “vous”.

The setting is quite informal, fast-pace, and transitory.   You’re not expecting much from this person, thus the importance of the interaction is greatly diminished.  It is not an interaction based on a requirement of deep knowledge or education.  There are no-power dynamics, and thus you could both be peers in another life.

If you chose to say “vous”, it is because you desire to “up” your standard of speech a little.  (On a personal note:  I mostly say vous out of politeness, especially if I really want this person’s help.  But I would say tu if the clerk is younger than me, or if the clerk addresses me with a tu).

You are a client meeting with your lawyer / doctor over some issue (and you do not normally see your lawyer / doctor on a regular basis) = Vous”.

You definitely need something important from this person, and it is on a basis which requires a great deal of education on the part of the person with whom you are engaging.   Your interlocutor is a professional, in a professional setting, and they have a prestigious social standing.

You are the lawyer / doctor, and you are speaking with your client = “Vous”.

If you are in a position / role which is going to lead your client to address you as “vous”, then you should do the same.   It is a mutual, two-way street.   This also goes for other types of professional positions you may be in, such as a civil servant rendering services to the public, an accountant, a dentist, etc.

However, there are exceptions.   If there will be continuous meetings in a short period of time, and in which both sides will have to share honest and frank personal thoughts and impressions (such as a real-estate agent and their client), tu” may be perfectly acceptable.

You are in a bank = It depends.

If I go to the same bank on a constant basis, I may use “tu” with the clerks because I know full well that they know (or at least can see from my file) that I am a regular customer.

However, if I am with a teller who I do not know very well, or if I have a meeting (especially a first meeting) with the bank manager or loan officer, I would use vous(but I would not be surprised if we might transition to tuafter a couple of meetings… it is case by case).

You are a patient talking to a dental assistant, or you are a dental assistant talking to a patient (ie: the dental assistant is spending a good deal of time with you, working in your mouth also) = “vous” or tu”.

This is sort of interesting because you would likely use vous” if you were speaking to the dentist him or herself.

But because both you and the dental assistant are both “under” the higher positioned “vousvoied” dentist, and because you both will be spending a good chunk of time together (dental assistants often work quite a bit in your mouth), the situation may quickly move to a “tu” situation (both “kindred spirits” below the almighty dentist).

In other words, because you both are “pions” under the “overloard”, it could eventually be OK to get over yourselves, and to call each other “tu”.

Again, this is case by case.  (On the phone, when I make an appointment, I use “vous”.  But I may switch to “tu” in person when I see my interlocutor in person after spending time together).

You are visiting a new city, you are walking in the street, and you need to ask for directions. = tu or vous.

Age might play into this one.  Do you remember the “Holding the door test” I mentioned earlier?

Your interaction would be brief and on a one-time basis.  Thus you could ask yourself if you would hold the door for your interlocutor (or if you would give up your subway or bus seat for them).  If the answer is “yes”, then you could use vous.

I hold the door for most strangers (as I am sure most other people do too).  And thus I would use “vous”.

But then again (and unfortunately), other people may find the 20 seconds it takes to hold the door for a stranger is too large a sacrifice to make in life (it’s kind of sad reality) – and thus some other people might say tu (it’s a personal choice… but I, like most people, am a door-holding kind of guy).

You ask your secretary for something = “tu”.

You’re the overlord, so you have the right.  Plus, you work in close proximity, you see each other all the time, and your secretary likely knows many of your personal details.

You are speaking to your boss — and you are the secretary, clerk, employee, or subordinate = It depends.  Using tuor vousis not black and white.

If the difference in levels is not that great (ie: one level, or perhaps two), if the business is not very large (an SME), and if your boss is not Ted Rodgers, Kevin O’Leary, or J.D. Irving, then you may be able to use tuunder certain circumstances.

Age may or may not be a factor.  I was in my mid-20s and I had an employee who was 60 years old.  We were both on a tu basis.   We knew a good deal about each other, and we felt we could speak about issues a bit more frankly because of it.  However, there were only 2 levels which separated us.  If there were 3 or more levels, or if I had 100 employees, I would expect my 60 year old employee to likely address me as vous”, despite the fact that I was 35 years younger.

However, there are companies and organizations which have a more formal operating culture.  Be aware of this, and do as your colleagues do.

If you are new to a company, NEVER take the first initiative to “tutoie” your boss.   Follow the lead of your colleagues (if everyone “tutoies” the boss, then it is ok.  If some employees use tuand others use vous“, you would be safer to use vous” until you figure out your place in the overall structure of things).

Likewise, even if members of the public or those outside the organization “tutoie” your boss, that does not give you or other employees a license to do so.

Also, I have worked in environments where my immediate manager and I were on a “tu” basis, and in which my manager’s manager (2 levels higher) and I were on a “tu” basis, but anything higher was on a “vous” basis.  It turly really depends on the environment and the company / organization.

You are shopping in The Bay or Sears, and you are interacting with an employee = Vous”.

Large companies, with large employee pools, and those which focus on professional customer service are more likely to train their employees to treat their customers with respect and to use vous.

It ups the professional atmosphere, and you should respect the atmosphere.  I always use vous” in department stores, or other stores with higher-end items.

BUT I would be more inclined to use tu in smaller stores or in a less informal atmosphere.

As you can see, the bar of what constitutes a “professional” atmosphere is not that high (Sears and The Bay are not De Beers flagship store, after all).   Shopping mall store employees will often greet customers with vous, but customers will often respond with tu (which then sets the tone for the rest of the interaction).

Regardless, if I want to give the employee a little bit more “face”, then I still might use vous (and I regularly do).

You are making a fast, fleeting purchase in a very small, informal setting, such as a convenience store, gas station, pizza-by-the-slice restaurant, fast-food chain, etc. = “vous” or “tu”.

The situation is cursory and fleeting.  There is no formality.  Credentials or professionalism are not deal-breakers.

The staff have likely not undergone training with dictates they should address customers with vous.

The company does not likely have a customer-care culture which dictates the use of vous”.

Thus tu” can become the common default setting under certain circumstances – especially if the person is young (ie: a 15 year old high school student working at McDonald’s as a part-time job).

BUT remember the door holding formula?  (Maybe “vous” to be a bit more polite, ie especially for adults).

You are speaking with other colleagues = tu.

You work together towards a common goal.  You know each other.  You are peers.  You work in close quarters. There is no level-to-level pressure dynamics.

You are a high school student addressing your teacher or vice-versa. Take a guess.   Come on… take a chance.   What do you think?   Vous?  NOPE!  You actually use “TU”. 

I admit, this is a strange one… and I’ve heard there are some schools (mostly private or specialty schools) which are trying to break this habit.

It was a trend which started maybe 50 years ago, and has now become normal.   I suppose the assumption is that both teachers and students are working towards the same goal.  Both see each other every day and interact in an intimate matter, and thus have come to know each other very well.  There really is no physical distance, despite rank.   However, the school principal should be addressed as vous”.

Here is a bit of quirky side-note regarding this phenomenon:

This student / teacher trend of “tutoiement” does not really apply in Canadian provinces outside of Québec.

Growing up in French in Alberta, there would have been no way I ever would have called my high school teachers or university professors anything other than Monsieur or Madame ABC… We always used vousin Alberta.  I can only assume it is the same in other provinces outside Québec (such as Ontario, New Brunswick, and Manitoba)… but there may be exceptions I am not aware of.

Feel free to correct me if I am wrong.

You join a social club or sports club/team = tu”.

You are both engaged in the same activity as peers, regardless of age, working for a common goal, and you will be spending time together.

I actually ran into this situation a few times over the last several weeks in Toronto.  I joined a couple of personal interest groups here in Toronto in which the main language was French.

A number of bilingual Anglophones and Allophones also joined the same groups.   Although most spoke fluent French, some had an intermediate level of French.  Those at an intermediate level addressed me vous” (even those in the same age category).  I responded with a friendly smile and said “We can “tutoie” because we are peers”.

Even though we were strangers, it felt awkward when I was addressed as “vous”.  We were all in a relaxed, informal environment.  We all shared the same goal (that of pursuing similar interests as members of the same social group).   Interestingly, there were two people from France in the same group.   They recently arrived in Canada, and they confided in me that it felt awkward for them to be addressed as “tu” in such a diverse group (their reaction was the exact opposite of mine — welcome to the the tu” / “vous” difference which exists between Canada and Europe).

Parents, family members, classmates, other relatives (regardless of age), friends, “potential” friends = tu”.

The relationships are close, and everyone knows each other well.  Blood and friendships = “tu”.


As you can see, the use of tu is much loser on this side of the ocean than in Europe.  Also, because so many small nuances exist, it would be very difficult (if not impossible) to create a flow-chart for the use of tu and vous in a Canadian and Québec context.

With that being said, the concept is not so difficult.  If you spend any time in a French-dominant environment, you will catch on very fast (after all, we all deal with the same 10 or 15 main categories of people on a regular basis).

If you are only passing through a French-dominant region for a quick vacation, just stick to the European guide… you can’t go wrong.


Alors, je “te” souhaite bonne chance avec “ton” parcours, et ton apprentissage au sujet de “tu” et “vous”

Après 269 billets de blogue, j’ai le sentiment que je partage une certaine connection avec mes lecteurs… alors, sous ces circonstances, il ne me dérange pas du tout de “tetutoyer, malgré le fait qu’on ne s’est jamais rencontré. 

Mais pour ceux qui viennent tout juste de visiter ce blogue pour la première, bon, là je “vous” salue.  🙂




The use of “VOUS” versus “TU” — in EUROPE – Post 1 of 2 (#268)

Introduction to the use of “vous” and “tu”

A good number of the followers of this blog are Anglophone Canadians who are learning French.  Many people are following these posts to gain additional cultural insight as they integrate more and more of our Canadian Francophone culture into their English-dominant lives.

Anglophones who are learning French often have a good deal of questions regarding the use of “vous” and “tu”.  I have been giving a good deal of thought on how to describe the use of “vous” and “tu” in a Canadian and Québec context.

In Europe, there exist more concrete and tangible rules regarding their use than here in Canada.

On this side of the Atlantic, you almost have to “feel” the situation out, and make a “judgement call” as to whether or not to tutoie or vousvoie (to use “tu” or “vous”) with the person to whom you are speaking.

It’s not as tricky as it sounds if you regularly live or interact in French.  This is because the correct use of vocabulary becomes a natural reflex the more you use it (and the more you hear it being used).   Thus, for those of us who consistently interact with others in French, we “naturally” known when and where to use “vous” or “tu”.

But for those who are learning French, it must often feel like an adventure of epic proportions; one of trial and error, sometimes with a little uncertainty.

Fortunately, it need not be.  There are a number of loose rules you can use to get by until you develop a firmer feel for the “concept” (and never forget that in Canada, the use of “tu” and “vous” is just that:  a concept – thus there is a relative amount of flexibility when choosing to use of “tu” or “vous”).

Before I try to explain how and when to use “tu” and “vous” in Canada and Québec, let us first look at how “tu” and “vous” is used in Europe.   By extension, the European rules also apply in the many countries which comprise Francophone Africa (I lived and worked for a period in Africa, and I can confirm that Africa uses “tu” and “vous” in the same context as Europeans).

The EUROPEAN use of “TU” and “VOUS”

I asked the author and blogger, William Alexander, to contribute a guest post to explain the EUROPEAN use of “tu” and “vous” His works have been featured in publications as diverse as L’Actualité (the French counterpart of Maclean’s), the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times (several times), the Washington Post, Bloomberg TV, and many other prestigious media outlets.

William Alexander is also the author of the well-selling book “Flirting with French”.  His book has been featured on the New York Times best-sellers’ list.   If you have an interest in French, I’d encourage you to check out his book.

(Click to englarge)

Flirting with French

His blog can be found here:  http://www.thefrenchblog.com/

The following is William Alexander’s gracious contribution to this blog post. (Thanks very much Bill!  Much appreciated).


Guest Contribution by William Alexander

Asking me to contribute to a blog that attempts to bridge the cultural divide between French and English speakers is like inviting an arsonist to a campfire, but I’ve been asked, so I’ll try to forget the 13 months I recently spent not learning French and discuss one of my favorite topics: navigating the hazardous waters of vous and tu.

First, a little background: Until the fourth century, Latin (from which, of course, French is derived) had only one form of the third person singular: tu, as in, “Et tu, Brute?” Thus addressing other people (even those who’d just stabbed you) was easy until the Roman empire split into two, with Eastern and Western emperors ruling from Constantinople and Rome. The two emperors wanted to make it clear that, although separated by a thousand miles, they spoke with a single voice, so they each started to refer to themselves in the plural (“We decree that…” or even “We’d like a cup of coffee.”) Well, it didn’t take long for everyone else to figure out that if your boss refers to himself in the plural (however bizarrely), you’d better follow suit, so the emperors’ subjects started to refer to each emperor using the plural “you,” vos. This made the pope jealous, so he demanded to be called vos, and, predictably, the kings followed suit, and then the nobles, and the not-so-nobles, as the custom filtered down through society until (and we’ll move the story to France here) French peasants, at the bottom rung of the social ladder, demanded that their children start calling them “vous.”

France, in particular, has turned this business into a bit of a fetish, with social rules so complicated that, as Mary Blume once pointed out in the International Herald Tribune, “Foreigners can’t hope to master the intricacies of the tu and vous forms of address because the French can’t either.” But fear not: For my book, Flirting with French, I drew up this foolproof flowchart to help you navigate these treacherous waters.

Note that these rules were written for France: In Canada, you have a slightly different set of unfathomable rules, so adapt as needed — but you’re used to doing that!

(CLICK the diagram to ENLARGE)

tu versus vous


With the above introduction and explanation of the EUROPEAN use of “tu” and “vous” behind us, the next post will look at the CANADIAN and QUÉBEC use of “tu” and “vous”.

Click here for the next post:




Gettin’ vulgar! This ain’t no picture book for the kiddies! – Part 6 (#244)

The past five posts explored our swear words in French.  In my opinion, they are one of the most unique and instantly recognizable things about Canada and Québec.

If you’d like a little visual context regarding their origins, here is a little picture dictionary I threw together (seriously… who out there does not like pictures?).

But this little picture-dictionary is not the type you’ll find on the shelves of the elementary school library.

Hopefully you found this six-part series on obscenities to be interesting… and I hope it didn’t send you into convulsions, or lead to you being struck with a lightning bolt as you read it.  (If you did get hit by lightning, sorry about that — but the new hair style is all the rage these days!)

I’ll be better behaved for the next posts (promise) 😉















Sai1 sim1







Gettin’ down ‘n vulgar! – Swears SAI to V – Part 5 (#243)

WARNING:   These few posts are not suitable for minors.  They contain quite explicit vocabulary.

This post gives the remaining list of common French swear words you’ll likely encounter in Québec and elsewhere in Canada.

At this point I’d like to share a little anecdote.  I wish to provide you with yet one more reason why it is important to understand the nature of these words and to be able to recognize them (and use them properly, or avoid using them altogether).

My university was a Francophone university in Edmonton (Le Campus St-Jean, which operates as its own university, although it was affiliated with the U of A).   A portion of the student body was made up of Anglophones, in addition to the pan-Canadian and international Francophone student body.

In our demographics course we were given a large research assignment which took a year to complete.  It was a killer of an assignment, and everyone worked themselves into the ground.  D-Day came, and the professor handed back our assignment grade results one-by-one.

One Anglophone student in our class had a fairly good level of French (good enough to do her university studies 100% in French), but she had some difficulties with informal spoken French (she spoke literary French, since that is the French she learned in school).   I recall she was afraid she was going to fail the assignment.  But when she received her paper back with an “A”, she yelled out (in French) to the professor “F*** me!! I got an “A”!  I didn’t see that coming!” (Mon câlisse de sacrement! J’ai poigné un A!! J’en reviens pas!!!)

OOOOOPS!!!!   I don’t think that’s what she meant to say.  I think she wanted to use a word which meant “WOW!” or something like that — but that’s not how it came out.  She basically mixed up the swear words and chose the wrong ones. Thank goodness she already received her grade (The professor looked less than impressed after he got over his initial look of shock).

Moral of the story:  Just because you hear other people say words which add “emphasis” on a regular basis, do not attempt them yourself unless you truly know what they mean.   In other words, become familiar with the list of words I’m providing to you before you attempt to use any of them yourself.   🙂

A short reminder before we get back into it…

NOTE 1:  In the examples below, it is difficult to give an exact translation for every word.   I’ve therefore given the closest approximates with respect to their degree of impact.  That is why I list more than one English equivalent after most words.

NOTE 2:  Underneath the main words, I also list the “toned-down / softened” versions of the words.   These are versions of the main swear word which are considered to be milder, and more acceptable to a wider audience.   In English, the equivalent might be the transformation of “F&@#” to “Fudge”, or “Damn” to “Darn” (the latter words which could be acceptable, even on television).

THE FINAL LIST: SAI to V (the end)

Saint bénisse – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint Christ – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint Christ – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint ciboire – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint ciboire aux deux étages – Christ almighty!,  Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint esprit – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint hostie – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint PKP – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint sacrament – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint sacrifice – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint sacripant – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint sicrisse – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint sicroche – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint tabarnac – Christ almighty!  Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Sainte – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Sainte viarge – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saintosti – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Salament – Shit!, Damn it!, God damn it!, Piss!

Saprement – Shit!, Damn it!, God damn it!, Piss!

Shit – Shit!, Damn it!, God damn it!, Piss!

Simonac –  Son of a gun!, Shit!, Damn!

This one is quite common (perhaps in the top 10).   You will even hear it on the radio.

TABARNAK – The King of all swear words.

This is the WORST and STRONGEST swear word you can possibly say in Québec and Canada – period.

I would even venture to say it’s stronger than the English F-word.

It is best to avoid this word altogether unless you break your toe, your dog gets ran over, you accidentally shoot your best friend in a hunting accident, or you accidentally fall down a man-hole when walking down the street.

Personally, (and contrary to what you might be thinking) I don’t swear very much, but I will pitch some of the milder swears from time-to-time…   And all-in-all, it does not bother me much when others occasionally swear (we’re all human after all).  Nor does it bother me when I hear this word in mild moderation.   But there are those individuals out there who seem to chose to insert this word between every third word from their mouth (you know the type… there are also these types of people in English who drop the F-bomb five times in every sentence – sentence after sentence).

Saying this word in excess will just make you look like the dumbest of  idiots.   If you want to be labelled a crass, uncouth and uncivilized hick, by all means feel free to use this word.   But be prepared to suffer the consequences and be judged by those around you.

My recommendation:  Use some of the “softer” versions of the word below.  Some are completely unoffensive, and are regularly heard on the radio, TV, by politicians, and yes, even Celine Dion has been heard to say them in public with a smile.   The most common one is “Tabarwatte“.  The next most common “softened” version is “Tabernouche“.

  • Barnak
  • Barnaque
  • Barnique
  • Barouette
  • Batarnak
  • Kakernak
  • Tab
  • Taber
  • Tabarnache
  • Tabarnam
  • Tabarnik
  • Tabarnouche
  • Tabarouatte
  • Tabarsac
  • Tabarslac
  • Tabarwatte
  • Tabernache
  • Tabernouche
  • Taboire

Tabarnak aux deux étages“F*** it all to hell!”   STRONG, AVOID if at all possible.

Tabarnak percé – “For F***’s sake”, “F*** it!”.  STRONG, AVOID if possible

Torvice – Shit!, Damn it!, God damn it!, Piss!

  • Torgieu
  • Torna
  • Tornon
  • Toron
  • Torrienne
  • Torrieu
  • Torvis
  • Toryabe

Trou de cul – Ass hole.

Exact same meaning, emphasis and poignancy as it’s English counterpart.

  • Trou de PQ

Vas te crosser avec une poignée de clous –  F*** off!

(litterally:  go jack off with a handful of nails)

Vas te crosser avec une poignée de clous rouillés – F*** off!

(litterally:  go jack off with a handful of rusty nails)

Vas te crosser avec une poignée de poignée de braquettes – F*** off!

(litterally:  go jack off with a handful of gears)

Vas te faire chier – Screw off!

(litterally:  “Go shit”, or “Go shit yourself!”)

Vas te faire – Screw off!

(litterally:  Go do yourself!)

Viarge – God damn it!, For Christ’s sake!

  • Vargenie
  • Viargenie

Varlope – Son of a bitch!, Shit!, F***!

Verasse – Son of a bitch!, Shit!, Damn it!

  • Véreux

Verrat – Son of a bitch!, Shit!, Damn it!

  • Vérue

Viande à chien – Piece of shit

  • Tas de merde
  • Tas de marde

—– —– —– —– —– —– —–

That wraps up the vocabulary list.  Hopefully it will help you to navigate swear words in oral French which you are likely to encounter when listening to people on the street.

I have one last post for you in this series… a “picture-post” if you will.   See you soon!