Montreal·First Person

Speaking French in Quebec changed my life

It's scary to live in your third language. But I surprised myself by how much I grew, writes Nydia Hadi.

It's scary to live in your third language. But I surprised myself by how much I grew

Nydia and her boyfriend Élie are seen holding hands.
Nydia and her boyfriend Élie are seen holding hands. (Submitted by Nydia Hadi)

This First Person article is the experience of Nydia Hadi, an accountant in Montreal. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I loved Montreal from the first time I visited. With its parks, bridges, rivers and architecture, it's more beautiful — and affordable — than Toronto, where I was living at the time. But I never thought I'd be able to live here.

When I first came to Canada in 2012 for university, I spoke only a little French and some English. I didn't think Quebec was an option for me until I learned the basics of French.

Spoken French sounded very classy, exotic and foreign. I especially liked the nasal sounds, the r sound and the liaison — the way you phonetically connect the last letter of a word to the next — which do not exist in my native tongue, Indonesian.

I had first learned French back in high school. But those classes were mostly about grammar, and I never really spoke the language. Then the COVID lockdown gave me time to take on a new challenge.

I started listening to French podcasts and videos every day, I read French articles out loud and I started journalling in French. Trying to understand the complicated grammatical structure stimulated my brain.

The more I learned, the more I fell in love with the language and the more I wanted to speak it. But without any real opportunity to speak French in Toronto, I applied for jobs in Montreal — and moved here last year when I got an offer.

Living my life in French

I now live in downtown Montreal. I know that I can survive living here with just English, but then what would be the point of moving to Quebec? Whenever I order food or go shopping, I always start with French even though it would be easier for everyone if I just spoke English.

To do this, I have to step out of my comfort zone every day, and keep speaking French even though it takes a lot of effort. I often feel insecure, scared and vulnerable. I imagine people are thinking, what is this girl doing? Why doesn't she just speak English if she is struggling? Whenever I stumble over my sentences, hesitate or show confusion, most people will switch to English. That makes it harder to stay confident in my third language.

Sometimes I use a translation app to search for the words I'm about to say, or to verify the conjugation. When I have no time for Googling, I use the English word but keep the rest of the sentence in French. Sometimes, I just pretend that the subjonctif form does not exist.

Nydia is seen in front of the Alberta legislature in Edmonton, soon after she moved to Canada at age 18. (Submitted by Nydia Hadi)

But the biggest struggle is not over vocabulary. It's trying to understand all the different accents and Québécois slang I hear. It takes a while to get used to the dialect.

To gain more confidence, I record myself speaking French and post on my YouTube channel, Nyds Learning French. This channel talks about lifestyle, spirituality and my other passions in French. By recording myself in my room without anyone else listening, it takes away some of the pressure. I can repeat myself again and again until my French sounds decent. And because anyone can watch the videos I publish, it still gives me incentive to speak well.

After recording myself several times, I find it less stressful when speaking with real people. And it makes learning French more fun, too.

After a few months living in Montreal, I was surprised to find myself able to hold a simple conversation in French. I felt like a different person. When I was little, I never pictured myself speaking in other languages other than Indonesian or English. I love that when I speak French or write emails in French, people respond back to me in French. It lets me know my French is actually functional, even though it may not be perfect.

The language of love

Whenever I speak French with new people, I become so excited and open up easily. To my surprise, this has brought me many friendship and relationship opportunities. People often let their guard down, and we end up having more deep and meaningful conversations. They are also willing to speak slower and to correct my grammar or pronunciation or wording mistakes. This makes me feel instantly at home in Quebec.

After living in Montreal for about a year, and now able to hear that Quebec French is a bit different from the Metropolitan French spoken in Paris, I still love the way it sounds. I find that I can be more expressive and emotional in French, while English — where there is no distinction between speaking with strangers and family — feels so formal.

Nydia is seen standing at a lookout point on Mount Royal in Montreal.
Nydia is seen standing at a lookout point on Mount Royal in Montreal. (Submitted by Nydia Hadi)

In the middle of learning French, I also ended up falling in love with a francophone Quebecer who is now my boyfriend. He likes that I'm interested and passionate about his language and culture. I like that he teaches me French patiently. And I enjoy spending time with his family; it gives me time to hear more informal spoken French. French is truly the language of love!

Although we speak English at home, we set aside time to speak only French. What was first a few hours a week became a whole day. We also now speak only French in public places to respect the culture and to preserve the language.

When I started this journey, I knew learning French would be a great challenge. What I didn't realize is that it would change my life.

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Nydia Hadi

Freelance contributor

Nydia Hadi is an accountant living in Montreal. She enjoys reading, writing and learning something new in her spare time.