Sapir in Montreal (by Patricia Houde)

In this post, I will discuss ideas that emerged while reading Mehdi Babaei’s post as well as the first chapter of Aneta Pavlenko’ (2014) book: The bilingual mind and what it tells us about language and thought. Thanks to Mela Sarkar for recommending it. Since the city of Montreal is at the centerpiece of this reflection, I’d like to provide a brief description as offered by Wikipedia:

«Montréal est la deuxième plus grande ville du Canada et se situe dans le sud de la province du Québec, dont elle est la principale métropole3. Elle est la ville francophone la plus peuplée d’Amérique4 et aussi l’une des plus grandes villes francophones du monde. Montréal est considérée comme la quatrième ville francophone au monde après Paris5,6,7,8. Sa population est trois fois plus nombreuse que celle de la ville de Québec, la capitale de la province9. En 2014, la ville comptait 1 988 243 habitants10 et son aire urbaine plus de quatre millions11. En 2011, environ 50 % de sa population était de langue française, 13 % était de langue anglaise et 33 % était d’une autre langue12, faisant ainsi de Montréal une des villes les plus cosmopolites du monde13.» 

Sapir’s statement that “language is a guide to social reality” (Sapir, 1929, p.162; cited in Pavlenko, 2014) clearly reflects the social reality of the variety of languages found in the metropolitan city of Montreal, well positioned in today social context of multiculturalism. Nowadays, Montreal has become one of the largest pluralistic cities in the world. The city has a particular mélange of cultures living side by side with 50% of the population speaking Français, 13% speaking English and 33% speaking other languages. Although I recognize that historically there have been political tensions and conflicts generated by language laws, can we not say that it is a remarkable cosmopolitan city? Montreal is a world in itself and it is very different from any other cities and towns located in the rest of the province of Quebec. Montreal is the only place from my childhood memories where French was mixed with other languages and cultures: English, Italian, Jewish, Irish and Chinese with all their rich heritage, lifestyles, traditions, art forms, festivities and culinary experiences.

I have only been living in Montreal for 10 months now. Previously, I had many opportunities to visit the city but never enough time to really get to know it well. Named after Mount Royal, it is a fascinating and colourful metropolis where I yet have to discover several of its treasures. Due to its diverse population, Montreal is extremely rich culturally and linguistically. Each season is blessed with its unique charm and offers an incredible amount of things to do year-round. There is a wide range of activities to participate in with its numerous festivals and sports facilities. In many sectors today, Montreal has a strong sense of the multilinguistic and multicultural realities found in any cosmopolitan cities in the world. The word cosmopolitanism means that all human beings belong to a single community, based on common values and morality.

The linguistic and cultural mosaic is a social reality that has been lived, is being experienced and will continue to develop assuming that immigrants and international students’ often choose to come and establish themselves here. This reality, being the result of displacement and socio-political forces, has several causes and is not easy to comprehend for M. et Mme tout le monde, especially for monolinguals who have lived here all their life and are not accustomed to interrelate with foreigners. Comprehending motives contributing to demographic changes such as educational opportunities, family repatriation, refugeeism, political oppression, governments’ policies, labour forces, financial necessities, and economic partnerships are complex issues to understand for anybody, let alone for someone who does not have basic understanding of the matters. This is not an excuse but an attempt to give meaning to the social reality question brought up by Sapir. As he said, “human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society” (Sapir, 1929, p.162; as cited in Pavlenko, 2014).

Language reflects much more than the words we use in order to communicate. An interaction between languages can be lived in many parts of Montreal. For example, French which is the official language is the medium of expression in the society, even when French is someone’s third or fourth language. Mehdi’s last post beautifully touched on this issue if you’d like to read about it. The interplay of living within multiple languages is a constant reality for many of Montreal’s population. French is the principal medium of expression of la Société Montréalaise, while English as a first or second language is spoken by an extensive number of the population, as well as many other languages that are used in families daily. For Montreal’s parallel communities to flourish, responsibilities must continue to be shared collectively. Globalisation, migration and demographic changes are here to stay, so we have to learn to adapt and embrace it. We are citizens of the same world, albeit the fact that some individuals have limited access to the outer world. For most citizens on this planet, social reality is limited to interacting only with those who speak their language and share their customs.

I posit that we must find additional ways to harmoniously cohabitate with our sameness and differences with all of our customs, traditions, cultural identities, languages, religions and value systems. Since language is the expression of our core nature and the way we were taught to express ourselves in social contexts, is it possible to create a Montreal where each other’s languages could be genuinely be respected, understood, cherished, valued and celebrated? I would answer yes to this question as I think that we need to learn to embrace our inherited language(s) and cultures while opening to the beauty of others with all that it entails. Perhaps education is the best approach. The key is in finding a balance and in developing ways to accept, respect and protect each other’s’ uniqueness. We certainly need to give some thoughts as to how we want to live together and share this marvellous city. Hopefully this small description will allow us to create openness towards this objective for the benefits of all.



Pavlenko, A. (2014). The bilingual mind: And what it tells us about language and thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 382 p.


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