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French-only greetings drop in Montreal as 'bonjour, hi' gains popularity

A cafe sign with the greeting Bonjour, hi. A cafe sign with the greeting Bonjour, hi.
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The majority of Montreal merchants still greet their customers in French only, but fewer and fewer are doing so, while "Bonjour-Hi" has been on the rise in recent years.

According to a new study by the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) published on Monday, the rate of businesses greeting customers in French stood at 84.2 per cent in 2010, while by 2023 it had dropped to 71.0 per cent.

Conversely, the proportion of businesses that greeted customers in both French and English, often characterized by "Bonjour-Hi," rose by 8.2 percentage points between 2010 and 2023, reaching 11.9 per cent last year.

As for businesses that receive their customers in English, their proportion increased from 2010 to 2017, rising from 12.1 per cent to 17.0 per cent, but it seems to have treaded water since then, increasing only to 17.1 per cent in 2023.

The data from the language watchdog concerned the language of welcome, which it defines as "the language of the first words used by the staff of a business to approach an observer."

So, even if a business welcomes its customers in English or in both languages, this doesn't mean that it doesn't offer service in French to those customers who want it.

In fact, in 90.1 per cent of cases, service is provided spontaneously in French if the customer initiates their interaction in French, regardless of the language in which they were greeted.

And in 7.3 per cent of cases, customers who interacted in French were answered in English and then expressly asked to be served in French were served in French. Only 2.6 per cent of situations ended without the customer being served in French.

The OQLF also collected data from other regions, namely the South Shore (Longueuil, Boucherville and Brossard), Quebec City (Quebec City and L'Ancienne-Lorette), Gatineau, Laval and Sherbrooke (Sherbrooke and Magog).

For these regions, the rate of reception in French ranged from 79.9 per cent (Laval) to 99.8 per cent (Sherbrooke) last year, while reception in both languages fluctuated between 11.9 per cent (Laval) and 0.2 per cent (Sherbrooke).

However, it is not possible to follow the trend over the last few years outside of Montreal, as previous studies have focused solely on the metropolis.

For all regions studied, the highest rate of bilingual reception was in the restaurant, accommodation and leisure sector, at 13.3 per cent.

According to the OQLF, the results show that the availability of service in French remains high, but it's surprising to note that the number of complaints about language of service more than tripled from 2018-2019 to 2022-2023. In fact, it is the leading reason for complaints filed with the language watchdog, accounting for 24 per cent of them in 2022-2023.

"This increase in complaints raises questions. Are customers sufficiently aware of their right to be informed and served in French? Are merchants taking all necessary steps to ensure that service is available in French, by at least one person, at all times?" the OQLF questioned in its study.

For the study, the OQLF conducted 10,378 visits to 7,314 stores between Aug. 15, 2022 and April 8, 2023.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on April 22, 2024. 

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