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French is the official language of Québec and French Quebecers are passionate about it, seeing their language as the last line of defense against Anglo-Saxon culture. What makes Montréal unique in the province is the interface of English and French - a mix responsible for the city's dynamism as well as the root of many of its conflicts.

Until the 1970s it was the English minority (few of whom spoke French) who ran the businesses, held positions of power and accumulated wealth in Québec; a French Quebecer who would go into a downtown store couldn't get service in his or her own language more often than not.

But as Québec's separatist movement arose, the Canadian government passed laws in 1969 that required all federal services and public signs to appear in both languages. The separatists took things further and demanded the primacy of French in Québec, which was affirmed by the Parti Québécois with the passage of Bill 101 in 1977. Though there was much hand wringing, the fact is that Bill 101 probably saved the French language from dying out in North America. If you're at a party with five anglophones and one francophone these days, chances are everyone will be speaking French, something that would have been rare 10 years ago.

These days Montrealers with French as their mother tongue number 928, 905, and native English speakers 300, 580. Fifty-seven per cent of Montrealers from a variety of backgrounds speak both official languages.

Québec settlers were relatively cut off from France once they arrived in the New World, so the French you hear today in the province, known colloquially as Québécois, developed more or less independently from what was going on in France. The result is a rich local vocabulary, with its own idioms and sayings, and words used in everyday speech that haven't been spoken in France since the 1800s.

Accents vary widely across the province, but all are characterized by a delicious twang and rhythmic bounce unique to Québec French, and the addition of the word lá repeated from one to three times at the end of each spoken sentence.

The French spoken in Montréal most closely resembles that of France and will be easiest for French speakers from elsewhere to understand.

To francophone Quebecers, the French spoken in France sounds desperately posh. To people from France, the French spoken in Québec sounds terribly old-fashioned, quaint and at times unintelligible - an attitude that ruffles feathers here in an instant as it's found to be condescending.

Quebecers learn standard French in school, hear standard French on newscasts and grow up on movies and music from France, so if you speak standard French, locals will have no problem understanding you - it's you understanding them that will be the problem. Remember, even when French-language québécois movies are shown in France, they are shown with French subtitles.

Young Montrealers today are less concerned about language issues, so visitors shouldn't worry too much. Most residents grew up speaking both languages, and people you meet in daily life - store owners, waiters, bus drivers - switch effortlessly between French and English.

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Académie Culinaire du Québec (393-8111; 360 Champ de Mars; Champ-de-Mars) This esteemed cooking academy conducts regular cooking workshops and short courses (in French) starting at $40 for a two-hour class.

Mezza Luna Cooking School (271-2057; 6851 rue St-Dominique; De Castelnau) Single sessions on Italian cooking (in French, English and Italian) known far beyond Montréal's borders ($40 per class). Elena Faita gives free demonstrations on pasta-making every Saturday at 2pm at the Quincaillerie Dante (same address).

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Concordia University (848-2424; 1455 boul de Maisonneuve; Guy-Concordia) Runs 10-week French courses in spring and fall, from $215.

McGill University (398-6160; www.mcgill.ca; 688 rue Sherbrooke Ouest; McGill) Year-round, accredited intensive and part-time courses in French.

Montréal International Language Centre (939-2056; www.cilm.qc.ca; 2000 rue Ste-Catherine Ouest; Atwater) Tailor-made language courses at this offshoot of LaSalle University.

YMCA (849-8393; www.ymca.ca; 1450 rue Stanley; Peel) Offers day and evening French courses, four to six weeks, along with courses in Spanish and Italian.

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