British Columbia

Number of Asian language speakers growing in B.C., latest census data shows

The latest 2021 census data released on Wednesday shows that 31 per cent of British Columbians are native speakers of languages that are not Indigenous, English or French, a four per cent increase from five years ago.

More British Columbians speaking Punjabi, Mandarin and Tagalog as 1st language

A West Vancouver welcome sign has the term 'welcome' in multiple languages — German, English, Punjabi, Hindi, Chinese, and Russian among them.
Multilingual welcome signs are pictured at the entrance of a community centre in West Vancouver. The latest census data shows a growing number of British Columbians speak languages other than Indigenous languages, English and French as their native tongue. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

More people in British Columbia are speaking languages other than English and French — the country's two official languages — as their first language, amid population growth driven by international migration, according to Statistics Canada.

The latest 2021 census data released on Wednesday shows that 31 per cent of British Columbians are native speakers of languages that are neither Indigenous nor "official," an increase from 27 per cent five years ago.

The percentage of the province's population speaking English as a birth language dropped marginally from 71.1 per cent in 2016 to 70.6 per cent in 2021, while those speaking French as a first language witnessed a small increase from 1.56 per cent to 1.62 per cent. 

British Columbia is the third fastest-growing province in Canada, with its population rising 7.6 per cent since 2016. Statistics Canada says immigration from elsewhere around the world is a key driver of the growth and the increasingly diverse linguistic landscape across the country.

Growth of Asian languages in B.C.

B.C. has seen robust growth in those speaking Asian languages — including Punjabi, Cantonese, Mandarin and Tagalog — as their first language, a trend that Statistics Canada said reflects recent waves of immigration from countries such as India, China and the Philippines.


In Vancouver, for instance, 4.25 per cent of the population speaks Cantonese as a first language, making it the second most popular language in the city.

Cantonese instructor Raymond Pai (白文杰) says when he first arrived in Vancouver in 2015 to begin teaching at the University of British Columbia, he mainly heard Mandarin.

But more local Mandarin speakers have been learning Cantonese at the university over the years, in part, he says, because of an interest in Hong Kong pop culture.

A man sits on a bench in a garden.
Raymond Pai, pictured near the Asia Centre at UBC, says he expects more people in Vancouver will be speaking Cantonese as new waves of immigrants arrive from Hong Kong. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Pai says he expects Cantonese will become more commonly spoken in Vancouver in the future as more Cantonese-speaking immigrants arrive from his hometown of Hong Kong.

"I feel that Cantonese is enjoying a comeback."

Tagalog is widely spoken — second only to English — in Fort St. John — a northern B.C. community of more than 21,000 residents — with its native speakers taking up 3.2 per cent of the city's population.

Alan Moreno Yu established the Barangay Fort St. John community group in 2015 when he emigrated from Manila. He says more Filipinos have continued making the northern town home since the '60s because of the lower cost of living and higher salaries.

A mi,ber pf ,asled [ep[;e stamd under a series of flags — the LGBTQ+ Pride Flag, Canadian flag, and Filipino flag are among them.
Alan Moreno Yu, far left, and fellow Filipino Canadians observe Filipino Heritage Month at the city hall in Fort St. John, B.C., last June. (Alan Moreno Yu/Facebook)

Moreno Yu's group has been asking city council to declare June as Filipino Heritage Month, citing the local Filipino community's deep connection to its home culture. 

"We are very proud of our heritage. We are very proud of our language, and we seem to do very well in preserving our culture," he said.

Preserving European linguistic heritage

It's a sentiment shared by the many native speakers of European languages across B.C.

Wendy Voykin, born Vasilisa Gaveilovna Voykin (Василиса Гавриловна Войкина) to a Doukhobor family, had more than four decades of experience teaching the language at public schools in Castlegar, where 4.2 per cent of the population speak Russian as a first language.


Voykin says she's fluent in Russian thanks to her father — also a teacher — who allowed only Russian to be spoken at home during her childhood. 

"I thank him for passing on the love of Russian literature, of Russian history, of Russian geography within our household. We didn't go to school to learn that."

A number of children in traditional Russian skirts.
Wendy Voykin's high school students in Castlegar, B.C., are dressed in Russian costumes performing folklore dances at school in 2015. (Submitted by Wendy Voykin)

German language teacher Rolf Hirschkorn who grew up in Vernon — where German is the second most spoken language — says he still has fond memories of the German cultural events that he has attended since childhood with his parents in the Okanagan city.

Unlike his mother, who only spoke German at home, Hirschkorn says he speaks mostly English to his children, but he would often encourage them to learn German by speaking the language to them — because he believes intercultural competency helps dismantle stereotypes.

"It's really important for us to understand other cultures," he said. "That also gives us a better understanding of why we are the way we are in Canada."

Three people dress up in traditional German attire. The person in the centre, a woman, is holding a baby. The woman is dressed up in a traditional blue dress. The person on the left, a man, is wearing a grey hat and blazer. The man on the right is wearing a grey t-shirt and jeans.
Rolf Hirschkorn, far right, pictured with his infant daughter and his parents, dressed in traditional Bavarian costumes, at the Oktoberfest event hosted by the Edelweiss Society of Vernon in 2006. (Submitted by Rolf Hirschkorn)
This morning, Statistics Canada just released a new batch census data on linguistic diversity across the country.People who speak languages other than English, French, or Indigenous languages as their FIRST language...are up 3.7 per cent over the past five years. CBC's Winston Szeto joins us for more.