Politics

Record number of Canadians reporting first language other than French or English: StatsCan

The number of Canadians who predominantly speak a language other than English or French hit a record high in 2021, according to new census data released on Wednesday.

English and French remain dominant languages, new census data shows

People gather on Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill during Canada Day in Ottawa. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

The number of Canadians who predominantly speak a language other than English or French hit a record high in 2021, according to new census data released on Wednesday.

English and French remain the dominant languages according to Statistics Canada, but the number of people who speak a non-dominant language at home grew to 4.6 million, or roughly 13 per cent of the population.

Meanwhile, at least one in four Canadians reported having at least one first language other than English or French.

"The results that we released today show in large part that trends are continuing in Canada," said Éric Caron-Malenfant, assistant director of the Centre for Demography at Statistics Canada, during a news conference on Wednesday.

The increase is largely due to a rise in the number of Canadians who report speaking predominantly South Asian languages, including Hindi and Punjabi.

In addition, seven in 10 Canadians whose first language is neither English nor French said they also speak an official language at home.

More Canadians are also able to speak more than one language, according to the census data. The number of people who reported being able to hold a conversation in more than one language rose from 39 per cent in 2016 to just over 41 per cent in 2021.

Just under one-third of Canadians reported being fully bilingual, and roughly seven per cent said they could speak three languages fluently. And of those who were fully bilingual, more reported being able to speak languages other than English and French.

"It's not only bilingualism in French-English. It's all types of bilingualism," Caron-Malenfant said.

Declining since 1971

Despite a bump in the number of Canadians reporting French as their first official language, the number of French speakers as a percentage of the overall population continued to decline in 2021.

According to StatsCan, the proportion of French speakers among Canadians has steadily declined since 1971, when 27 per cent reported French as their first official language. That number fell to just over 21 per cent in 2021, while 75 per cent reported English as their first official language, roughly a one per cent increase over the last census.

"Both numbers are increasing, people with French and English as their first official language spoken," Caron-Malenfant said. "But not at the same pace."

The share of predominantly French speakers in Quebec also fell to 77 per cent in 2021 from 79 per cent in 2016. The number of Quebecers who reported English as their first official language topped one million for the first time.

Outside of Quebec, the number of those who say French is their only official language declined in every province except British Columbia.

WATCH | Fewer French-speaking households:

Number of mostly French-speaking households in Quebec dropping, census data shows

1 month ago
Duration 2:09
New census data shows the proportion of predominantly French-speakers in Quebec is falling — proof, says the province, that its French-language bill is necessary. The data also shows the number of French-English bilingual Quebecers is on the rise.

Cree, Inuktitut prominent 

Statistics Canada says 189,000 people reported their first language to be Indigenous, with most of those saying they speak an Indigenous language regularly.

The report says Inuktitut and Cree are being spoken by roughly 27,000 people each, making them the most commonly used Indigenous languages.

Even more Canadians — 243,000 — reported being able to hold a conversation in an Indigenous language. Statistics Canada said that indicates they're being learned as second languages.

Other language highlights 

  • The number of English-French bilingual Canadians remained steady at 18 per cent, with a rise in Quebec offset by a decline in the rest of Canada.
  • There was a decline in the number of Canadians who predominantly spoke some European languages such as Italian, Polish and Greek.
  • Outside of English and French, Mandarin and Punjabi are the most commonly spoken languages.
  • Nunavut has the highest rate of bilingualism at 68 per cent. The majority of those are fluent in English and Inuktitut.
  • Quebec has the highest trilingual population rate at 12 per cent. In Montreal, one in five reported being able to speak three languages fluently.
  • Nearly 50,000 Canadians reported knowing a sign language, with more than half that number — just under 28,000 — saying they use sign language regularly at home.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Darren Major

CBC journalist

Darren Major can be reached via email darren.major@cbc.ca or by tweeting him @DMajJourno.

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