Canadians becoming more bilingual, linguistically diverse, census data shows

Canada's linguistic make-up is becoming more diverse, as the share of Canadians who speak a language other than French or English at home is increasing. But the rate of French-English bilingualism in Canada has also never been higher.

Number of Canadians who speak a language other than French or English at home up 14.5 per cent

Of the largest non-official languages in Canada, Tagalog is growing the fastest, at a rate of 35 per cent since 2011. Statistics Canada released new data from its 2016 population census Wednesday. (Wendy Buelow/CBC)

Canada's linguistic make-up is becoming more diverse, as the share of Canadians who speak a language other than French or English at home is increasing.

But the rate of French-English bilingualism in Canada has also never been higher.

These are some of the trends revealed by the latest Statistics Canada release from the 2016 census of the population.

The share of Canadians who speak a non-official language at home has increased significantly since 2011, up 14.5 per cent to 7.6 million.

Nearly 23 per cent of Canadians reported having an "other" mother tongue in 2016, up from 21.3 per cent in 2011. By comparison, 21.3 per cent said that French was their mother tongue — including 78.4 per cent of Quebecers.

Still, no single language other than English or French is spoken at home by more than two per cent of the population.

"We have to be careful in comparing French to 200 other languages," said Jean-Pierre Corbeil, an assistant director at Statistics Canada. "French isn't going to be overtaken by another language in the foreseeable future, particularly when English and French are the languages of integration for immigrants."

The data shows that 69.9 per cent of Canadians who have a non-official language as their mother tongue speak English or French regularly at home, while just 1.9 per cent of Canadians say they cannot hold a conversation in either language.

The most frequently spoken language at home other than English or French was Mandarin, spoken by 641,100 Canadians. It was followed by Cantonese (594,705), Punjabi (568,375), Spanish (553,495), Tagalog (525,375) and Arabic (514,200).

The number of people in Canada who speak Arabic has grown 30 per cent since the previous population census in 2011. (CBC)

Of the largest non-official languages, Tagalog is the fastest growing. It grew at a rate of 35 per cent since 2011. Arabic was the next fastest growing at 30 per cent.

Languages that arrived in Canada through previous waves of immigration, like Italian, Polish, German and Greek, have decreased since the last census.

2/3 of non-official language speakers live in 3 cities

The census data shows that most speakers of a non-official language can be found in three cities: Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, where two-thirds of them reside.

The census metropolitan areas with the fastest rate of growth of non-official languages were Edmonton and Calgary.

The numbers also show the variation in languages from one city to the next.

While Arabic was the most frequently spoken non-official language in Montreal and Ottawa-Gatineau, Tagalog was the largest in Calgary and Edmonton (followed by Punjabi and Cantonese), while Cantonese was most frequently spoken in Toronto and Vancouver (followed by Mandarin and Punjabi.)

Bilingualism at its highest level

The share of Canadians who speak English at home increased to 74.7 per cent in 2016 from 74 per cent in 2011, while those who speak French fell to 23.3 per cent from 23.8 per cent.

But the number of Canadians who are bilingual increased to 18 per cent, the highest level of bilingualism on record.

In 1961, just 12.2 per cent of Canadians reported being bilingual.

Fully two-thirds of the growth in bilingualism since the 2011 census was due to Quebec, where a majority of bilingual Canadians live.

Just under half, or 44.9 per cent, of Quebecers are bilingual. The next most bilingual province was New Brunswick, at 34 per cent.

"Though the main driver behind the increase in bilingualism is that the francophone population in Quebec is becoming increasingly bilingual," saidCorbeil, "it is also due to the increase in popularity of French immersion programs for children."

"There are now 410,000 youth in French immersion," he said, "and children in these programs are more likely to retain proficiency in the language."

Bilingualism is primarily a francophone affair. Just under 86 per cent of bilingual Canadians live either in Quebec or the neighbouring regions of Ontario and New Brunswick.

Just under half of French speakers are bilingual. Only 9.4 per cent of Canadians with English as a mother tongue are bilingual — less than the 11.7 per cent of English-French bilingual Canadians who have a mother tongue that is not one of the official languages.

The share of Canadians who speak a non-official language at home has increased significantly since 2011, up 14.5 per cent to 7.6 million. (The Canadian Press / Graham Hughes)

More Indigenous Canadians learning their native language

According to the census, there are 228,770 Canadians who speak an Indigenous language at home.

Leading the way is Cree, spoken by 83,985 Canadians, followed by Inuktitut (39,025) and Ojibway (21,800).

But the number of Canadians who report speaking an Indigenous language at home is larger than the number who say one of these languages is their mother tongue.

This is particularly marked among younger Indigenous people, suggesting that more are learning their native Indigenous language as their second language.

About the Author

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.