Immigrant Languages in Canada

According to the 2016 census, more Canadians are reporting a mother tongue or language spoken at home other than English or French than in previous years. This is mostly due to the increase in immigrant languages. According to Statistics Canada, immigrant languages are languages “whose presence is initially due to immigration after English and French colonization.”

Languages in Canada

From a strictly legal standpoint, there are three major classes of languages in Canada: official or "Charter" languages —French and English— which are recognized under the federal Official Languages Act of 1969 (under provincial legislation, however, French is an official language only in  Quebec and New Brunswick); ancestral languages of Indigenous peoples (see Indigenous Languages in Canada), traditionally spoken by First Nations, Métis and Inuit which are not protected legally at the federal level and; those that Statistics Canada terms “immigrant languages,” which do not enjoy official status in Canada but are spoken as national or regional languages elsewhere (see Ethnic Languages).

Impact of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism

Official language policy in Canada encourages maintenance of immigrant language and culture. The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1963 – 69) determined that Canadians of non-British and non-French origin preferred integration to assimilation. According to the Commission report, assimilation implies "almost total absorption into another linguistic and cultural group. An assimilated individual gives up his cultural identity and may even...change his name." On the other hand, integration "does not imply the loss of an individual's identity and original characteristics or of his original language and culture." Over the years, educational systems across Canada have provided opportunity for immigrant communities to maintain their mother tongues. Immersion programs in languages other than English and French are widely available (see Second Language Instruction).

Counting Immigrant Languages in Canada

In 1991, the Census Bureau, in response to the reality of Canadian multilingualism, asked respondents to distinguish between their "mother tongue," the language they spoke first, and their "home language," the language they use daily with their immediate families in domestic situations. More than 4 million claimed a mother tongue other than English or French. Of these, more than 50 percent maintained their mother tongue as their home language as well. The dominant pattern for the earliest immigrants was a rapid, one-generation assimilation into one of the official language groups. This later gave way to a pattern of bilingualism in which the offspring of immigrants master an official language, but also maintain their ethnic linguistic heritage.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2016, 7,335,745 people in Canada reported speaking an immigrant language at home. This represents 21.1 per cent of the Canadian population, an increase of 14.7 per cent from 2011 to 2016. The number of people who reported an immigrant mother tongue rose from 6,838,715 in 2011 to 7,749,115 in 2016. This is an increase of 910,400 people or 13.3 per cent.

The top immigrant language spoken in each province and territory are: Tagalog in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba; Punjabi in British Columbia; Mandarin in Ontario and Prince Edward Island and; Arabic in Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Most people who report speaking an immigrant language as a mother tongue reside in one of Canada’s census metropolitan areas (CMAs). In 2016, 75.5 per cent of people with an immigrant mother tongue lived in one of the six largest CMAs: Montreal, Ottawa–Gatineau, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver.

Statistical projections

In 2016, Statistics Canada looked at figures related to immigration, ethno-cultural diversity and language from 2011 and made projections to 2036. It is expected that by 2036, half of all Canadians will be either immigrants or children of immigrants. In terms of immigration patterns, the proportion of European newcomers is expected to decrease, while more than half of all immigrants are anticipated to be of Asian origin. As a result, Canada’s linguistic fabric is expected to change. By 2036, more than 25 per cent of the Canadian population are expected to have a mother tongue other than English or French.


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