Languages in Use in Canada

Although French and English are Canada’s only two official languages, the country’s linguistic diversity is very rich. 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.

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.

Census Definitions of Language Speakers: Mother Tongue and First Official Language Spoken (FOLS)

The Canadian census distinguishes between two definitions of language speakers: mother tongue and first official language spoken (FOLS).

The mother tongue definition refers to the first language learned and still understood by an individual.The purpose of counting people based on first official language spoken is to help distinguish, in broad terms, between French- and English-speaking Canadians. The FOLS definition is derived from three federal census questions: knowledge of Canada’s official languages, mother tongue, and home language.

English-Speakers in Canada

In the 2016 census, 20,193,335 Canadians, or 58.1 percent of the total population, reported English as their mother tongue. Canadians whose first official language spoken was English represented roughly 75 per cent of the total population, or just over 26 million people (see Canadian English; Anglophone).

French-Speakers in Canada

In the 2016 census, about 7.4 million Canadians, or 21.4 per cent of the population, reported French as their mother tongue. Canadians whose first official language spoken was French represented 22.8 per cent of the total population, or just over 7.9 million people (see French Language in Canada; Francophone).

Indigenous Languages in Canada

There are around 70 distinct Indigenous languages in Canada. These languages fall into 12 separate language families and are traditionally spoken by First Nations, Métis people and the Inuit.

In 2016, Statistics Canada reported that for about 40 Indigenous languages in Canada, there are only about 500 speakers or less. This number does not distinguish between fluent and learning speakers, which means that a more accurate estimation of the number of fluent language speakers of any particular Indigenous language might be less. Statistics Canada revealed that 260,550 Indigenous people reported the ability to speak an Indigenous language; this represents a 3.1 per cent increase from 2006. Algonquian languages had the highest speaking population (175,825), followed by Cree (96,575) and Ojibwe (28,130).

Immigrant Languages in Canada

According to Statistics Canada, immigrant languages are languages “whose presence is initially due to immigration after English and French colonization.”

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.

Further Reading

External Links