Languages in Use

Canada has two official languages (see English Language and French Language), but the country's linguistic wealth is much greater. Beginning with the oldest languages, there are no fewer than 50 Indigenous languages, some of which seem to be disappearing.

Languages in Use

Canada has two official languages (see English Language and French Language), but the country's linguistic wealth is much greater. Beginning with the oldest languages, there are no fewer than 50 Indigenous languages, some of which seem to be disappearing. According to the 1996 census, there were around 800 000 Indigenous peoples in Canada, but only about 207 000, or one-quarter, claimed one of their traditional languages as their mother tongue. And of the latter, about 120 000 used it as the language most often spoken at home (see Indigenous People: Languages).

History of French and English in Canada

The dominant languages in Canada - English and French - are those of the colonizers. In 1763, when New France was ceded to England, there were about 80 000 French and 20 000 British in the territory that is now Canada. Forty years later, the English were becoming dominant, and by the mid-19th century a state of equilibrium had been established. Although the relative size of the language groups fluctuated in subsequent years, the balance remained fairly constant. Only since 1931 have Canadian censuses provided information on mother tongues for the total population; for earlier periods it must be calculated from information concerning population distribution by ethnic origin. In 1871 and for the following decades, however, there was probably not much difference between mother tongue and corresponding ethnic origin: around 62% English, 30% French, 2% Indigenous and 6% other.

Recent Historical Language Changes

After some decline until 1941, English representation has risen almost to its 1871 level (60% in 1996). French representation fluctuated between 27% and 31% until 1961, and has since decreased (23.5% in 1996). The other language groups grew in relative size until 1931, declined until 1971 and since then have risen (16.7% in 1996). The explanation for these movements is very complex, but 3 factors appear primarily responsible. First was the arrival of immigrants who spoke languages other than English or French, which initially increased the size of the "other" group. Second (and more decisive in the long term) was the adoption of English by their descendants. Third is a rather strong tendency for the French to adopt English when they live outside the province of Québec, Acadia and the Ontario fringe.

Home Language vs Mother Tongue

Many Canadians have adopted, during their life course, a home language which is different from their mother tongue, particularly those whose mother tongue is neither English nor French. Here is the percentage of Canadian population speaking English, French or other languages, according to the type of language considered (mother tongue or most often spoken at home):

Mother Tongue Home Language

English 59.8% 68.0%

French 23.5% 22.6%

Other 16.7% 9.4%

Total 100% 100%

According to these statistics (Census of Canada, 1996), English has gained at the expense of the French and of the "other" mother tongues. However, closer examination reveals that abandonment of that "other" language, especially in favour of English, is even greater. Among adults with "other" mother tongues, 60% generally speak a language other than their mother tongue at home. Of adults whose mother tongue is English and who were born in Canada, only 1% do not generally speak English at home, while 6% of those whose mother tongue is French do not generally use their French at home. The long-term ability of the "other" languages to survive thus appears to be weak. Some, however, are still quite strong. According to the 1996 census, 3 languages (Chinese, Italian and German) were spoken by more than 400 000 people in each group, and 7 other languages (Spanish, Portugese, Polish, Punjabi, Ukrainian, Arabic, Tagalog [Filipino]) were spoken by groups of between 150 000 and 228 000 people.

Language Maintenance in Québec

A distinction does exist between Québec and the rest of Canada. In Québec, 98% of francophones keep their mother tongue all their lives; this is also the case for 90% of anglophones. Yet in Québec, which is nearly 83% French-speaking, about 66% of immigrants who settled before 1980 and who chose to learn one of the 2 official languages chose English. This has changed as a result of the effects of Bill 101: less than half of those who have come after 1980 have chosen English. In the rest of Canada, the situation is more clear cut; almost all anglophones keep their language; almost all non-English-speaking people who abandon their language choose English; and about 44% of adults with a non-official language as their mother tongue speak mostly English at home. In 1996, 91% of Anglophones (home language) lived outside Québec; on the other hand, 86% of all Francophones lived in Québec. The percentage of Anglophones in Québec (14.7% in 1971) will probably be about 10% by the year 2000; that of Francophones in the rest of Canada (4.4% in 1971) around 2.5%.


To be bilingual means that one is able to sustain a conversation in both English and French. English-French bilingualism is not very widespread but it is increasing (17% of the population). It is especially prevalent, though, among mother-tongue Francophones and Anglophones living in Québec. For Canada as a whole, 9% of those with English as their mother tongue and 41% of those with French as their mother tongue are bilingual. In Québec the figures are 62% and 34%, and for the rest of Canada, 7% and 84%. Here we find another aspect of English-language dominance in Canada: while a large minority of Anglophones in Québec can ignore the French language, the same is not true for Francophones in other provinces with respect to English. It is conceivable, however, that fewer and fewer Anglophones will be able to live exclusively in English if they wish to remain in Québec.

See also Population by Mother Tongue: Table.

Further Reading

  • Réjean Lachapelle and Jacques Henripin, The Demolinguistic Situation in Canada: Past Trends and Future Prospects/La situation démolinguistique au Canada: évolution passée et prospective (1982).

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