Languages in Canada
The many languages spoken in Canada are a reflection of the country’s long history and colonial roots. From an official standpoint, Canada is a bilingual country, with both French and English recognized as the nation’s national languages, but there are also a multitude of non-official languages spoken in the country, ranging from German and Spanish to Punjabi and Chinese. This does not include the large number of native languages that can be heard around the country, particularly in the northernmost reaches of Canada. According to the latest census information, there are over 50 distinct languages and many more native dialects spoken throughout Canada, which are classified into 11 Aboriginal language groups. Of them, only Ojibway, Inuktitut and Cree are spoken by a large enough group of speakers to be considered relevant. Salishan languages are also used in the Northwest Plateau, while Iroquoian and Algic languages are spoken in the Eastern Woodlands cultural area.
French and English in CanadaIntroduction
English and French are the co-official languages of Canada, and both are used in the country’s federal government institutions. What this means, essentially, is that the public has the right to communicate with, and receive services from, federal government institutions in either English or French and that federal government employees have the option of working in the official language of their choice in designated bilingual regions.
The federal government of Canada is committed to advancing the equality and status of the English and French languages within Canadian society and provides support to the development of English and French linguistic minority communities. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms spells out language rights in Canada and the Official Languages Act specifies the obligations of Canadian government institutions at the federal level.
In present day Canada, French and English are the first languages or mother tongue of 23.2 percent and 58.8 percent of the Canadian population, respectively. With regard to geographic distribution, 95 percent of those living in Quebec speak French, and 45 percent are bilingual (French/English). The majority of the population (97 percent) in the rest of Canada knows how to speak English, and 7.5 percent are able to speak French. The bilingual belt of Canada, in which 63 percent of bilingual Canadians reside, covers Quebec, northeastern Ontario, and parts of Ottawa. In Quebec, the rate of bilingualism has risen from 26 percent to 40 percent in the last two decades.
The history of Canada’s bilingualism policy can be traced back to the British North America Act of 1867, which formally allowed the use of both the French and English languages in parliamentary debates and federal courts’ proceedings. Section 133 of that Act also stipulated that English and French should be used in the journals and records of Parliament, and that legislation should be enacted in both official languages.
Federal stamps began to be made in both English and French in the year 1927, and in 1936, banknotes also became bilingual. The Translation Bureau, a federal institution, was formed in 1934 by an Act of Parliament, and in 1959, simultaneous interpretation was introduced in the House of Commons.
More changes came in 1969, when the Canadian Parliament adopted the first Official Languages Act, which recognized French and English as official languages to be used in all federal institutions. Among other things, the ACT stated that all Canadians have the right to appear before tribunals and federal courts using an official language of their choice. Finally, in 1997, the memorandum of understanding between the Treasury Board Secretariat and Canadian Heritage made all departments accountable in view of official-language minorities.
French Language in Canada
In the 17 century, early French settlers founded two colonies in North America: Acadia, in what is now Nova Scotia; and New France, in what is now the province of Quebec.
Between 1755 and 1763, 10,000 of the 14,000 people living in Acadia were deported by the English, but a great many of these exiles subsequently returned and settled in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, where they rejoined other Acadians who had escaped deportation. In the present day, there are now roughly 300,000 people in these three provinces that claim French as their mother tongue, most of whom are direct descendants of the original Acadians.
New France developed slowly in Canada, beginning with a population of 13,000 in 1695 and rising to 70,000 by 1763, when it became a British colony. Following the British conquest of New France, immigration from France reduced drastically, and didn’t pick up again until the beginning of the 20 century, when French immigration was at an all-time high. Today the number of French-speaking people residing in Quebec is over 5.5 million, while the areas west of Quebec, from Ontario to British Columbia, is home to approximately 800,000 francophones.
Due to its large population of French-speaking residents, one can safely assume that the Francophone community of Quebec will survive well into the future, especially when you consider recent legislation that aims to respect the rights of these communities. Outside New Brunswick and Ontario, on the other hand, the survival of such French-speaking communities is far less certain, Recent census data reveals that, in at least three provinces (British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland), the French speaking population is declining sharply, due to assimilation into the English-speaking majority.
Language experts have conducted a number of studies concerning the French language, particularly since the 1960s, in regions such as the Maritime Provinces, Newfoundland, Quebec and Ontario, in both rural and urban areas, but the four western provinces have been relatively neglected up until recently.
Generally, Acadians and French-Canadian speakers understand one another quite easily, despite the fact that there are some minor differences in the type of French they speak. Acadian French, spoken in the Maritimes and in parts of Quebec, is characterized by certain distinctive phonetic features, such as the use of the “u” vowel instead of the open “o.” It is also characterized by numerous words that originated from the areas of France from which they immigrated—regions south of the Loire.
Canadian French, while spoken across an extensive geographic area, and having certain regional differences in vocabulary and pronunciation (Montréal, Québec City, central Québec, Saguenay-Lac Saint-Jean, the Ottawa valley, northern Ontario, etc.), is considerably more homogeneous than European French, which displays variation from region to region over a smaller territory.
The English language, or Anglicisms, as linguists call them; have also had an influence on Canadian French, most notably during the 19 century and the first half of the 20 century. During that period, French was dominated by the English language in many sectors of Canadian society, and as such, many words and usages of the latter became commonplace in French speech.
Over the past two centuries, many French Canadian purists—people who believe it is important to preserve the purity of Canadian French and re-instill a sense of pride within the French Canadian nation—have advocated the eradication of anglicisms; an effort that is beginning to pay off in areas such as Quebec.
English Language in Canada
Although the English language could be heard in Canada prior to the 19 century, there were neither enough speakers nor enough significant features in the language for it to be regarded as anything other than British English. However, between 1825 and 1846 more than half a million immigrants came to Canada directly from Britain, and by 1871 over 2 million people in Canada listed the British Isles as their land of origin. These new Canadians brought with them the kind of English that they had learned from their parents in their homeland, and it bore little similarity to what is now often called Standard British English, or simply Standard English.
According to experts, it is unlikely that the British immigrants to Canada were highly educated. Thus, they did not bring with them the “proper” form of English that was spoken, for example, by graduates of Oxford and Cambridge University. Instead they brought a more “casual” type of English to the country, a circumstance that caused the minority of educated immigrants to object, including a woman named Susanna Moodie, who penned the book Roughing It in the Bush (1852), a biopic about her struggles with Canadian English. Nevertheless, the type of English introduced to Canada in the early 19th century was by no means standard. It was spoken English, often typical of the region from which the speakers came, such as Ireland, Yorkshire or Devon.
When individuals relocate far from their homeland, two things occur to their language. First, it escapes the direct influences of changes in grammar and pronunciation that take place in the parent language; and second, it undergoes major changes in vocabulary and slang words in order to allow its users to accommodate their speech to their new circumstances. This was definitely the case for those British immigrants who came to Canada to establish a new life.
Although there are slight different in pronunciations between British and Canadian English, the grammatical differences are few in number. This is because all the major changes that were to affect the grammatical structure of English took place in Britain well before most of the people immigrated to Canada.
Today, English is far and away the most prominent language spoken in Canada, the first language for nearly 60 percent of the population. Even in those provinces where the French language is most commonly heard, a majority of the residents can speak at least some English, and nearly half are bilingual, meaning they are fluent in both French and English.
Other Languages Spoken in Canada
Like the United States, Canada is becoming a melting pot of different ethnicities, cultures and languages. Statistics from Canada indicate that while most people in Canada speak English or French at home, one out of every six people reported having a mother tongue other than English or French. The survey also says that the fastest growing language groups in the country are those that are regularly spoken in Asia and the Middle East.
Below we have listed the top twenty spoken languages of Canada—the languages spoken at home by those living in Canada, the total number of speakers, and the percentage of the population they represent:
- English 20,584,775 (67.1%)
- French 6,608,125 (19.1%)
- Chinese 790,035 (2.6%)
- Punjabi 500,000 (1.0%)
- Spanish 209,955 (0.7%)
- Italian 170,330 (0.6%)
- Dutch 159,440 (0.6%)
- Ukrainian 148,090 (0.5%)
- Arabic 144,745 (0.5%)
- German 128,350 (0.4%)
- Tagalog 119,345 (0.4%)
- Vietnamese 111,440 (0.4%)
- Portuguese 103,875 (0.3%)
- Urdu 102,805 (0.3%)
- Polish 101,575 (0.3%)
- Korean 101,500 (0.3%)
- Persian 97,220 (0.3%)
- Russian 93,805 (0.3%)
- Tamil 92,680 (0.3%)
- Greek 55,100 (0.2%)
- Gujarati 52,715 (0.2%)
The provinces in which the largest percentage of their specific population speaks something other than French or English as their first language are British Columbia, 16.6 percent; Ontario, 16.1 percent; Manitoba, 10.1 percent; and Alberta, 9.8 percent. The largest populations of foreign speakers, on the other hand, can be found in Ontario (1,934.235); followed by British Columbia (676,911); followed by Quebec (562,860).
Aboriginal Languages of Canada
During the past century or more, roughly 10 of Canada’s once-flourishing Aboriginal languages have become extinct, and at least a dozen are on the brink. As of 1996, only three out of fifty native Aboriginal languages—Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibway—had large enough populations to be considered truly secure from the threat of extinction in the long term. This is not shocking when you consider the current situation. Of some 800,000 people who claimed an Aboriginal identity or ethnicity, only a quarter said an Aboriginal language was their mother tongue, and even fewer spoke the language at home.
The fifty Aboriginal languages in Canada belong to 11 major language families: 10 First Nation language families and Inuktitut. Some of these families are considered large and strong, while others are small and vulnerable.
The three largest language families collectively represent 93 percent of persons with an Aboriginal mother tongue. Roughly 150,000 have Algonquian as their first language, a language family that includes Cree and Ojibway. Another 28,000 have Inuktitut as their mother tongue, and 20,000 have Athapaskan. The remaining eight language families account for only 7 percent of persons with an Aboriginal first language, an indication of these languages’ small relative size.