Statistics Canada has recently released a fourth set of 2021 Census results on mother tongue, languages spoken at home and languages known by Canadians.
Their findings revealed that English and French remain by far the most commonly spoken languages in Canada. More than nine in 10 Canadians speak one of the two official languages at home at least on a regular basis. Yet, one in four Canadians in 2021 – or nine million people – had a mother tongue other than English or French, a record number since the 1901 Census, the year when a question on mother tongue was added.
The 2021 Census found that 4.6 million Canadians speak for the most part a language other than English or French at home, representing 12.7 per cent of the Canadian population. By comparison, the proportion was 7.7 per cent in 1991.
The languages known and spoken in this country are closely linked to the identity and culture of Canadians and to their relationship with their community. Languages are an integral part of the everyday lives of Canadians – be it in early childhood, at home, at school or at work – and extend beyond the country’s borders into broader cultural and historical contexts.
French and English languages
The vast majority of the Canadian population commonly uses English and French, Canada’s official languages, to communicate and access services. Although both are spoken throughout the country, English is a minority language in Quebec while French is a minority language in the other provinces and territories as well as in Canada as a whole.
Indigenous languages existed long before Canada was formed. As the International Decade of Indigenous Languages kicks off, the preservation, vitality and growth of the more than 70 distinct Indigenous languages spoken in the country remain as relevant and important as ever.
The census found that the proportion of Canadians with English as their first official language spoken rises while those with French decreases.
Of the two official languages, most Canadians spoke English at home at least on a regular basis (74.2 per cent) or predominantly (63.8 per cent), and English was the mother tongue of more than half of the country’s population (54.9 per cent).
From 2016 to 2021, the number of Canadians with English as their first official language spoken rose from 26.0 million to 27.6 million. The proportion they represent also increased during this period, from 74.8 per cent to 75.5 per cent. In fact, the number and proportion of Canadians with English as their first official language spoken have been rising since 1971, the first year the census collected information on the official language spoken.
French was the first official language spoken by more than 7.8 million Canadians in 2021, up from 7.7 million in 2016. However, since this growth (+1.6 per cent) was slower than the growth of the population overall (+5.2 per cent), the proportion of the Canadian population whose first official language spoken is French decreased from 22.2 per cent in 2016 to 21.4 per cent in 2021, continuing the downward trend seen in recent decades. In 1971, French was the first official language spoken by 27.2 per cent of Canadians.
The proportion of the population whose first language spoken is French is highest in Quebec, followed by New Brunswick and Yukon. The proportion of bilingual English-French Canadians (18.0 per cent) remains practically unchanged since 2016.
Census data on languages are essential to understanding how Canada’s linguistic profile is changing. They serve to develop and improve programs and services for all Canadians as well as being used in the development, application and administration of various federal and provincial laws, such as the federal Official Languages Act and Indigenous Languages Act, New Brunswick’s Official Languages Act, Ontario’s French Language Services Act and Quebec’s Charter of the French Language.
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