Chapter 2 – Knowledge of Languages

Knowledge of official languages
Knowledge of “other” languages
Overview

The long-form census questionnaire contains two questions on the knowledge of languages. The first identifies knowledge of official languages, in this case English and French. The choice of responses allows respondents to provide information on their knowledge of each of the two official languages. The second question concerns knowledge of other languages. In the 2006 Census questionnaire, this is an open-ended question where respondents can report knowing up to two languages other than English and French. According to the formulation of these two questions, knowledge of a language is defined as the ability to conduct a conversation in a given language. It should be noted that the data provided by these questions concerns knowledge of languages, not their use.

The question on knowledge of official languages has appeared in every census since 1901, except in 1911 and 1976. The knowledge of official languages concept has not been changed substantially since 1971. The question on the knowledge of non-official languages has appeared in every census since 1991.

Data on knowledge of official languages provide an overview of the number of Canadians who can communicate in English, French or both languages. They also provide information on the number of people who speak neither English nor French. Using statistics on knowledge of official languages, we are able to evaluate the extent of bilingualism in different areas and according to language groups. This information allows public services and private companies to more effectively plan certain aspects of their recruitment programs. By cross-referencing the variable on knowledge of official languages with variables on mother tongue, place of birth and period of immigration, it is possible to study the linguistic adaptation of different immigrant groups. With this information, language training needs in particular can be identified.

Data on knowledge of non-official languages provides a measurement of Canadians’ ability to communicate in various languages other than English or French. Given Canada’s obvious cultural diversity and increasing trade and cultural exchanges with other countries, data on knowledge of non-official languages can be used to evaluate and take advantage of the country’s available language resources. Cross-referencing the variable on knowledge of non-official languages with other language variables provides a good indication of the level of retention or learning and knowledge of non official languages.

Knowledge of official languages

Two out of three Canadians, or 21.1 million, report that English is the only official language in which they are able to conduct a conversation. On the other hand, 4.1 million inhabitants, or 13.3% of Canada’s population, are able to conduct a conversation in French but do not know English. The proportion of Canadians able to conduct a conversation in both official languages is 17.4%. Taking into consideration these bilingual individuals, 85.1% are able to conduct a conversation in English and 30.7% are able to conduct a conversation in French. Conversely, 520,000 respondents, or 1.7% of Canada’s population, report knowing neither English nor French.
The number and proportion of Canadians who know English increase from one census to the next. The proportion of individuals who know English increased steadily between 1971 (80.5%) and 2001 (85.2%), but remained stable between 2001 and 2006 (85.1%).

Chart 2.1 Number and proportion of Canadians who know English, Canada, 1971, 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2006

All of the provinces and territories that recorded population growth in the past five years also experienced an increase in the number of individuals able to conduct a conversation in English. Conversely, Newfoundland and Labrador and Saskatchewan, two provinces where the population dropped between 2001 and 2006, also recorded a decrease in the number of individuals able to conduct a conversation in English. New Brunswick’s situation is different: the number of individuals who know English is falling while the province’s population remains stable. It is mainly the knowledge of “other” languages that has undergone marked growth in this province, as immigration doubled between 2001 and 2006 compared to the previous five-year period.

In Quebec, knowledge of English has been on a constant rise since 1971 as a result of an increasingly bilingual population; the number of individuals who know only English has declined steadily since 1971. The situation is different in the rest of Canada, where the proportion of people who know English has stabilized at close to 98% since 1981. This growth in Quebec is due mainly to an increase in the number of people who know only English, although the number of English–French bilingual individuals doubled between 1971 and 2006, climbing from 1.2 million to 2.4 million Canadians.

Chart 2.2 Number of persons who know English, Quebec, 1971,1981,1991,2001 and 2006

Chart 2.3 Number of persons who know English, Canada minus Quebec, 1971, 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2006

Like those who know English, the number of Canadians able to conduct a conversation in French has increased steadily. Between 1971 and 1996, the number of Canadians who know French rose by an average of over 400,000 individuals each intercensal period. Between 1996 and 2001 this increase was only 258,000 persons, but between 2001 and 2006, growth resumed at the rate of the previous five-year periods with an increase of 413,000 persons. However, in spite of this constant rise, the proportion of Canadians who know French has decreased slightly in proportion since 1981, dropping from 31.8% to 30.7% in 2006.

Chart 2.4 Number and proportion of Canadians who know French, Canada, 1971, 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2006

For this slight decrease between 1981 and 2006 in the proportion of people who know French in Canada as a whole to coincide with an increase in the proportion of people who know French in every province and territory, without exception, is a unique occurrence. These increases are sometimes very small, especially in Ontario (0.3%), Saskatchewan (0.4%) and Alberta (0.3%). Larger increases are seen in the Atlantic provinces, with 4.5% in Prince Edward Island and 4.2% in New Brunswick.

This phenomenon is explained by the decrease in the relative proportion of Quebec’s population within Canada. Since approximately three-quarters of Canadians who know French live in Quebec, the increase in knowledge of French in Quebec, which rose from 93% in 1981 to 95% in 2006, does not compensate for the fact that Quebec’s population, which accounted for 26% of Canada’s population in 1981, only represented 24% in 2006. Moreover, Ontario and Alberta, which are among those provinces that experienced the largest population growth over this 25-year period, had the smallest increases in the proportion of individuals who know French.

The growth in the number of people who know French is mainly due to an increase in the number of bilingual individuals both in Quebec and in the other provinces and territories.

Chart 2.5 Number of persons who know French Quebec, 1971, 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2006

Chart 2.6 Number of persons who know French, Canada minus Quebec, 1971, 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2006

Generally speaking, people whose mother tongue is either English or French (single response) know their mother tongue well enough to conduct a conversation in that language. However, the fact that the question on mother tongue includes a condition—the first language learned must still be understood—ensures that respondents who report no longer knowing their mother tongue are those who still understand it but are no longer fluent enough to conduct a conversation.26 These situations are very rare, but some exceptions do exist, especially for Francophones outside Quebec, with 3% reporting knowing only English.

In 2006, 5.4 million Canadians, or over 17% of Canada’s population, reported being able to conduct a conversation in both English and French. However, only New Brunswick and Quebec report a rate of bilingualism higher than the national average, with 33% and 41% respectively. All the other provinces and territories report rates of bilingualism below the average, at less than 10% in most cases. Nonetheless, English French bilingualism has been on the rise in Canada since 1971, despite a small setback between 2001 and 2006.

Chart 2.7 Number of English-French bilingual persons, Quebec and Canada minus Quebec, 1971, 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2006

A strong Francophone presence in certain regions of the country fosters English-French bilingualism. Official-language minority groups report higher rates of bilingualism than majority groups, and Francophones generally report a higher rate of bilingualism than Anglophones. In Canada, those whose mother tongue is French (single response) report a rate of English-French bilingualism of 42%, compared to 9% for Anglophones. In Quebec, Anglophones are the official-language minority and report a 69% rate of bilingualism, almost twice as high as that of Francophones (36%). However, in most of the other provinces and territories, with the exception of New Brunswick, the rate of bilingualism among Francophones ranges from 86% (Saskatchewan) to 94% (Nunavut). The rate of bilingualism among Francophones in New Brunswick (68%) is higher than that among Francophones in Quebec, but is lower compared to the other provinces.


Table 2.1Persons able to conduct a conversation in both English and French, according to mother tongue, Canada, provinces, territories and Canada minus Quebec, 2006
RegionTotal1English2French2
number in
thousands
%number in
thousands
%number in
thousands
%
Canada 5,448.9 17.4 1,673.9 9.4 2,890.8 42.4
Newfoundland and Labrador 23.7 4.7 21.1 4.3 1.7 90.2
Prince Edward Island 17.1 12.7 11.5 9.2 5.0 92.7
Nova Scotia 95.0 10.5 59.5 7.1 30.1 92.5
New Brunswick 240.1 33.4 74.2 16.0 158.5 68.0
Quebec 3,017.9 40.6 396.7 68.9 2,104.6 35.8
Ontario 1,337.3 11.5 694.1 8.4 432.0 88.4
Manitoba 103.5 9.1 54.6 6.5 39.6 90.0
Saskatchewan 47.5 5.0 30.0 3.7 13.9 86.3
Alberta 222.9 6.8 138.4 5.4 54.4 88.9
British Columbia 295.6 7.3 188.8 6.6 48.9 89.4
Yukon 3.4 11.4 2.0 8.0 1.0 89.3
Northwest Territories 3.7 8.9 2.4 7.7 0.9 90.2
Nunavut 1.2 4.0 0.6 7.9 0.3 94.3
Canada minus Quebec 2,431.0 10.2 1,277.2 7.4 786.3 83.6
1. Includes persons with a mother tongue other than English or French and multiple responses.
2. Single responses only.
Source: Statistics Canada, 2006 Census of Population.

English-French bilingual Canadians are fairly concentrated, with more than half (55%) living in Quebec. If we include those living in New Brunswick and Ontario, over 85% of bilingual Canadians live in these three provinces. Alberta (4%) and British Columbia (5%) account for close to 10%, with the eight other provinces and territories sharing the remaining 5%.

Over one-third of bilingual Canadians live in the Montreal CMA (34%). There, the rate of bilingualism is 52%, which is the highest rate of all the CMAs in Canada.27 Outside Quebec, three CMAs report rates of bilingualism higher than the national average. These are Moncton (47%), Ottawa–Gatineau (44%) and Great Sudbury (39%), a CMA with a strong Francophone minority. All CMAs located in Quebec report rates of bilingualism higher than the national average: aside from Montreal and the Quebec bank of the Ottawa–Gatineau CMA, there is also Sherbrooke (40%), Quebec City (33%), Trois-Rivières (26%) and Saguenay (19%).


Table 2.2English-French bilingualism according to place of residence, Canada and Census Metropolitan Areas, 2006
Census Metropolitan AreasTotal PopulationBilingual Persons
number in
thousands
number in
thousands
%
Montreal 3 588,5 1 861,9 51,9
Moncton 124,1 58,2 46,9
Ottawa-Gatineau 1 117,1 496,0 44,4
Ottawa-Gatineau (Quebec) 281,7 175,9 62,4
Ottawa-Gatineau (Ontario) 835,5 320,2 38,3
Sherbrooke 183,6 72,9 39,7
Grand Sudbury 156,4 60,7 38,8
Quebec 704,2 232,5 33,0
Trois-Rivières 138,6 35,9 25,9
Saguenay 149,6 28,2 18,8
Canada 31 241,0 5 448,8 17,4
Saint John 120,9 19,1 15,8
Hors RMR 9 932,6 1 363,0 13,7
Kingston 148,5 18,9 12,7
Halifax 369,5 44,9 12,1
Winnipeg 686,0 74,9 10,9
Windsor 320,7 33,6 10,5
Victoria 325,1 33,1 10,2
Guelph 126,1 11,3 8,9
Ste-Catherines-Niagara 385,0 32,4 8,4
Toronto 5 072,1 418,5 8,3
Calgary 1 070,3 84,1 7,9
Vancouver 2 098,0 162,8 7,8
Edmonton 1 024,8 78,0 7,6
Oshawa 328,1 24,3 7,4
Thunder Bay 121,1 8,9 7,3
Barrie 175,3 12,5 7,1
St, John's 179,3 12,7 7,1
London 452,6 31,6 7,0
Hamilton 683,4 47,1 6,9
Kelowna 160,6 11,0 6,9
Kitchener 446,5 30,3 6,8
Peterborough 115,1 7,7 6,7
Saskatoon 230,9 14,5 6,3
Regina 192,4 11,8 6,1
Abbotsford 156,6 8,2 5,2
Brantford 122,8 5,8 4,7
Source: Statistique Canada, Recensement de la population de 2006.

Among Anglophones, knowledge of French continued to grow between 2001 and 2006, increasing from 9.0% to 9.4%. Bilingualism among Anglophones has increased or remained stable in all the provinces and territories since 2001. In Quebec, nearly seven out of ten Anglophones (69%) reported knowing English and French in 2006, compared to 66% in 2001.

Outside Quebec, 7.4% of Anglophones reported being able to conduct a conversation in both official languages in 2006, an increase over 2001 (7.1%).

Outside Quebec, it is in New Brunswick, which is the only officially bilingual province in the country and where Francophones represent 33% of the population, that we see the highest rate of bilingualism among Anglophones (16%).

Although knowledge of French seems to have advanced somewhat between 2001 and 2006 within the Anglophone population, it continues to decline among young people aged 15 to 19 living outside Quebec. French is usually learned at school. Consequently, the rate of bilingualism peaks in the 15-to-19 age group when these young people finish high school. Many adolescents in this age group were enrolled in either a French as-a-second-language program or an immersion program. Since 1996, bilingualism has lost ground among Anglophones in this age group.

In 2006, 13% of Anglophones in the 15-to-19 age group who were living outside Quebec reported or were reported as being bilingual, a decrease compared to 2001 (15%) and 1996 (16%). However, bilingualism did increase slightly in the 10-to-14 and 5-to-9 age groups.

The ability of young Anglophones to maintain their knowledge of French as a second language seems to diminish over time. In 2001, 15% of young Anglophones aged 15 to 19 were bilingual. In 2006, when they were five years older (aged 20 to 24), only 12% reported being bilingual. A similar trend appears in the evolution of bilingualism among the 15-to-19 cohort in 1996.

Chart 2.8 English-French bilingualism rate in Anglophones by age group, Canada minus Quebec, 1996 to 2006

The proportion of Canadians with a French mother tongue who reported being able to conduct a conversation in English and French was 42% in 2006. In Quebec, one in three (36%) Francophones reported being bilingual, while the vast majority of Francophones living outside Quebec (84%) know English and French.

The proportion of Francophones who reported being bilingual in 2006 is slightly lower than that observed in 2001 in all provinces, with the exception of Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and British Columbia, as well as the territories. It is difficult to explain this trend reversal in Francophone bilingualism with census data, especially outside Quebec, in provinces where the language transfer rates are particularly high and rising. For example, the proportion of Francophones in Ontario who reported being bilingual in 2001 was 89%, an increase compared to 1996 (88%), while in 2006 this rate was 88%, a decrease compared to 2001.

A large majority of persons with an Aboriginal mother tongue (single responses) report knowing only English (84%) of the two official languages; just 7% report knowing only French. The situation in Quebec is very different from that in the other provinces and territories. In Quebec, these proportions are respectively 36% and 33%, compared to 95% for English and less than 1% for French outside Quebec. Six percent of individuals with an Aboriginal mother tongue do not know English or French well enough to conduct a conversation. The majority of these are children under the age of ten.

Chart 2.9 Knowledge of official languages in persons with an Aboriginal mother tongue (single responses), Canada, Quebec and Canada minus Quebec, 2006

In 2006, the proportion of individuals with an Aboriginal mother tongue able to conduct a conversation in English and French was 4%, increasing steadily compared to previous censuses. However, 80% of them live in Quebec, where the rate of English-French bilingualism among people with an Aboriginal mother tongue has doubled in the past 20 years, from 8% in 1986 to 16% in 2006. This increase explains the basis of the increased rate of bilingualism among persons with an Aboriginal mother tongue in Canada overall because, outside Quebec, this rate is stable at about 1%.

In the country as a whole, individuals with an “other” mother tongue know only English in 76% of cases, compared to 4% who know only French. Once again, a comparison between Quebec and the other provinces and territories shows that knowledge of French among respondents with an “other” mother tongue is much more common in Quebec. In that province, 16% of these individuals know only English, compared to 24% who know only French. The rate of English-French bilingualism is very high among persons with an “other” mother tongue in Quebec (52%). In comparison, outside Quebec, these people know only English in 86% of cases and report being English-French bilingual in 6% of cases, while the proportion of respondents with an “other” mother tongue who know only French is very small (0.1%). Eight percent of respondents with an “other” mother tongue, or almost 500,000 people, know neither English nor French. In most cases, they are aged 55 or older and mainly women, as well as children under the age of 5 in 16% of cases.

Chart 2.10 Knowledge of official languages in persons with an "other" mother tongue (single response), Canada, Quebec and Canada minus Quebec, 2006

Persons with an “other” mother tongue have a rate of English-French bilingualism of 51.8% in Quebec, which is a slight decrease compared to 2001 (52.3%). This rate is much lower outside Quebec, where it was 6% in 2006, almost identical to the rate in 2001. The Montreal CMA includes over half of the people with an “other” mother tongue who report being English-French bilingual in Canada as a whole. In this CMA, the rate of bilingualism is highest among respondents with an “other” mother tongue, at 53%, slightly ahead of the Quebec bank of the Ottawa–Gatineau CMA (52%).

Generally speaking, we see the highest rate of bilingualism in late adolescence and early adulthood. In Quebec, Anglophones report the highest proportion of English French bilingualism among all age groups. This proportion increases from one age group to the next to peak at 83% among 15-to-19-year-olds. It then gradually declines in subsequent age groups to 67% among 55-to-59-year-olds and then, more rapidly, up to the 80 years and older age group, 40% of whom are able to conduct a conversation in both English and French.

The age group comparison provides similar results for allophones, albeit in smaller proportions: 69% of allophones in Quebec aged 15 to 19 are English-French bilingual, compared to 50% of those aged 55 to 59 and 27% of those aged 80 and older.

For Francophones, the proportion of English-French bilingualism is highest among individuals in their twenties: 51% of 20-to--24-year-olds and 25-to-29-year-olds are bilingual, while 37% of 55-to-59-year-olds and 28% of those 80 and older are bilingual.

Chart 2.11 English-French bilingualism rate according to mother tongue and age group, Quebec, 2006

In the other provinces and territories, we also see growth in the proportion of English-French bilingualism in the youngest age groups. However, the highest proportions are found among Francophones: in all age groups between 15 and 79 years, the proportion of Francophones able to conduct a conversation in English and French is over 80%. Conversely, this proportion is never higher than 15% among Anglophones and allophones.

Chart 2.12 English-French bilingualism rate according to mother tongue and age group, Canada minus Quebec, 2006

Slightly more than 520,000 Canadians are unable to conduct a conversation in either of the two official languages. In 96% of cases, these are individuals with an “other” mother tongue. Twenty percent of people who know neither English nor French were born in Canada, but these are mainly children under the age of 5. The others are immigrants or non-permanent residents. A quarter of the immigrants who do not know either of the official languages arrived in the country during the last intercensal period, that is, between 2001 and 2006. These 103,000 immigrants represent 9.3% of all those who arrived in Canada during that period. This proportion has dropped in comparison to previous censuses, with the proportion of recent immigrants who could not conduct a conversation in either English or French reaching its lowest level in 2006.28

Knowledge of “other” languages

In 2006, 258,000 Canadians reported being able to conduct a conversation in an Aboriginal language. Among them, 49,000 respondents did not have an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue. Conversely, of the 210,000 individuals with an Aboriginal mother tongue (single response), 11,000, or 5%, were no longer able to conduct a conversation in their mother tongue.

The most widely known Aboriginal languages in Canada in 2006 were Cree, Inuktitut, Ojibway, Oji-Cree, Innu and Dene. Cree, which is spoken by almost 100,000 people, is by far the most widely known Aboriginal language in Canada. The number of persons who speak Inuktitut has grown considerably in the past decade, increasing from 30,400 speakers in 1996 to 35,700 in 2006. Knowledge of Ojibway remained stable over the same period, with slightly more than 30,000 speakers. Finally, the number of individuals who speak Oji-Cree doubled between 1996 and 2006 from 6,200 to 12,600.

Chart 2.13 Primary Aboriginal languages according to number of speakers, Canada, 1996, 2001 and 2006

With regard to non-official languages, 7,215,000 Canadians report knowing at least one well enough to conduct a conversation, that is to say 23.1% of the population. Ninety-six percent of people with an “other” mother tongue (single response) are still able to conduct a conversation in their mother tongue. Furthermore, 1,225,000 Canadians of English, French or Aboriginal mother tongue (single response) are able to conduct a conversation in a non-official language.

The most widely known non-official languages in Canada in 2006 were Chinese languages, Spanish, German, Italian, Punjabi and Arabic. Over one million Canadians are able to conduct a conversation in one of the Chinese languages. Topping the list were 435,000 respondents who speak Cantonese and 282,000 who speak Mandarin. Most of the others did not specify which Chinese language they spoke. Between 1996 and 2006, the number of people who spoke Chinese languages increased by 310,000. There were 36,000 more individuals who spoke Cantonese in 2006 than in 2001,29 compared to 74,000 who spoke Mandarin.

The number of people in Canada who know Spanish (758,000 speakers) has increased by more than 250,000 since 1996, pulling ahead of Italian (661,000 speakers) and German (623,000 speakers). Among the ten most widely known non-official languages in Canada, only Italian and German experienced a decline in the number of speakers in the past decade. After the Chinese languages and Spanish, which showed the largest increases in number of speakers, come Punjabi (increase of 207,000 speakers), Hindi (147,000), Arabic (142,000), Tagalog (Filipino) (132,000) and Portuguese (15,000).

Chart 2.14 Primary "other" languages according to number of speakers, Canada, 1996, 2001 and 2006

Overview

In 2006, 98% of Canada’s population reported being able to conduct a conversation in at least one of the country’s two official languages, that is, English or French. English French bilingualism has been increasing since 1971, despite a slight decrease between 2001 and 2006, to settle at 17.4%. Two out of three Canadians are able to conduct a conversation in English, but do not know French. Conversely, 13% of Canadians are able to conduct a conversation in French, but do not know English. Knowledge of French is concentrated mainly in Quebec, New Brunswick and Ontario; more than 9 out of 10 Canadians able to conduct a conversation in French live in one of these three provinces (and almost three-quarters of them live in Quebec).

Individuals whose mother tongue is English or French are usually able to conduct a conversation in their mother tongue. The majority of respondents with an Aboriginal or an “other” mother tongue are able to conduct a conversation in English. Most of those respondents who know French live in Quebec, and over half of individuals with an “other” mother tongue living in Quebec are English-French bilingual.

Slightly over 250,000 people know an Aboriginal language well enough to conduct a conversation, while 7.2 million Canadians know a non-official language.


Notes

  • 26On this subject, see comments on the census question about the language first learned and still understood in the Appendix on data quality.
  • 27The Ottawa-Gatineau CMA reports a bilingualism rate of 44%. However, on the Quebec side of this CMA, the bilingualism rate is 62%, compared to 38% for the Ontario side.
  • 28See data discussed in Chapter 7 on immigration and linguistic integration of immigrants.
  • 29The 1996 data only show the Chinese languages in aggregate form. It is not possible to break down the Chinese languages to see the number of people who spoke Cantonese or Mandarin in 1996.

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