Canada’s Growing Linguistic Diversity

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For the first time since Canada began collecting data on mother tongues over a century ago, a record number of Canadians do not count English or French as their native language.

Calling Canada a country with a “rich linguistic diversity,” Statistics Canada reported this week that for one in four Canadians, or nine million people, neither official language was their mother tongue, according to 2021 census data.

I’m one of those people. I was born in north Toronto, but my recently immigrated parents chose to speak to me exclusively in Albanian until they enrolled me in preschool. My oldest friend still likes to tell how she thought I suffered from hearing loss when we met in class because I would never speak. Of course, I just didn’t know many English words.

When they are at home, 4.6 million Canadians mostly speak a language other than English or French, an increase of 16 percent since the last census in 2016 and a number that has been slowly rising over the last three decades, the new data shows. In Yukon, British Columbia and Quebec, the number of at-home French speakers increased, though all other provinces and territories saw a decline.

[Read: A Language Bill Deepens a Culture Clash in Quebec]

When it came time for me to start elementary school, the only one nearby offered French immersion, a type of bilingual program launched in Canada in the 1970s. Among the program’s learning benefits, as literacy studies have shown, is that French immersion students scored higher then their English-only counterparts in reading, making the programs popular with parents. Depending on where you live, bilingual French speakers also tend to earn higher incomes.

Language immersion at a young age meant learning the terminology of long division and basic cellular biology in French, while also untangling my English and Albanian. There were times when I didn’t realize I was saying the Albanian word “ullinjwhen I was talking about “olives.”

The stakes and the urgency of learning English are much higher, of course, for immigrants looking for work or education here.

Last November, I spent a morning with a group of newcomers from Afghanistan, Malaysia, Lebanon, China and Colombia — some had been in the country for as little as four months — who were learning English. I watched as they painstakingly practiced words like “trenches” and phonetically coaxed out sounds that don’t exist in their mother tongue, part of a six-month language instruction program funded by Canada’s immigration agency.

The population of South Asian language speakers has grown at least 8 times faster than the general population in Canada, the census agency data notes, with other significant increases in the number of native language speakers from East Africa, Turkey, the Philippines and Middle Eastern countries.

Mandarin and Punjabi are the most commonly spoken languages at home other than English and French. The census also found that more than 180,000 people speak an Indigenous language — a likely undercount because of the gaps in data collection at remote Indigenous communities, caused by the pandemic.

“The linguistic diversity of Canada is because of the immigrants and Indigenous populations,” said Angelica Galante, an assistant professor and director of the Plurilingual Lab at McGill University in Montreal. “It’s not because Canada has a wonderful language program that is teaching Canadians how to speak multiple languages.”

She said the census results underscore the work of researchers in her field — language pedagogy — who are shifting the Canadian paradigm wherein bilingual education means teaching French to English speakers, and vice versa.

“But now, we have to think about how can we envision teaching English to a multilingual population,” said Ms. Galante, herself an immigrant from Brazil with five languages in her repertoire.

Schools are a brewing battleground over language in Quebec, where a new language law will cap enrollment at English-language junior colleges and place other restrictions that will reinforce the use of French in the province.

[Read: Law Requiring French in Quebec Becomes Stricter]

The law, passed by Quebec’s legislature in May, will also mean immigrants who settle in the province will not be able to deal with the government in a language other than French six months after their arrival.

More than 7.8 million Canadians call French their first language, a slight increase from the last census. But the overall proportion of French speakers has been on the decline since 1971.

While being enrolled in French immersion schools was for me a matter of geographic convenience, the value of speaking more than one language has been reinforced in many ways throughout my life. Continuing to speak and nurture each of them will be intentional.

Trans Canada

  • As Hockey Canada grapples with sexual assault allegations, an annual tournament in Edmonton, Alberta struggled to draw fans. The turmoil forced some Canadians to rethink what they believe about the sport, writes our Ottawa correspondent, Ian Austen.

  • A woman has accused Cardinal Marc Ouellet, a top Vatican official and the former archbishop of Quebec, of engaging in sexual misconduct.

  • Five years after he disappeared from Hong Kong in 2017, Xiao Jianhua, the Chinese Canadian billionaire, has been sentenced in China to 13 years in prison, and his company fined $8 billion.

  • Pony, a grunge-pop band from Toronto, appears on this week’s The Playlist, curated by our pop critics.

  • Harry Styles opened his North American tour in Toronto this week, and will play 42 shows on this leg of the tour in just five cities. His “Harry’s House” tour typifies the bubbling trend of concert residencies, wherein musicians play extended runs in a limited number of cities and venues, writes Ben Sisario, who covers the music industry for The Times.

Vjosa Isai is a news assistant for The New York Times in Canada. Follow her on Twitter at @lavjosa.

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