August 24, 2022

2021 Census population trends: Linguistic Diversity

On August 17, Statistics Canada released the fourth set of results from its 2021 census of the Canadian population. This release focuses on linguistic diversity and the use of English and French in Canada.

Data from the 2021 census will be released in seven waves throughout 2022. The next issue will be published on September 21 and include information on housing and First Nations people, Métis, and Inuit in Canada. We are tracking each of these releases to bring you a snapshot of how Alberta is evolving over time.

Our last census analysis looked at incomes across Canada and noted that, while the median income remains highest in Alberta, the gap between Alberta and the rest of the country has shrunk considerably. Today, we are looking at how the linguistic diversity of Canada has changed over time.   

Canada’s official languages

Canada has two official languages—English and French—and the vast majority of Canadians (98.1%) can speak at least one of these two languages.

English is the most common language spoken at home in every province and territory except Quebec, where 77.5% of people predominantly speak French at home. However, the proportion of people in Quebec who speak predominantly French has been declining since 2001.

While English and French remain the most popular languages to speak at home, their relative weight in the population has declined as immigration results in a more rapid increase in other languages. Currently, more than 1 in 8 Canadians (12.7%) speak a language other than English or French at home. This is up from about 1 in 13 (7.7%) 30 years ago, when immigration rates were rising.

English-French Bilingualism

The ability to speak both French and English remains an important value and skill across Canada—even outside Quebec. For example, three provinces (Manitoba, New Brunswick, and Quebec) provide constitutional guarantees for bilingualism, and another three provinces (Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario) provide bilingual rights within the legal system and in the legislature.

The rate of English-French bilingualism has remained stable since the 2016 census at 18%. However, this stability is the outcome of two divergent trends. The rate of English-French bilingualism has been steadily rising in Quebec since 1961 (27.6%) and reached a new high (46.4%) in 2021. In the rest of Canada, the rate of English-French bilingualism has declined in recent decades. It reached a high of 10.3% in 2001 and dropped to 9.5% in 2021.

The rate of English-French bilingualism in Alberta is 6.1%.

Indigenous languages in Canada

More than 70 Indigenous languages are spoken in Canada, but their preservation is threatened by incomplete transmission to future generations. More than 40 Indigenous languages have less than 500 speakers, and the average age of the speakers of many of those languages is over 60. There are, however, many efforts to revitalize Indigenous languages, including the 2019 Indigenous Languages Act.

In 2021, nearly 190,000 people had at least one Indigenous mother tongue, but more people—about 243,000—report being able to speak an Indigenous language. This indicates that around 50,000 people have learned an Indigenous language as a second (or third) language and is positive news for Indigenous language revitalization.

Across Canada, Inuktitut, Cree languages, and Innu (Montagnais) are the Indigenous languages spoken at home by the most people. In Alberta, Cree languages and Blackfoot are the two most common Indigenous languages.

Other non-official languages

As mentioned, the linguistic diversity of Canada is increasing. The number of Canadians who predominantly speak a non-official language at home increased significantly since 2016—up 16% to 4.6 million people.

Immigration is the primary driver of linguistic diversity, so language trends reflect immigration trends. Between 2016 and 2020, a quarter of new permanent residents were from South Asia, 1 in 5 were from India, and 1 in 10 were from China or the Philippines. As expected, this rapidly increased the number of Canadians speaking languages from those countries between 2016 and 2021: Malayalam (+129%), Hindi (+66%), Punjabi (+49%), Gujarati (+43%), Tagalog (+29%), Arabic (+28%), Urdu (+23%), and Mandarin (+15%).

On the other hand, the number of people speaking some European languages—Italian, Greek, Polish—declined between 2016 and 2021. A large proportion of the speakers of these languages emigrated to Canada before 1980 and language proficiency tends to fade with each subsequent generation.

The non-official languages most spoken at home in Canada are Mandarin (531,000), Punjabi (520,000), Cantonese (393,000), and Spanish (317,000). In Alberta, the most common non-official languages are Punjabi (75,000), Tagalog (70,000), Mandarin (40,000), and Cantonese (37,000).  

The census provides policymakers with important information about how the Canadian population is growing and evolving. It can be used to assess how successful Indigenous language revitalization strategies are by tracking the diversity and prevalence of Indigenous languages over time. It can inform communication needs or barriers in different regions. And it is a measure of the rich cultural fabric that makes up Canada.

Emma Dizon, Policy Analyst

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