Although section 133 of the 1867 Constitution Act had made provisions for French-English bilingualism in both Canada’s and Québec’s parliaments, it is not until the Official Languages Act of 1969 that bilingualism would apply to the whole of the federal government, making Canada an officially bilingual country.

Introduction to the data on official-language bilingualism and multilingualism

Individual multilingualism, for it's part, has always been a staple characteristic of Canadian society due to immigration. More recently, the national fertility rate for native-born Canadians has floated at 1.7 births per family—below the minimum replacement level of 2.1—for over 40 years and it continues to decline (Bohnert, Chagnon, & Dion, 2015: 2). Along similar lines, Canada is an aging society. In other words, the proportion of citizens aged 65 years and older outnumbers children aged 0-14 (Lebel & Charbonneau, 2015: 51). These twin demographic trends make a generous immigration program necessary for Canada’s continued development. More importantly, as incoming immigrants represented more than 200 countries in 2011 (NHS, 2011), a rich linguistic mosaic is also to be expected.

Statistics Canada collects a wealth of information on both official-language bilingualism and multilingualism. In this section, we aim to provide a guided tour of the most recent aggregated data tables that deal with this theme and end with several relevant publications.

Data tables - official language bilingualism

As it concerns official-language bilingualism, data comes primarily from the Census of Population (1901-) and the National Household Survey (2011). Through these databases a user may choose to use the criteria of:  Mother tongue (multiple responses), Knowledge of Official Languages, Languages Used at Home, First Official Language Spoken, or a combination of each. In the following passages, we provide several tables according to each variable.

We present below a summary table containing the variable Knowledge of Official Languages for the entire Canadian population from 1951 to 2011 for federal and provincial/territorial levels. The question asked for this variable is “Can this person speak English or French well enough to hold a conversation?” This variable has the advantage of being roughly comparable since 1951 and of surveying a productive language skill (i.e. listening comprehension and speaking). For lower geographic levels, including metropolitan areas, please see Detailed Mother Tongue (232), Knowledge of Official Languages (5), Age Groups (17A) and Sex (3) (# 98-314-X2011032) which shows the most recently available 2011 data.

Population According to Knowledge of Official Languages (pdf, 399.56 KB)

When looking at the 1951-2011 table above, some ready inferences can be made. In fact, at least three major trends can be derived.

One such trend is the net increase in bilingualism rates at the national, provincial, and territorial level (population counts). A second trend we highlight is the relative increase of bilingualism in the country, province, or territory (percentage) compared to Canada’s total population. Lastly, bilingualism rates can also be calculated at various geographic levels. For these purposes, we use the table presented above and the criterion of knowledge of official languages to define bilingual individuals.

At the national level, in the period from 1951 to 2011, the net number of official bilinguals increased from 1.7 million to 5.8 million (Lepage & Corbeil, 2013: 2). In national terms, this increase represents a jump from 12.3% to 17.5% of the total Canadian population respectively (Ibid, 2013: 2).

At the provincial and territorial geographical levels, the bilingualism rates are even more interesting. For the most part, the rate of bilingualism in the period from 1951-2011 stayed stable in only the two regions of Saskatchewan (-0.3%) and Nunavut (-0.3%). By contrast, it moderately increased in nine other provinces/territories by 1 to 4 percentage points. Most notable, however, are the increases registered by New Brunswick from 18.6% to 33.2%, and Québec from 25.6% to 42.6%. These last two regions increased, respectively, by 14.6, and 17 percentage points in a period of 60 years.

Beyond the rate of bilingualism as a percentage we can also look at the distribution of bilingualism across the provinces and territories. For example, of the national sum of 5.8 million bilingual persons in 2011, more than 80% can be found in the two provinces of Ontario (24.1%) and Québec (57.4%). In other provinces and territories, the share of bilinguals varies from less than 1% (Nunavut, Yukon, Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, P.E.I., and Newfoundland) to roughly 4% (Alberta and New Brunswick) and 5% (British Columbia).

Data tables - multilingualism

Three distinct variables may be used to present data on multilingualism: Knowledge of Non-Official Languages, Mother Tongue, and Home Language. We present general tables according to each variable below.

Measuring multilingualism using the variable Knowledge of Non-Official Languages

The variable that is most often used for purposes of determining multilingualism statistics in Canada is Knowledge of Non-Official Languages. Introduced in 1991, this variable reports on responses to the question: “What language(s), other than English or French, can this person speak well enough to conduct a conversation?” The measure is nearly exhaustive as it provides 186 of the most common languages found in Canada encompassing both Aboriginal and Immigrant languages. Its current public utility is limited due to the fact that it can only be found in stand-alone form through NHS profile for Canada rather than in standard cross-tabulated tables. That being said, custom tables can be requested through the Research Data Centers (RDC) Program. Below is the most complete table available.

Knowledge of Non-Official Languages Profile (2011) National Household Survey. Statistics Canada. Cat.  99-004-XWE. Ottawa. Released September 11, 2013.

Measuring multilingualism using the variable Home Language

Another way multilingualism may be measured is through the Home Language variable. The question on Home Language is divided into two parts. The first part asks for language(s) spoken most often at home, while the second asks for other language(s) spoken regularly at home. When applicable, there are single and multiple responses for both questions. This variable has 232 language categories for the 2011 reference year. These two questions allow the researcher to look into the most commonly used language(s) at home. It is worth noting that each question that makes up the variable was introduced at a different point in time.

In terms of data products, we provide two tables below. The first is a useful historical table that may be used for general population counts.The second is the full Home Language variable by Age and Sex for the 2011 reference year

Population According to Language Spoken Most Often at Home (pdf, 341.84 KB)

Detailed Language Spoken Most Often at Home (232), Detailed Other Languages Spoken Regularly at Home (233), Age (17), and Sex (3) for Canada, Provinces and Territories, and Metropolitan areas (Cat. 98-314-X2011042)

Measuring multilingualism using the variable  Mother Tongue (Multiple Responses)

Lastly, multilingualism may also be looked at through the lens of the Mother Tongue variable. This can be done when using the ‘multiple responses’ category. The strength of this variable comes from the fact that it has been on the census since 1901 and is more or less comparable since 1941. In other words, long spans of time may be looked at. Nevertheless, this variable is not without its drawbacks. One disadvantage of this variable is that it measures only self-reported listening comprehension. In terms of data products, for this segment we provide a general historical table for total population counts followed by a current 2011 table.

Population According to Mother Tongue.pdf (pdf, 368.15 KB)

Detailed Mother Tongue (192) Single and Multiple Language Reponses (3) Age Groups (7) and Sex (3) for Canada, Provinces, and Territories, and Metropolitan areas (Cat. 98-314-XCB2011017)

Measuring multilingualism using two or more variables: Language Shift and Integration

Beyond simple population counts, however, these three variables may also be crossed with each other to shine light on different language phenomena. For example, in cross-tabulating Mother Tongue with Home Language a researcher may be able to infer language shift across groups. To illustrate, if a person spoke Spanish as a mother tongue in their childhood yet currently only reports English as a home language, it may be inferred that some shift as occurred.

Similarly, cross-tabulating Home Language/Mother Tongue with Knowledge of Official Languages would allow a window into potential language integration needs. For example, a person who speaks Spanish at home and does not declare knowledge of official languages may require official language training to ease their linguistic integration in Canada. This trend could be even further corroborated by including a person’s Language of Work. Indeed, if an individual declares Spanish, for example, as used at home and work while also declaring a lack of knowledge of official languages then language integration needs may be inferred.

To serve all these different purposes we provide five distinct tables. The first deals with both Mother Tongue and Home Language and may be used to assess language shift. The second and third tables are similar except that they focus only on Aboriginal and Inuit peoples respectively. The last two tables may be used for linguistic integration in that they compare Mother Tongue with Knowledge of Official Languages for both the population at large and Inuit peoples specifically.

Language Shift

(General) Detailed Mother Tongue (232), Detailed Language Spoken Most Often at Home (232) Other Languages Spoken Regularly at Home (9) Sex (3) for Canada, Provinces, and Territories, and Metropolitan areas

(Aboriginal) Detailed Mother Tongue (85) Languages Spoken Most Often at Home (85) Other Languages Spoken Regularly at Home (12) Age (13) Sex (3) and Area of Residence (6) for Canada and Provinces/Territories (Cat. 98-314-X2011048)

(Inuit) Detailed Mother Tongue (15) Languages Spoken Most Often at Home (15) Other Languages Regularly Spoken at Home (16) Age (13) Sex (3) and Inuit Area Residence (11) for Canada and Provinces/Territories (Cat. 98-314-X2011049)

Language Integration

(General) Detailed Mother Tongue (232) Knowledge of Official Languages (5), Age (17) and Sex for Canada, Provinces and Territories, and Metropolitan areas (Cat. 98-314-XCB2011031)

(Inuit) Detailed Mother Tongue Inuit Languages (15), Knowledge of Inuit Languages (10), Aboriginal Identity (8), Age group (8), for Canada, Provinces, and Territories (Cat. 99-011-X2011031)

Categorizing Multilingual Groups

One final potential use of these datasets is to break down multilingualism into several categories.In practice, these constellations can span all the way from English, French, Aboriginal, and Non-Official Language unilinguals, through English-French, English-Aboriginal, English-Immigrant language, French-Aboriginal, or French-Immigrant language bilinguals. One can also study tri- or multilingual individuals. The table below illustrates those possibilities.

First Official Language Spoken (7) Detailed Language Spoken Most often at Home (232) Age (17) Sex (3) for Canada, Provinces and Territories, and Census Divisions and Subdivisions (Cat. 98-314-XCB2011039)

Related publications

1.   Bougie, E. (2010) Family, community, and Aboriginal language among young First Nations children living off reserve in CanadaCanadian Social Trends. (Cat. 11-008-X)

2.   Corbeil, J.-P. (2011) L’information démolinguistique et le recensement Canadien (1969-2009): Reflet d’une dualité linguistique en mutation. In Jedwab, J. and Landry, R. (eds) Life After Forty: Official Languages Policy in Canada. Montréal and Kingston: Queen’s Policy Studies Series, Mcgill University press.

3.   Corbeil, J.-P. (2012) Linguistic characteristics of Canadians [2011 Census]

4.   Harrison, B. (2000) Passing on the language: Heritage language diversity in CanadaCanadian Social Trends. (Cat 11-008)

5.   Houle, R. (2011) Immigrant languages in Canada. Census in Brief. (Cat. 98-314-X2011003)  

6. Houle, R. (2011) Recent evolution of immigrant-language transmission in Canada. Canadian Social Trends. (Cat. 11-008-X)

7.   Houle, R. and Corbeil, J.P. (2017) Language Projections for Canada, 2011-2036. Ethnicity, Language, and Immigration Thematic Series. 

8.   Langlois, S. and Turner, A. (2011) Aboriginal Languages in CanadaCensus in Brief. (Cat. 98-314-X2011003)

9.  Langlois, S., and Turner, A. (2014) Aboriginal languages and selected vitality indicators in 2011.(Cat. 89-655-X-No.001)

10.   Langois, S. (2011) Aboriginal peoples and languageNHS in Brief (Cat. 99-011-X2011003)

11.  Lepage, J.-F., and Corbeil, J-P. (2013) The evolution of English-French bilingualism in Canada from 1961 to 2011Insights on Canadian Society. Catalogue no. 75-006-X

12.   Norris, M.J. (2007) Aboriginal languages in Canada: Emerging trends and perspectives on second language acquisition. Canadian Social Trends. (Cat. 11-008-X)

13.  Statistics Canada Megatrends (2011) The evolution of English-French bilingualism in Canada from 1901 to 2011Canadian Megatrends.

14.   Turcotte, M. (2006) Passing on the ancestral language. Canadian Social Trends. (Cat. 11-008)