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In this Friday, Oct. 27, 1995 file picture, a large Canadian flag is passed through a crowd in as thousands streamed into Montreal from all over Canada to join Quebecers rallying for national unity three days before a referendum that could propel Quebec toward secession.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

The share of Canadians able to hold a conversation in both official languages is in decline for the first time in 50 years, reflecting changes in which immigrants play a larger role in shaping the country's language profile, Statistics Canada says.

Growth in English-French bilingualism, long considered a centrepiece of Canada's identity, is being led by residents of Quebec, the federal agency reported in a study on Tuesday.

In that province, the proportion of bilingual residents rose to more than 42 per cent in the decade ending in 2011 – underscoring the fact that, while Quebec's official language is French, bilingualism is a reality on the ground.

Outside the province, however, another linguistic picture is emerging. The share of Canadians reporting they spoke both official languages edged downward after 40 years of growth, dipping to 17.5 per cent compared with 17.7 per cent a decade earlier.

Canadians reporting they could converse in English and French went up in absolute numbers. But the overall population – fed largely by international immigration – increased faster than the bilingual population.

"Outside Quebec, the major growth of immigration and tendency to steer toward English put downward pressure on bilingualism rates," said Jean-Pierre Corbeil, head of the language statistics program at the agency. "What we're observing is that … international immigration has become a challenge for those who want to make bilingualism progress in Canada outside Quebec."

The influx of newcomers played out differently in Quebec and the rest of the country.

Outside Quebec, immigrants were less bilingual than the Canadian-born population. In Quebec, immigrants boosted bilingualism. A higher rate of immigrants – 51 per cent – could speak English and French than native-born Quebeckers. Immigrants were not just bilingual, but often trilingual.

The other cause for the drop in bilingualism was waning interest in French second-language instruction. While enrolment in French immersion is surging, interest in regular public-school French courses is plummeting.

The percentage of primary and high-school students outside Quebec learning French as a second language in a public school declined 24 per cent in the two decades leading to 2011.

Such classes are of uneven quality and are sometimes held once a week, contributing to the view that they are not turning out functionally bilingual students.

"Many won't take them because they're seen as not delivering the goods," said Robert Rothon, national executive director of Canadian Parents for French. "It doesn't seem to meet the expectations of parents – and students themselves – of coming out bilingual.

"It's a prompt for us to do better."

The study, which used numbers from the 2011 census, showed the rate of young anglophones aged 15 to 19 who are bilingual outside Quebec has decreased continuously in every census year since the mid-nineties.

The federal language study comes on the 50th anniversary of the landmark Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which led to the 1969 Official Languages Act, a signature piece of legislation for the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau. The act requires services in English and French across Canada. The legacy of the legislation is now being debated as Canada becomes increasingly multilingual with the arrival of immigrants.