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Marcela Saldana Salas, left, and her husband David Bishop Noriega live in Montreal’s Villeray district with their children Alegria Shakti, 8, and Frida, 1.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

The grand project of French-English bilingualism is being eclipsed by the growth of other languages in Canada, new census figures show.

Despite decades of effort and oversubscribed French-immersion programs in some districts, a smaller proportion of Canadians outside Quebec are able to speak both of Canada's official languages. Instead, a new form of bilingualism is taking hold, driven mainly by immigration.

The new bilingualism is increasingly a combination of either English or French and one of the 200 other languages spoken in this country. Meanwhile, the number of Canadians able to read both sides of a cereal box is stagnating outside Quebec.

It's not the national destiny former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau envisioned more than 40 years ago when he introduced the Official Languages Act.

"Pierre Trudeau's plan for a greater bilingualization of Canada hasn't materialized," said François Charbonneau, professor in the school of political studies at the University of Ottawa. "There was a surge in the 1970s and 1980s but it has never really gone above 7 or 8 per cent of the population outside Quebec."

The proportion of Canadians who spoke English and another language at home jumped to 11.5 per cent in 2011, far higher than the 3.7 per cent who spoke English and French at home. In Quebec, 5 per cent spoke French and another language at home. Overall, 17.5 per cent of Canadians can converse in both official languages, but that figure declined in nearly all regions save Quebec.

Jean-Pierre Corbeil, a language specialist at Statistics Canada, said another way of examining the issue is to look at the ability to speak French among young people outside Quebec. A new study not yet released by Statscan shows that since 1996 the percentage of 15- to 19-year-olds outside Quebec who could converse in French declined to 11.4 per cent from 15.2 per cent, Mr. Corbeil said.

"One important factor is immigration," Mr. Corbeil said. "Immigrants have to master English and they have already mastered another language."

Marcela Saldana Salas's home offers a peek into the language picture in Montreal. When Ms. Saldana, her husband, David Bishop Noriega, and two young children gather around the dinner table in the city's Villeray district, conversations flow between French and the couple's native Spanish.

School discussions with their older daughter? They're in French. Talk about the grandparents back in Mexico? Spanish. Beyond the dinner table, French is favoured for TV shows and dominates when it comes to daily interactions and work outside the home.

"French is what I use to function in Quebec society, because language opens the door to a culture," Ms. Saldana said. "Spanish is my family, my origins."

The linguistic two-step typifies the emerging language paradigm of Montreal. Native French speakers – those whose mother tongue is French – are a shrinking group in both Montreal and Quebec as a whole. On the island of Montreal, native French speakers represent less than half the population, and their proportion dipped to just under 79 per cent of the province as a whole.

The figures are sure to feed perennial fears for the survival of French in Quebec. But the decline is counterbalanced by another phenomenon: Newcomers to Quebec are increasingly embracing French and adopting the language as their de facto means of communication.

Four decades ago, before Quebec's Bill 101 language law, newcomers like Ms. Saldana would almost certainly have joined the English-speaking community. Now, reflecting the same dual-language trend taking hold across Canada, the percentage of allophones who speak French at home in Quebec is rising steadily, reaching 40 per cent in 2011, compared to 34.7 per cent 10 years earlier. Newcomers adopting English, meanwhile, are in decline.

"French is gaining ground at home among allophones in Quebec," Mr. Corbeil said. The phenomenon is translating into more French outside the home, too. "There is a direct link between the language spoken at home and the language spoken in the public sphere."

James White, a University of British Columbia sociologist, said it's rational for immigrants to learn the language of business in their region – whether English or French – and to maintain, at least in the first generation, the traditional language of the family. About 20.6 per cent of Canadians reported having a mother tongue other than English or French in 2011, but only 6.5 per cent said they speak another language exclusively at home.

"Right now, we're just becoming more multilingual and I don't think that's a bad thing," Prof. White said.

Still, while French remains the official language of the province, the streets of Montreal reflect the same linguistic diversity that's found in other major Canadian cities. Arabic and Spanish are the most common immigrant languages in Quebec.

"Montreal will never be a unilingual place, like any big city will never be a unilingual place," said University of Montreal professor Patricia Lamarre, a specialist on languages. "You've got French [people] learning English, English learning French and immigrants learning French and then getting English later because they need it."

By the numbers

  • 6.8 million Canadians (20.6 per cent) reported a mother tongue other than English or French. About 4.7 million speak a language other than English or French most often at home.
  • More than 200 mother tongues are spoken in Canada, though only 22 have more than 100,000 speakers in Canada.
  • The largest is Punjabi at 460,000, followed by Chinese (unspecified), with 441,000, Spanish (439,000), Italian (438,000), German (430,000), Cantonese (389,000), Tagalog (384,000), Arabic (374,000) and Mandarin (255,000).
  • Of the 200 languages reported in the census, 60 were aboriginal languages.
  • Among the 213,400 people who reported that they speak an aboriginal language at home, about 38,000 reported a different language as their mother tongue.
  • Cree languages, Inuktitut and Ojibway were the most common aboriginal languages Canadians reported as a mother tongue in 2011, according to the census.


About 1.8 million people reported speaking an immigrant language most often at home in Toronto, led by Cantonese (8.8 per cent); Punjabi (8 per cent); Chinese (7 per cent); Urdu (5.9 per cent) and Tamil (5.7 per cent).


More than 600,000 people reported speaking an immigrant language at home. Of these, 17 per cent spoke Arabic, 15 per cent spoke Spanish and 8 per cent Italian.


In Vancouver, 712,000 people reported speaking an immigrant language at home, led by Punjabi and Chinese languages.

Calgary and Edmonton:

More than 200,000 people reported speaking an immigrant language at home in Calgary while Edmonton had more than 160,000. The leading immigrant home languages were Punjabi, Tagalog, Chinese and Spanish.


In Ottawa-Gatineau, 114,000 people reported speaking an immigrant language at home. More than 85 per cent lived in Ontario and about 13 per cent lived in Queec. Arabic (20 per cent), Spanish (8 per cent) and Chinese (7 per cent) were the leading languages. On the Quebec side, Arabic topped the list.