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Husband and wife Liang Xi Hong, left, and Feng Su Na meet Monday with Phoebe Luo, a career counsellor at Immigrant Services’ Calgary offices.Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Canada is on the cusp of a historic shift, the day when allophones – those with neither English nor French as a mother tongue – surpass the number of francophones.

The tally is expected to be very close when census numbers on language are released on Wednesday. With the proportion of allophones growing and that of francophones dropping, the trend is clear. The new figures will be seen as a watershed for a country in which so many institutions – particularly official bilingualism – are based on the historic dominance of French and English.

"In terms of mother tongue [the allophones] will almost certainly pass the francophones this time," said Doug Norris, chief demographer at Environics Analytics and one of the country's leading census experts. "To me, it's just a sign of the growing diversity of our population that we've seen over a number of years and something that's only going to continue."

Although the relegation of French to third place in a Statistics Canada table is a potent symbol of the slow but steady change sweeping through the Canadian population, French is still the mother tongue of more than 21 per cent of Canadians. It's followed in third place by what the national statistical agency calls Chinese languages, a lumping together of Mandarin, Cantonese and Hakka, which amounted to a little more than 3 per cent of all Canadians in the 2006 census. The next largest groups were German and Italian, followed by Punjabi and Spanish, which were all in the range of 1 to 1.5 per cent of the population.

It's notable that no single immigrant language reached the level of 5 per cent of the population. That's very different from a country such as the United States, where immigrants come primarily from the Americas and have a language in common. Today, about 12.5 per cent of the U.S. population speaks Spanish at home, according to the American Community Survey.

The trend driving the Canadian demographic shift has been apparent for decades. In 1951, francophones made up 29 per cent of the population. But birth rates declined and, in recent years, immigration has driven most of Canada's population growth.

Réjean Lachappelle, former director of the demography division at StatsCan, cautions that mother-tongue statistics can paint a misleading portrait. For example, it's easy to assume that allophones rarely speak English or French when, in fact, nearly half spoke English or French at home in 2006. If two allophones were to meet at random in the street, Canada's enormous linguistic diversity (about 200 mother tongues) means it's statistically unlikely they could communicate in any language other than English or French, Mr. Lachappelle said. Still, it's true that about 3.7 million Canadians, or more than one in 10, spoke another language in their private lives in 2006.

"The story of immigrant languages is that, generally, the first generation has a high retention of mother-tongue language, but it's much lower in the second generation because they go to French or English school, and by the third generation, it's very low," Mr. Lachappelle said.

Allophones who marry into another linguistic group or want to hasten their children's adaptation to Canada will often speak English or French within the family rather than their native tongue. Others will switch back and forth between an official language and a mother tongue, giving their children the ability to speak two and sometimes three languages.

Phoebe Luo, 27, came to Canada from China in 2008, one of the more than a million immigrants to arrive in Canada since the census of 2006. She and her husband live with her parents, and at home, everyone speaks Mandarin. But Ms. Luo, who is a career and language counsellor at Calgary Immigrant Services, works nearly all day in English, her fourth language. She also volunteered at the local Alliance Française as a way to ease her integration and would like to take more courses in French. But for Ms. Luo and thousands of immigrants in her position, one important decision lies further down the road: What language will she and her husband speak with their children? Her mind isn't made up, but it's likely her children will be exposed to more than one language.

"I think for the first few years we'll speak Mandarin and then they'll go to Canadian schools and be exposed to the dominant language in society and then we might change," Ms. Luo said.

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