A growing number of new immigrants to Canada are bringing with them increasingly diverse languages, setting a record for the number of Canadians whose first language is neither English nor French, new 2021 census data reveals.
One in four people in Canada have a mother tongue other than English or French, and about 12 percent of people predominantly speak a non-official language at home as of last year.
However, proficiency in those languages tends to fade after a generation or two, the deputy director of Statistics Canada’s Center for Demography said Wednesday.
“From 2016 to 2021, the number of Canadians who predominantly speak languages other than English and French at home grew significantly,” Eric Caron-Malenfant told a news conference.
The trend is largely due to immigration and continued even during the pandemic, when immigration slowed considerably due to COVID-19 health restrictions and related delays, Caron-Malenfant said.
The average age of new immigrants is usually between 25 and 35 years old, he said.
“After that, when you have children in Canada, often more and more English and French are spoken at home,” he said.
British Columbia speech-language pathologist June Cheung noticed that phenomenon playing out in her own Cantonese-speaking family and community when she was growing up in Edmonton.
“My parents were the ones who originally immigrated here from Hong Kong, while my brothers and I were all born here,” Cheung said in an interview.
“My parents spoke to me and my older siblings in Chinese, but we often responded in English.”
Census data shows increasing linguistic diversity in Canada. #CDNPoli #Census #Languages
Generational language change inspired his master’s thesis, which further showed how “inherited” language proficiency fades with each generation.
“By the time the second generation has children, it is very unlikely that they will choose to use a heritage language,” he said.
The trend was also true for French-speaking families outside of Quebec in most provinces, census data show.
The proportion of Canadians living outside Quebec whose first official language spoken is French fell to 3.3% in 2021 from 3.6% in 2016.
Statistics Canada attributes the decline to the fact that people whose first official language is French tend to be older and have not consistently passed the language on to the next generation. Sometimes other languages can take over within the home.
Cheung, who says he has reinvested in his Cantonese-speaking skills, says declining proficiency in the language can create intergenerational divides.
“I can ask you where the bathroom is, instead of being able to talk about your hopes and fears, your dreams,” he said. “Sometimes it’s much harder to have those conversations if there’s a language barrier.”
Mandarin and Punjabi are the most common non-official languages, with over a million people predominantly speaking one of the two languages.
Statistics Canada noted a large increase in the growth of the number of Canadians who predominantly speak South Asian languages such as Punjabi, Gujarati, Hindi or Malayalam since the last census in 2016, an increase that was driven by immigration.
The growth rate of the population speaking South Asian languages was at least eight times that of the overall Canadian population during the same period.
The massive increase in the growth of South Asian languages aligns closely with immigration trends from those countries.
At the same time, European languages like Italian, Polish, and Greek are fading in Canada.
“This decline is primarily related to the aging of speakers of these languages, a significant proportion of whom immigrated to Canada before 1980,” said Caron-Malenfant.
Relatively few recent immigrants from those countries have recently landed in Canada, he said.
Regardless of their mother tongue, most people in Canada access services in one of the two official languages.
English and French remain by far the most common languages spoken in Canada with 90 percent of Canadians speaking at least one of the official languages.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 17, 2022.