Canada: it’s more than maple syrup and inordinate politeness. There’s also a fair amount of linguistic diversity to be found in its 10 provinces, with large cities like Toronto and Vancouver teeming with languages from around the world.
To no one’s surprise, English and French are Canada’s primary languages. But did you know that there are 67 Aboriginal tongues currently alive and kicking in Canada? Or that Mandarin is the third most common mother tongue? Or that the number of Canadians able to speak a language other than English or French is currently on the rise? Or that Tagalog is the fastest-growing language in the nation?
Admittedly, having two official languages complicates matters from the get-go. Canada’s census tracks a wide variety of linguistic demographics, including home language, mother tongue, first official language and language used most often at work.
This detailed level of attention is not a coincidence. Canada’s Official Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser was quoted in a 2009 print edition of The Hill Times, stating that “in the same way that race is at the core of what it means to be American and at the core of an American experience and class is at the core of British experience, I think that language is at the core of Canadian experience.”
Here’s a breakdown of the 211 languages spoken in Canada — and the complex histories they reveal.
English: 20,193,335 native speakers (58.1% of Canada’s total population)
If you travel to Canada with some working knowledge of English under your belt, you’ll probably do just fine. English is one of two official languages spoken in Canada, and with 86.2 percent of Canadians able to conduct a conversation in English (and 74.5 percent speaking English at home), it’s the overwhelming majority language among Canucks.
This is true perhaps everywhere besides Quebec and Nunavut, where Inuit is the mother tongue of 83 percent of the population.
French: 7,452,075 native speakers (21.4% of Canada’s total population)
French is an important language to know in Canada, and the proportion of Canadians who could speak both English and French was at 17.9 percent, its highest ever, in 2016.
However, the prevalence of French as both a mother tongue and a language spoken at home is declining, if ever so slightly, even in the francocentric territory of Quebec.
This decline is in spite of decades of strict language laws aimed at preserving the primacy of the French language in Quebec, which were first passed in 1977. It is hotly contested whether these laws are sufficiently stringent, though. Just last year, the Quebec government amended its laws to require all outdoor signs and storefronts to feature French.
“My wish is that everywhere, commercial signage unequivocally reminds us that we are indeed in Quebec,” Minister of Culture and Communications Hélène David told reporters at the time.
Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese): 1,204,865 native speakers (3.5% of Canada’s total population)
With Mandarin and Catonese firmly in place as Canada’s third and fourth most common languages, Chinese would be a shoo-in for third official language.
What’s more, its influence is growing. The number of people who spoke a Chinese language at home jumped up 16.8 percent between 2011 and 2016.
Chinese immigrants had already arrived to Canada prior to 1867, the year of Confederation. Chinese immigration swelled again as recently as the 1990s, when the majority of immigrants coming to Canada were of Chinese descent.
That’s not to say the Canadian government always welcomed them with open arms, however. Many of the earliest immigrants came on account of the Gold Rush in British Columbia, and the government soon took steps to enact anti-immigration legislation. The 1885 Chinese Immigration Act required all Chinese immigrants (except for merchants and students ) to pay a $50 head tax.
Today, members of the Canadian government are actively trying to lower the bar of entry for Chinese immigrants. Last year, Immigration Minister John McCallum was working to make it easier for Chinese tourists, students and temporary workers to get visas.
Other Immigrant Languages: 6,544,255 native speakers (18.8% of Canada’s total population)
Here, within this sliver of the language pie chart, lies a great deal of linguistic diversity.
With Punjabi and Tagalog ranked below Mandarin and Cantonese as the most commonly spoken languages in Canada, it’s fair to say that there’s a strong Asian influence up north.
As of 2016, Tagalog was the sixth most common language in Canada, but it’s also the fastest-growing one, with the number of people speaking Tagalog at home jumping by 35 percent between 2011 and 2016. Naturally, it follows that the Philippines is a major origin country for Canadian immigrants. Arabic, Persian (Farsi), Hindi and Urdu also grew significantly in that time period.
Overall, Spanish, Arabic, Italian, German and Urdu are the next most common languages, respectively.
Canada’s most obscure languages (such as Catalan, Fijian, Belarusan, Bilen and Kashmiri) all exist in enclaves of fewer than 1,000 speakers.
For some of these smaller communities, geographic concentration matters. There’s a notable contingent of Arabic, Spanish and Yiddish speakers in Montreal, Gujarati families in Northern Alberta, Filipino immigrants in the Yukon, and Korean speakers in New Brunswick.
Aboriginal Languages: 213,230 native speakers (0.6% of Canada’s total population)
Canada comprises vast stretches of sparsely populated land, and it is in a lot of these far-flung regions that Aboriginal tongues reign supreme among non-official languages (that is, languages other than English and French).
In this interactive map compiled by The 10 and 3, you can easily see how geographically dominant native languages are. They take up most of the map!
Though this visual eminence is somewhat deceptive when you take actual population figures into account, it speaks to the importance of pre-colonial languages in Canada, especially when you consider that the number of people who speak Inuktitut actually grew between 2011 and 2016. Additionally, the number of people who speak one of these languages at home is higher than the number of people with an Aboriginal mother tongue, which means more people are acquiring them as second languages.
Cree is the most populous Aboriginal language, with 69,975 native speakers (0.2 percent of the total population).
Of course, the majority of these languages are not necessarily what one would consider “thriving.” Only Cree, Inuktitut, Ojibway, Oji-Cree, Dene and Montagnais (Innu) are spoken by more than 10,000 people in Canada. There are more native tongues that are spoken by fewer than 100 people, and they include Sarsi, Oneida, Comox, Southern Tutchone, Squamish, Cayuga, Southern East Cree, and a miscellaneous grab bag of “other” Algonquian, Siouan, Athabaskan, Iroquoian and Wakashan languages.
(Population data via the 2016 Census)