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Unlocking the Linguistic Diversity of Canada: A Survey of Languages Spoken Across the Country

languages spoken in canada
languages spoken in canada

The vast nation of Canada is officially bilingual. What that means is that it has two official languages: English and French. The ground reality is that a vast number of Canadians speak English. Progressively smaller number of people speak English and French, English and some other languages, or only French. The complex power relationships between the four language groups is the source of one of Canada’s longest-running political dramas. Canada is a tourist haven and there are a lot of things to do in Canada. If you are planning to travel to Canada, it’ll be great if you can know a little bit about its linguistic system.

What is the difference between English and French speakers in Canada?

The bulk of Canadians trace their ancestry to somewhere in the British Isles, and 17.2 million Canadians, or about 50 per cent of the population, speak English as their first (and in many cases, the only) language. If the population of Canadians who speak English as a second language is also included (French-Canadians and immigrants), almost 90% of the country’s population is fluent in English. 

Francophones, or French speaking Canadians form a small but significant chunk of the population, with over 90 percent of them residing in the province of Quebec. It’s the only province in Canada where French is the dominantly spoken language in daily life. 3.8 million Quebecers can only speak French, while another 3.2 million can speak French and English. Together those groups comprise basically the entire population of the province. Small but significant French-speaking minorities also reside in the provinces of New Brunswick (29 per cent), Ontario (2.4 per cent), and Manitoba (1.6 per cent). Everywhere else in the country, native French speakers are exceedingly rare.

Canadian English

Canadian English is a very interesting mixture of American-style pronunciations coupled with a posh amalgamation of British and American spelling, with a couple of uniquely Canadian flourishes that fit into neither tradition. In all honesty, the precise “rules” of Canadian English tend to be fairly unclear and are often disputed. Publishers churn out “Canadian dictionaries” and therefore the government of Canada produces an official guide to the “Canadian style”. However, it’s still common to hear Canadians, even the ones with high levels of education, continue to argue about the correct “Canadian way” to spell or pronounce different words. 

Since Canada is so deeply intertwined with American culture, most of the interest in Canadian English tends to centre around the ways American and Canadian English conventions deviate. Most notably, Canadian English favours British “ou” rather than “o” in certain words with an extended “uhr” sound, like colour and favourite, and uses “re” to end certain words with a short “uhr” sound, such as centre and theatre. Only a few English words have an “official” Canadian pronunciation that deviates from standard American practice, like “luf-tenant” for lieutenant and “shed-uale” for schedule, but these rules are not widely followed by people in practice.

Other cliches associated with Canadian English, like speaking very slowly or ending every sentence with “eh?,” or the extremely infamous pronunciations of “about” and “house” as “aboot” and “hoose” (the so-called Canadian Raising phenomenon) are usually only restricted to extremely rural areas and are even considered offensive by some people these days.

Canadian French

Even though a significant portion of Canada’s population speaks French as its first language, it is quite different from the French spoken in France. The reason behind that is that Canada hasn’t had significant French immigration since the 18th century. That has resulted in a very unique form of French spoken by the seven million Canadians who call French their first language. 

While it’s obviously difficult to get into too much detail about a foreign language when writing in English, the chief differences between Canadian French and what is usually called “Parisian French” tend to revolve around French-Canadians’ continuous use of certain old-fashioned terms, pronunciation and grammar conventions that have been abandoned in modern France. Also prominent is le joual, a collection of unique and sometimes vulgar or nonsensical slang terms that have been popularized by the Quebecois working-class. For political reasons, French-Canadians also are a touch more militant about avoiding the utilization of English terms when pertaining to new or modern things. Take the Quebec French translation of email for example, the term they use is ‘le courriel’, which literally means ‘electronic mail’. The French speakers in France however, just say “l’email”. 

Most French-Canadians live in Quebec, and are the descendants of settlers from eastern France. However, there’s a considerable minority of French-Canadians in Atlantic Canada also, referred to as Acadians. These people are the descendants of a special pattern of migration, mostly from western France. French speakers will notice a difference between the Acadian and so-called Franco-Canadian dialect, also caused by the highly Parisian dialect of English-Canadians who speak French as a second language. To an English-speaking ear, Canadian French often sounds a touch rougher or more guttural than European French, a fact popularized by the common stereotype that French-Canadians tend to use a lot of hard “de” sounds in their speech, while Parisians use smooth “zees.”

When was Canada declared officially bilingual?

Until the 1950s, it was generally taken for granted that Canada was an English-speaking country where it was proper for English to be the dominant language of business, government and culture. Under this system, English-speaking, or Anglophone Canadians generally held all important positions of power, wealth, and influence, while Quebec’s French-speaking majority remained comparatively poor and excluded. This state of affairs began to quickly change in the aftermath of Quebec’s so-called Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, when more and more Quebecers entered the middle class and started demanding equal status and respect for their province and language. Sympathetic to their plight, the government of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1919-2000) passed the Official Languages Act in 1969, which, for the first time, declared Canada an officially bilingual nation where French and English “have equality of status and equal rights and privileges.” These values were later added to the revised Canadian Constitution of 1982 as well.

What other languages are spoken in Canada?

Canadians who speak neither English nor French as their mother tongue are sometimes called Allophones, and therefore the majority of those people are either immigrants or their children. According to the latest Canadian census, around three million Canadians spoke a non-official language as their first language. The most popular Allophone languages of Canada are Mandarin, Punjabi, and Spanish. The city of Toronto has a lot of citizens with foreign origins. As a result of that, it has many unique restaurants.

Legally, one must be fluent in either French or English so as to become a citizen of Canada, but there are exceptions for the very young and really old, and in practice, it is not uncommon for immigrant Canadians in big cities to possess limited skill in anything but their birth language. This, in turn, represents one of the central dilemmas of Canadian multiculturalism: is it reasonable for places like banks, hospitals, and restaurants to accommodate immigrants by offering services in their native languages? Or is it better for national unity to insist on immigrants learning the language of the majority, even if that makes life hard for those who don’t?

In most Canadian cities, both approaches are pursued to varying degrees. A government website may feature a button for a Punjabi translation and a shop in Chinatown may have Chinese-speaking cashiers, but it may be very hard to find truly critical information, such as tax forms or legal filings, written in anything other than English or French.

Which are the Aboriginal languages of Canada?

The aboriginal languages of Canada, very similar to the aboriginal people themselves , were almost entirely eradicated by European settlers. The Indian residential schools program, which took care of Native education in parts of rural Canada until the 1960s, had a particular, and largely successful goal of trying to get several generations of aboriginals to stop speaking their native languages as part of a larger assimilation agenda. In recent decades, attitudes have changed dramatically and the government of Canada actively tries to promote the growth and survival of aboriginal languages that sit on the brink of extinction.

Around 120,000 Canadians, making up about 0.4 per cent of the population, speak an aboriginal language, with the vast majority of these being Cree-speakers in Quebec, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, and Inuktitut-speakers in northern Canada. Inuktitut is an official language of the northern territory of Nunavut, alongside English and French. The Northwest territories have given the official status to 11 aboriginal languages.

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