OTTAWA — Bilingualism is surging in Canada, but not necessarily in the country’s two official languages.
Statistics Canada released the last batch of data from the 2011 census on Wednesday, this time focusing on about 200 languages that make up the linguistic portrait of the country.
The data suggest that multiculturalism is not simply an abstract concept to describe a motley collection of diverse communities.
Rather, it is a reality for a growing number of families, even within the confines of their own homes.
The census shows that 17.5 per cent of the population — or 5.8 million individuals — speaks at least two languages at home. That’s up from the 14.2 per cent of multilingual households counted in the 2006 census, and an increase of 1.3 million people.
Of those 5.8 million, most of them speak English plus an immigrant language such as Punjabi or Mandarin. Less than a quarter — 1,387,190, to be precise — are using both French and English at home.
And aboriginal languages are in outright decline, with usage shrinking 1.7 per cent since 2006 — a loss of 3,620 people despite a concerted effort by many First Nations to revive their culture and language.
“Yes, we see a diversity, but what we see clearly is … we have all these transition phases where English and French are also spoken at home in addition to non-official languages,” said Jean-Pierre Corbeil, the agency’s lead analyst on the languages part of the census.
“This doesn’t happen only outside Quebec but in Quebec as well.”
Corbeil warned, however, that the data likely underestimate the increase in diversity over the past few years. That’s because Statistics Canada had to change the way it collects language data after Prime Minister Stephen Harper scrapped the long-form census in 2010.
Wednesday’s information came from the mandatory short form that went to every household in Canada. In the past, language was in the long form that went to 20 per cent of households, and was framed in a different context.
The 2011 census numbers suggest that language diversity has been increasing at just half the rate as noted in the 2006 census, but data from Citizenship and Immigration Canada suggests the pace of change is at least the same, Corbeil said.
The census shows that the most common immigrant language in Canada was Punjabi, reported by 460,000 people. When Punjabi speakers are grouped together with others who speak a closely related language such as Urdu, their numbers total 1,180,000.
Chinese languages are a close second, with a total of 1,113,000 people speaking Cantonese, Mandarin or other Chinese tongues.
Tagalog, the language of Filipinos, saw the biggest surge, growing by 64 per cent since the last census was taken in 2006.
Overall, Canada is home to 6.6 million people — one fifth of the entire population — who speak a language other than French or English. Two thirds of those have adopted French or English as a second language at home.
Official bilingualism, on the other hand, is not growing. About 17.5 per cent of people say they are able to conduct a conversation in both French and English — only a slight change from the 17.4 per cent rate noted in 2006.
Young anglophones are less likely to be bilingual than in the past, but official bilingualism is stable because more francophones are mastering both languages, Corbeil explained.
Still, English and French are by far the most dominant languages. About 22 million people reported speaking English most often at home, and 28.4 million have a working knowledge of the language.
French continues on its long, slow decline, but is still well entrenched, especially in Quebec.
The census shows that nearly 7 million people said they spoke French most often at home. That’s up from 6.7 million in 2006, but the French-speaking population is growing more slowly than the population writ large.
Overall, there are 9,960,585 people who report having at least a working knowledge of French.
Official languages commissioner Graham Fraser said he was pleasantly surprised by the statistics, which he said shows the resilience of French despite the quarter-million immigrants who come to the country each year.
“If British Colombia’s population explodes, that doesn’t mean Quebec is necessarily weaker,” said Fraser.
“What is important here is critical mass and what we have seen is that the critical mass of francophones in Quebec and of francophones across the country is on the increase, and I think that everybody has so bought into a narrative of decline that they focus on percentages.”
As has long been the case, immigrant languages are most often heard in Canada’s largest cities. About 80 per cent of immigrant-language speakers lived in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa-Gatineau, Statistics Canada said.
Toronto had the highest proportion of immigrant language usage, with 32.2 per cent of the population speaking a foreign tongue at home. Cantonese was the most popular, followed by Punjabi.
That’s a phenomenon that Anne Feather has seen first-hand. She runs Olde Yorke Fish and Chips, a traditional English restaurant in uptown Toronto, where most of her clientele has been people with roots in the old country, and Indians with a penchant for colonial comfort food.
But these days, Feather is seeing an increase in her Chinese customers, especially among the young.
“It always kind of amazes me a little bit, that we get quite a few younger Chinese people,” she said in an interview. “I ask myself where did they come from all of a sudden, and how did it happen that they decided to come here?”
While many other countries have struggled to digest multiculturalism, that is not generally true of Canada, says Stuart Soroka, an assistant professor of political science at McGill University.
“We celebrate it. We see it as a challenge rather than a problem,” he said in an interview. “Acceptance of diversity is part of the concept of Canadian national identity.”
However, with French in a long-term decline and aboriginal-language speakers disappearing despite a growing population, there is likely to be some political hand-wringing, he said.
“There is likely to be in some areas of — not angst, but some discussion of the implications of increasing diversity,” Soroka said.
Within Quebec, French usage is holding its own. About 94.4 per cent of Quebecers can speak French, almost the same as in 2006.
While the proportion of Quebecers speaking only French at home declined compared to five years ago, immigrants to that province seem to be readily adopting French as their main official language.
Meanwhile, the use of English by immigrants in Quebec is on the decline.