So far, we’ve looked at the multilingual nations South Africa and India. In continuing our look at countries with multiple official languages, our next visit is to North America. Come with us as we look at the languages of the Great White North, the land known for its maple syrup, kindness, and Canucks (other hockey teams are available). Learn more about multilingual Canada!
Okay, so technically speaking, Canada is bilingual rather than multilingual, but that’s still one more language than many countries! Around 57% of the population speak English as a first language and 23% French, with the remainder made up of immigrant languages and those of the indigenous populations.
Canada has official bilingualism, meaning English and French “have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and Government of Canada” according to Canada’s constitution. This is designed to avoid a situation where one language is given preference over the other, and means everything from government legislation to food labels are supposed to be written in both languages.
An uneven split
Of course, official bilingualism doesn’t mean every citizen of Canada speaks English and French, or even if they do, that their proficiency is equal in them both. Here is the split in some of Canada’s largest provinces and territories:
|Province/Territory||% English Speaking at home||% French speaking at home|
|Newfoundland and Labrador||99||0.2|
|Prince Edward Island||95||1.8|
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Neither does official bilingualism mean there aren’t areas that have preference for one language or another. Quebec is known for being French-speaking after declaring itself unilingual. Manitoba had its French language status restored in 1985 yet only some services are provided in both French and English. In Nunavut French and English share official language status with the indigenous language Inuktitut. And the Northwest Territories have the following official languages: Chipewyan, Cree, English, French, Gwich’in, Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, North Slavey, South Slavey, and Tłįchǫ.
Quebec has always felt like the French capital of Canada, with 94% of Quebecers having knowledge of French, and 47% English. The majority (57%) of truly bilingual Canadians are also Quebecers, and the rest of the bilingual population is predominantly in close proximity to the Quebec border.
Because of this preference for French there is an asymmetrical application of education rights that doesn’t apply outside of Quebec. If your parent or sibling was educated in English in Canada, then your public education will be in English only. For the rest of Canada the reverse is true, and that public education will be in French if a parent or sibling was also taught in French.
What you can and can’t do in French and English in Canada still varies from province to province, despite that official bilingual status. In Manitoba, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Quebec both French and English can be used for parliament or legislature, laws are written in both, and those attending court can choose either language for their appearance. In British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, only English can be used in all these situations. And for everywhere else it falls somewhere between the two.
In addition to French and English, Canada has eleven indigenous language groups that are found nowhere else in the world, and these are made up of around 65 distinct languages and dialects. Less than one percent of the population in the last census listed an indigenous language as a home language, and only Cree, Inuktitut, and Ojibway have large enough populations of fluent speakers to be considered viable for survival.
The full list of Canada’s indigenous languages is: Algonquin , Atikamekw, Blackfoot, Carrier, Chilcotin, Chipewyan, Cree, Dene Suline, Gitksan, Inuinnaqtun, Inuiuuk, Inuktitut, Kutchin-Gwich’in (Loucheaux), Malecite, Mi’kmaq, Mohawk, Montagnais-Naskapi (Innu), Nisga’a, North Slave (Hare), Oji-Cree (Anishinini), Ojibwe, Shuswap, Siouan languages (Dakota/Sioux), South Slave, Tlingit, and Tłįchǫ (Dogrib).
As we’re learning from other multilingual nations, it’s fair to say that having multiple languages on offer doesn’t mean everyone speaks them all or uses them in an equal way. Canada is different; bear that in mind — though it wouldn’t hurt to pick up a little French just in case!