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Ninety-eight percent of Canadians can speak one or both of the country’s official languages, but that does not necessarily mean that English or French is their ‘mother tongue’—the language a person learns first and still understands. According to the 2006 Census, about 58% of Canadians reported English as their mother tongue and about 22% reported French. The third largest mother-tongue group, 3% of the population, reported Chinese languages, including Mandarin and Cantonese.

n 2006, Canada had 18.0 million anglophones, 3% more than in 2001, and 6.9 million francophones, 2% more than in 2001. Although the numbers of people in these groups are rising, their share of the Canadian population is declining. Anglophones saw their share of the Canadian population decline from 59% in 2001 to 58% in 2006. Francophones saw their share decline from 23% in 2001 to 22% in 2006. These decreases are largely attributable to the growing allophone population.

An ‘allophone’ is a person whose mother tongue is not English or French. Canada’s allophone population neared 6.3 million in 2006, up 18% since 2001. As a group, allophones made up 20% of Canada’s population in 2006, up from 18% in 2001 and 17% in 1996.

What’s learned first, what’s spoken at home

The language people first learn and the language they speak in their daily home lives are not always the same. Also, in many households many languages are spoken.

English and French, however, are the most commonly used languages at home: 94% of Canadians speak one of the official languages at home regularly, and 89% use English or French at home most often, sometimes in combination with a non-official language.

Speaking English or French in the home regularly does not mean that other languages are not spoken as well. The rapid rise in the allophone population has boosted the proportion of people who speak a non-official language at home to 12% in 2006 from 10% in 2001. Of Canada’s 6.3 million allophones, 46% reported speaking English or French most often at home in 2006; another 22% reported that they speak English or French regularly at home, but use another language most often.

Mother-tongue mosaic

Of the 1.1 million immigrants who settled in Canada between the 2001 and 2006 censuses, 901,300, or 80%, were allophones. Canadians reported more than 200 different mother-tongue languages in the 2006 Census, including languages associated with historic immigration patterns, such as German, Italian, Ukrainian and Dutch, as well as languages that characterize more recent immigration, such as Chinese languages, Punjabi and Spanish.

Of the 1,034,000 people in Canada in 2006 whose mother tongue is a Chinese language, two-thirds arrived in Canada within the last 25 years. This number rose 19% from 2001 to 2006, the largest increase since 2001 of any allophone group in Canada. It was followed by Spanish, Punjabi, Urdu, Tagalog and Arabic.

The Chinese languages accounted for the largest proportion of non-official mother-tongue groups in 2006, 16%. The next largest groups were Italian (8%) and German (7%).

While some non-official language mother-tongue groups have grown, others have shrunk. As a smaller share of our new immigrants are arriving from Italy, Ukraine and Poland, those mother tongues are losing ground, being replaced by languages such as Chinese and Punjabi. For example, the number of people in Canada with Italian as a mother tongue declined by more than 17,000, or 4%, from 2001 to 2006. The decline of Ukrainian was similar, a loss of nearly 15,600. German-speakers, however were on the increase: after declining from 1961 to 2001, their numbers rose by 11,000 from 2001 to 2006.

Canada’s census metropolitan areas (CMAs) are home to 87% of allophones: 72% of whom reside in Toronto, Vancouver, Montréal, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa–Gatineau. Another 6% live in Hamilton, Winnipeg and Kitchener.

Toronto had the largest proportion of allophones in 2006—44% of Toronto residents had a mother tongue other than English or French, followed by Vancouver (41%), Calgary (23%), Montréal (22%), Edmonton (21%) and Ottawa–Gatineau (17%).

Language is a tool

When immigrants arrive in Canada, their ability to express themselves in one of the official languages can have a major impact on how successfully they integrate.

In 2004/2005, four years after their arrival in Canada in 2000/2001, finding an ‘appropriate’ job—one that was a good match with the person’s skills—was the top-ranked difficulty reported by 46% of immigrants who participated in the Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Canada (LSIC). The second-ranked difficulty, reported by 26% of immigrants surveyed, was overcoming the language barrier.

Six months after their arrival in Canada, 58% of immigrants who participated in the survey reported being able to speak English well or very well; 11% reported the same for French. These percentages rose to 69% and 14% after spending four years in Canada.

In Quebec, 55% of immigrants reported speaking French well or very well six months after their arrival—a percentage that climbed to 73% after four years in Canada. Of immigrants to Quebec, 40% could speak English well or very well six months after their arrival, and 54% could do so four years after arrival.

Many immigrants stated that it was important for them to learn or improve their English or, in Quebec, both official languages. About 45% of immigrants who participated in the LSIC said they had taken language training in English since coming to Canada; 10% had done so in French. Most benefited from their language training. Of those immigrants who took training in English, 38% found it very useful and 47% found it useful.

In Quebec, of those who took training in French, 55% found it very useful and 35% found it useful.

Language training helped them with daily communication, adjusting to life in Canada, making new friends and looking for work.