The evolution of English–French bilingualism in Canada from 1961 to 2011

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by Jean-François Lepage and Jean-Pierre Corbeil

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Overview of the study

Fifty years ago, the initial work of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism laid the foundation for what would become the Government of Canada’s policy of official bilingualism. In the years following the commission, the rate of English–French bilingualism in Canada increased, but seemingly reached a plateau in 2001. What are the bilingualism trends in Canada? What factors are behind the recent slowdown in bilingualism across the country?

  • In 2011, 17.5% of Canadians, or 5.8 million people, reported being able to conduct a conversation in both English and French, up from the 12.2% recorded 50 years earlier, in 1961.
  • In Canada, the proportion of bilingual people went from 17.7% to 17.5% between 2001 and 2011, even though the number of bilingual people rose continuously.
  • Quebec was the only province in which the rate of bilingualism rose steadily between 2001 and 2011—from 40.8% to 42.6%. In 1961, the rate was 25.5%.
  • In the rest of Canada, the rate of bilingualism went from 10.3% in 2001 to 9.7% in 2011. In 1961, the rate was 6.9%.
  • Between 2001 and 2011, the lack of growth in bilingualism outside Quebec occurred as the non‑Francophone immigrant population was growing and the proportion of students in French-as-a-second-language (FSL) programs was shrinking.

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In October 2012, Statistics Canada released language data from the 2011 Census, including findings on Canadians’ knowledge of official languages. Although the data have been collected in different ways over the years, the Government of Canada has been collecting data on the ability to conduct a conversation in both English and French since 1901. Thanks to successive censuses, statistics on the rate of bilingualismNote 1 have a long history in Canada.

In the early 1960s, new interest in bilingualism was sparked by the work of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (also known as the Laurendeau–Dunton Commission, named after its two co-chairs).Note 2 The work of the commission, whose 50th anniversary is being celebrated this year, led to the adoption of the first Official Languages Act in 1969. This act gave statutory recognition to Canada’s linguistic duality, but stopped short of setting specific national objectives for bilingualism.Note 3

At the time, the Laurendeau–Dunton Commission recognized that affirming Canada’s bilingual nature did not necessarily go hand-in-hand with a bilingual population. The focus was instead on developing bilingual institutions, so that “the principal public and private institutions [can] provide services in two languages to citizens, the vast majority of whom may very well be unilingual.”Note 4 Nevertheless, since institutional bilingualism requires a sufficient number of bilingual people to “maintain contact between the two language groups,” the Commission also had a mandate to “recommend what could be done to enable Canadians to become bilingual.”Note 5

In Canada, the rate of bilingualism went from 12.2% in 1961 to 13.4% in 1971. It continued to increase over the next three decades, reaching 17.7% in 2001. However, in the last 10 years, the rate of bilingualism in Canada’s population decreased slightly for the first time since 1961, to 17.5% in 2011. Note, however, that the number of bilingual people in Canada has never stopped growing.

What is the reason for the relative stagnation of the bilingualism rate, when the number of bilingual people in Canada is increasing?Note 6This article presents the historical trends in bilingualism in Canada using the censuses from 1961 to 2011. It then examines some key factors that may explain the recent stability of the bilingualism rate, namely second-language learning and international immigration, using data from the Elementary–Secondary Education Survey (ESES), censuses, and the National Household Survey (NHS) (see Data sources, methods and definitions).

There were 5.8 million bilingual people in Canada in 2011

In the 2011 Census, 5.8 million people nationwide reported being able to conduct a conversation in both English and French, which corresponds to a bilingualism rate of 17.5%. In 1961, the percentage was 12.2%, when 2.2 million Canadians reported being able to speak both official languages. This increase in the number of bilingual people over the last 50 years (close to 3.6 million people) corresponds to a growth rate of close to 160%. During this period, Canada’s population increased by 82%, from 18.2 million to 33.1 million.Note 7

In the last few years, however, growth in the bilingualism rate has slowed, decreasing slightly between 2001 and 2011, after four decades of steady growth (Table 1).

However, the results differ between provinces. In some provinces, namely New Brunswick, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, the results follow the national trend, increasing between 1961 and 2001 and then remaining stable between 2001 and 2011. In other provinces, namely Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the rate of bilingualism did not clearly increase or decrease between 1961 and 2001, but decreased between 2001 and 2011. In Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward IslandNote 8 and Nova Scotia, the rate grew steadily between 1961 and 2011, but the growth was slower between 2001 and 2011. Only in Quebec was there relatively steady growth in the rate of bilingualism in each period from 1961 to 2011.

Table 1
Constant increase in number of bilingual people since 1961, but slight decrease in rate of bilingualism between 2001 and 2011
Table summary
This table displays the results of table 1 constant increase in number of bilingual people since 1961 1961, 2001 and 2011, calculated using thousands and % units of measure (appearing as column headers).
  1961Note 1 of table1 2001 2011
thousands % thousands % thousands %
Canada 2,231.2 12.2 5,231.6 17.7 5,795.6 17.5
Newfoundland and Labrador 5.3 1.2 20.9 4.1 23.5 4.6
Prince Edward Island 7.9 7.6 16.0 12.0 17.0 12.3
Nova Scotia 45.0 6.1 90.3 10.1 93.4 10.3
New Brunswick 113.5 19.0 245.9 34.2 245.9 33.2
Quebec 1,338.9 25.5 2,907.7 40.8 3,328.7 42.6
Ontario 493.3 7.9 1,319.7 11.7 1,395.8 11.0
Manitoba 68.4 7.4 102.8 9.3 103.1 8.6
Saskatchewan 42.1 4.5 49.0 5.1 46.6 4.6
Alberta 56.9 4.3 202.9 6.9 235.6 6.5
British Columbia 57.5 3.5 269.4 7.0 296.7 6.8
Yukon 0.8 5.6 2.9 10.2 4.4 13.1
Northwest Territories including Nunavut 1.6 7.0 4.1 6.5 4.9 6.8
Northwest Territories Note ..: not available for a specific reference period Note ..: not available for a specific reference period 3.1 8.4 3.7 9.1
Nunavut Note ..: not available for a specific reference period Note ..: not available for a specific reference period 1.0 3.8 1.2 3.8
Canada excluding Quebec 892.3 6.9 2,323.9 10.3 2,466.8 9.7

Even though the number of bilingual people—like the total population—has not stopped growing from one decennial census to the next, it has not always grown at the same pace as the total population (Chart 1). At the beginning of the period, the bilingual population grew at a much more rapid rate than the total population. For example, between 1961 and 1971, the bilingual population increased by 30%, while the total population grew by 18%. In contrast, the total population grew more quickly than the bilingual population between 2001 and 2011, a period with high levels of international immigration.

Description for chart 1

Chart 1 Significant and constant decrease in rate of bilingual population growth outside Quebec between 1961 and 2011

This trend was particularly pronounced outside Quebec. Between 1961 and 1981, the growth rate of the bilingual population was nearly twice that of the total population. The gap gradually narrowed over the decades that followed and the trend reversed itself in the last 10 years—the growth rate of the total population (12%) has been twice that of the bilingual population (6%). In Quebec, however, the growth rate of the bilingual population has always been greater than that of the total population.Note 9

In recent years, the dynamics of bilingualism in Quebec have therefore differed from that in the rest of Canada, as reflected in its bilingualism rate of nearly 43% in 2011. The only other province with a rate greater than the national rate was New Brunswick (33%). In contrast, the three westernmost provinces, as well as Newfoundland and Labrador, had the lowest rates of bilingualism (less than 7%).

In 2011, more than 80% of Canada’s bilingual population was living in Quebec or Ontario, although the two provinces were home to 62% of Canada’s total population. The number of people able to speak both languages was 3.3 million in Quebec (57% of Canada’s bilingual population) and approximately 1.4 million in Ontario (24% of Canada’s bilingual population). New Brunswick had 246,000 bilingual people, therefore, 86% of Canada’s bilingual population was living in one of those three provinces in 2011.

These findings show that bilingualism continues to be concentrated in the 'bilingual belt,'Note 10 which is an area of frequent contact between Anglophones and Francophones that includes parts of Quebec and the parts of Ontario and New Brunswick that border Quebec.

The concentration of the bilingual population is not a recent phenomenon. In 1961, 87% of Canada’s bilingual population lived in Quebec, Ontario or New Brunswick and, in every decennial census year, 55% to 60% of bilingual Canadians were living in Quebec (57% in 2011).

What is the reason for this distinctive feature of Quebec? It is primarily because Francophones, most of whom live in Quebec, have a higher rate of bilingualism than Anglophones,Note 11 but also because Quebec Anglophones have a higher rate of bilingualism, as official-language minorities (Francophones outside Quebec and Anglophones in Quebec) are more bilingual than the majority.Note 12

Across Canada, the rate of bilingualism in 2011 was 44% for Francophones, compared with 8% for Anglophones. As for official-language minorities, Anglophones in Quebec had a bilingualism rate of 61% (compared with 6% for Anglophones in the rest of Canada), while Francophones outside Quebec had a bilingualism rate of 87% (compared with 38% for Francophones in Quebec).

Outside Quebec, the growth in bilingualism slowed down as a result of two factors determining the evolution of bilingualism: (1) a recent drop in enrolment in French-as-a-second-language (FSL) courses in public schools; and (2) the share of international immigration in the growth of the population.

Enrolment increasing in French immersion programs, but decreasing in regular FSL programs

The first factor that may have affected the evolution of bilingualism outside Quebec is students' level of exposure to FSL programs.

In the 1970s and 1980s, enrolment in French‑immersion and regular FSL programs in public English-language schools outside Quebec increased significantly (Chart 2). For example, close to 260 schools offered a French‑immersion program in the 1976/1977 school year, and that number reached close to 1,800 in 1991/1992. Over the same period, enrolment rose from 23,000 to more than 267,000 for French‑immersion programs, and from 1.5 million to 1.8 million for regular FSL programs.

However, while public‑school enrolment in French‑immersion programs continued to rise after 1991/1992, totalling more than 341,000 in 2010/2011, enrolment in regular FSL programs fell by 432,000, to a total of 1.4 million. In other words, the number of French‑immersion students went up 28%, and the number of regular FSL students went down 24%. The total percentage of young Canadians in public primary or secondary schools outside Quebec who were exposed to FSL programs went from 53% to 44%.

Description for chart 2

Chart 2 Continuous increase in French-immersion program registrations despite a decrease in French-as-a-second-language (FSL) instruction since 1991/1992

At the same time, young Anglophones outside Quebec are gradually becoming less bilingual. In the 1996 Census, 15% of 15- to 19-year-olds whose first official language spoken was English could conduct a conversation in both of Canada’s official languages (Chart 3). That percentage fell to 14% in 2001, 12% in 2006 and 11% in 2011. Moreover, many Anglophones outside Quebec do not retain their bilingualism as they grow older. For example, take the 15- to 19-year-old Anglophones outside Quebec in 1996, whose rate of bilingualism was 15%—their rate of bilingualism five years later (when they were 20 to 24) had dropped to 12%. Ten years later (in 2006, when they were 25 to 29) their rate was 10%, and 15 years later (in 2011, when they were 30 to 34) it was 8%.Note 13

Description for chart 3

Chart 3  The highest rates of bilingualism are among 10- to 19-year-old Anglophones outside Quebec

Another way to show the link between bilingualism and years at school is to look at the rate of bilingualism by age. Among Anglophones outside Quebec, young people age 10 to 19 had the highest bilingualism rates and those rates decreased among older people (Chart 4).

For Francophones in Quebec, the rate of bilingualism peaks when they are in their twenties. This is an overall reflection of two different second-language learning modes. Many Francophones in Quebec improve their knowledge of English after completing their full-time studies. Therefore, bilingualism among Quebec Francophones peaks between the ages of 20 and 30, and remains higher in subsequent age groups.

Description for chart 4

Chart 4 Bilingualism peaks during school years among Anglophones

As might be expected, Francophone and Anglophone minority communities are more bilingual. The rate of bilingualism among Francophones outside Quebec exceeds 80% for those age 20 and over. The rate of bilingualism among Anglophones in Quebec exceeds 70% at a young age and remains quite high during the working years, however, it declines when older ages are reached—especially after retirement age (65).

These trends mask differences resulting from other characteristics that can be significant, for instance, differences between men and women (see A few characteristics of bilingual people in Canada). In fact, among Anglophones outside Quebec, the rate of bilingualism was greater in women than in men. For example, among young Anglophones age 10 to 19, the rate of bilingualism was 4 to 5 percentage points higher in girls than in boys.Note 14 Among Anglophones and Francophones in Quebec and Francophones outside Quebec, men had a greater rate of bilingualism than women. Among Francophone men over 30 in Quebec, the rate was 10 percentage points higher.Note 15

Low rate of bilingualism among immigrants outside Quebec

The other major factor that may affect bilingualism trends is international immigration. Immigrants are now the main factor behind population growth in Canada, Note 16 and more than 80% of immigrants have neither English nor French as their mother tongue, which has a direct impact on the evolution of English–French bilingualism in Canada.

Across Canada in 2011, the rate of English–French bilingualism among immigrants (13%) was less than that of the Canadian-born (19%). However, the situation in Quebec is not the same as in the rest of Canada.

In Quebec, the rate of bilingualism among immigrants (51%) is greater than that of the Canadian-born (42%). In fact, immigrants living in Quebec whose mother tongue is neither English nor French are often trilingual.

In contrast, outside Quebec, 6% of immigrants reported being able to conduct a conversation in both official languages in 2011, compared with 11% of the Canadian-born. In addition, among people whose mother tongue is English or a language other than English or French, immigrants in all age groups have lower rates of bilingualism than the Canadian-born, except among people age 45 to 54 whose mother tongue is English (Chart 5).

Description for chart 5

Chart 5 Outside Quebec, the rates of bilingualism are generally lower among immigrants whose mother tongue is not English

Each year, Canada accepts approximately 250,000 new immigrants (close to 200,000 of whom settle outside Quebec).Note 17 Therefore, although the rate of bilingualism among immigrants outside Quebec has remained steady at approximately 6% since 1981,Note 18 the growing proportion of non-bilingual immigrants within the total population contributed to a decline in the overall rate of bilingualism.

Hence, in 1981, immigrants represented 19% of the non-bilingual population outside Quebec. In 2011, the proportion was 24%.

In Quebec, it was the reverse—the growing proportion of immigrants in the population pushes bilingualism higher, since their rate of bilingualism is increasing (from 43% in 1981 to 51% in 2011). However, since Quebec has accepted fewer immigrants than its share of the total population in Canada,Note 19 the increase in bilingualism among Quebec immigrants since 1981 has not offset the increase in non-bilingual immigrants outside Quebec during this period.


The rate of bilingualism as determined using census data is useful indicator for tracking the evolution of English–French bilingualism in Canada. Although the number of bilingual people in Canada has never stopped increasing over the last 50 years, the rate of bilingualism has dropped slightly in the 10 years preceding the last census. These two apparently contradictory trends are largely the result of reduced exposure to French among Anglophone students outside Quebec, difficulties to retain some knowledge of French, and an increase in the number of immigrants outside Quebec who cannot converse in both official languages.

Bilingualism has never stopped increasing in Quebec so that, when it comes to bilingualism, there are significant differences between Quebec, the only province with a Francophone majority, and the other provinces and the territories. Immigrants in Quebec are more likely to be bilingual, and thus contribute to the increase in bilingualism in the province. Francophones and Anglophones in Quebec are also more likely to remain bilingual over the life cycle, a trend that shows the importance of second-language exposure as a factor behind the retention of bilingualism.

Jean-François Lepage is an analyst and Jean-Pierre Corbeil is an assistant director in the Social and Aboriginal Statistics Division of Statistics Canada.


  1. While many Canadians, mainly immigrants, can conduct a conversation in their mother tongue and in one of the two official languages, 'bilingualism' in this article refers to English–French bilingualism. The 'rate of bilingualism' is the percentage of the population of a given geographical unit—excluding institutional residents—that reports being able to conduct a conversation in both English and French.
  2. The Commission’s mandate was basically to “inquire into and report upon the existing state of bilingualism and biculturalism in Canada and to recommend what steps should be taken to develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races, taking into account the contribution made by the other ethnic groups to the cultural enrichment of Canada and the measures that should be taken to safeguard that contribution” (see Canada 1967, Appendix 1, p. 173).
  3. See Jedwab 2011.
  4. See Canada 1967 (p. xxviii, no. 29). Note that of the 18.2 million people enumerated in the 1961 Census, 12.3 million reported that they spoke English only, and 3.5 million, French only.
  5. See Canada 1967 (p. xxviii, no. 30).
  6. Although the scientific literature on bilingualism is vast, a statistical approach is seldom taken. The work of Vallee and de Vries (1978) and Grenier (1989), for example, by far predate the phenomenon under investigation. A more recent example, Jedwab (2011), does not deal with bilingualism from this particular angle.
  7. Refers to the non-institutional Canadian population.
  8. In Prince Edward Island, there was a slight decrease from 8.2% in 1971 to 8.1% in 1981.
  9. The main reason for the wide gap between the two growth rates in Quebec between 1971 and 1981 is that the growth rate of Quebec’s total population was much lower during that time as a result of negative net migration of the English mother-tongue population (approximately 160,000 people).
  10. The term 'bilingual belt' was coined by Richard Joy (1967). According to Joy, the bilingual belt includes northern Ontario, the Ottawa Valley, Montréal, the Eastern Townships (Estrie) and the northern counties of New Brunswick.
  11. For analysis purposes, Anglophones and Francophones are those whose first official language spoken is English and French, respectively.
  12. Note that Francophones nationwide form the official-language minority.
  13. Regarding the retention of French as a second language by Anglophones outside Quebec, Jedwab (2011, p. 163) found that “lack of exposure to the French language beyond the school years is responsible for declines in second-language knowledge.” However, an article by Allen (2008) documents the effect of not only the type of learning program (regular FSL or immersion), but also the duration of French immersion on second-language retention. Allen states that not only are people who have studied in an immersion program more bilingual and able to retain their bilingualism longer than those who have not studied in such a program, but also that the second-language retention rate is linked to the number of school years spent in French immersion.
  14. This difference can be explained by a greater enrolment of young girls in French-immersion programs. For example, in the 2009/2010 and 2010/2011 school years, 57% of French-immersion students were girls and 44% were boys.
  15. One hypothesis explaining this difference is that there are more women in some professional fields that are more 'unilingual' (for example, in education and health).
  16. See Statistics Canada 2012.
  17. On average, between 1991 and 2011, close to 235,000 new immigrants came to Canada each year. As well, between 1991 and 2011, Canada’s immigrant population went from 4.34 million to 6.78 million.
  18. The rate of bilingualism among the immigrant population varies little, regardless of the date of immigration. That is, the rate of English–French bilingualism of recent immigrants is, generally, identical to that of immigrants who came to Canada 20 or 30 years ago.
  19. In 2011, 14.4% of Canada’s immigrant population lived in Quebec, while that province’s demographic weight was 23.6%. However the proportion of immigrants who are settling in Quebec is increasing.

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