Language Projections for Canada, 2011 to 2036
Chapter 5. Evolution of the knowledge of official languages and of English–French bilingualism

In the 2011 Census, 5.8 million Canadians reported being able to conduct a conversation in both of the country’s official languages, a bilingualism rate of 17.5%. This rate, which increased steadily for decades from 1961 to 2001 (from 12.2% to 17.7%), stagnated and even declined between 2001 and 2011.

The increase in English–French bilingualism observed in Quebec did not offset the decline. While Quebec’s bilingualism rate rose from 40.8% to 42.6%, a drop was observed in the rest of the country (from 10.3% to 9.7%). Between 2001 and 2011, the number of bilingual people in Quebec increased by 421,000, compared with just 143,000 in all the other provinces and territories.Note 1

The decline in the rate of English–French bilingualism outside Quebec between 2001 and 2011 is mainly due to the fact that its total population increased 12.4% during this period, and the bilingual population’s growth rate was half that (6.1%). Meanwhile, Quebec’s population grew 9.7%, while the size of its bilingual population grew 14.5%.

In this chapter, we will begin by presenting the evolution of the Canadian population’s knowledge of official languages over the past 25 years. We will shed light on the number of people and the percentages of the population who know only English, only French, both official languages or who cannot speak either language. In the second section, we will present some of the factors that influenced the evolution of English–French bilingualism, in particular during the 25 years leading up to the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS), as well as the factors that are likely to have an influence in the future. Third, we will present results on the likely evolution of the knowledge of official languages in the country between 2011 and 2036 and, in particular, on the evolution and growth rates of English–French bilingualism between now and 2036, in Canada, the different provinces and all the territories. Fourth, we will present results for certain regions where there is contact between languages. The fifth section of this chapter presents the differential evolution of bilingualism by mother tongue. The subsequent sections cover the link between the level of bilingualism and age, and differential bilingualism based on sex and immigrant status. The final section of this chapter focuses on the evolution of bilingualism among young people and proposes scenarios to maintain this bilingualism over time.

5.1 Historical evolution of the knowledge of official languages in Canada

In the four decades leading up to the 2011 Census and National Household Survey, the number of Canadians reporting they could conduct a conversation in English or French increased. However, in relative terms, the proportion of the population able to speak French started dropping as of the 1986 Census (32%), to close to 30% in 2011. For its part, the proportion of the population able to conduct a conversation in English was 80.5% in 1971 and reached 86% in 2011 (see Table 5.1).

In Quebec, the number of people able to speak French rose from 5.3 million in 1971 to close to 7.5 million in 2011, an increase from 88.5% to 94.4% of the population in relative terms.Note 2 Knowledge of English increased steadily during the same period, from 2.3 million to approximately 3.8 million. Furthermore, in 2011, 47.6% of the Quebec population could speak English, compared with 38.1% in 1971.

Lastly, in Canada outside Quebec, the ability to speak English remained stable at close to 98% between 1971 and 2011, a period during which the size of this population increased from 15 million to 25.6 million, for a growth rate of 70%. The size of the French-speaking population grew from 1.4 million to 2.7 million, for a growth rate of 85%. However, the relative share of French speakers remained stable, hovering around 10.0% and 10.8%.

It should be noted that, during the 2011 NHS, of the country’s two official languages, 4.2 million Canadians could speak only French. They represented 12.3% of the overall population, and 97.3% of them lived in Quebec. Also in 2011, 23.5 million Canadians, or 68.4% of the Canadian population, could speak only English. Of this number, 98.4% lived outside Quebec.

5.2 Factors likely to influence the evolution of English–French bilingualism between now and 2036

Over the decades, the Canadian population able to conduct a conversation in both of the country’s official languages has grown, but its demographic weight has increased more slowly. During the 1971 Census, 2.9 million people reported being bilingual, accounting for 13.4% of the population; this number was close to 4.1 million (16.2%) in 1986 and 5.8 million (17.5%) in 2011.

In the 25 years between the 1986 Census and the 2011 Census and National Household Survey, the Canadian population’s rate of English–French bilingualism increased by 1.3 percentage points. Furthermore, the share of the population with knowledge of only French dropped from 15.8% to 12.3%, whereas that of the population with knowledge of only English rose from 66.8% to 68.1%.

Between 1971 and 1981, the growth rate of the bilingual population was more than double that of the overall Canadian population. Conversely, the latter was only slightly higher than that of the bilingual population between 2001 and 2011, a period characterized by high immigration levels.

Over the past 25, or even 40, years, many factors contributed to the evolution of bilingualism, and some of these factors allow us to develop assumptions and scenarios for the likely evolution of bilingualism rates in the coming quarter century.

Further to the work of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (also called the Laurendeau-Dunton Royal Commission), English–French bilingualism became a lot more prevalent, as the value of and enrolment in French immersion and regular French-as-a-second-language programs in public English-language schools outside Quebec increased significantly (Lepage and Corbeil 2013).

In 2011, close to 86% of bilingual Canadians lived in Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick. For the most part, these are Canadians who live in the "bilingual belt" (Joy 1967) that surrounds the mainly French-speaking regions of Quebec and the parts of Ontario and New Brunswick that border Quebec and separate these regions from the country’s essentially English-speaking ones.

Quebec’s bilingualism rate increased significantly between 1971 and 1981, from 27.6% to 32.4%. This growth is largely due to the significant increase in bilingualism among the province’s English-mother-tongue population during this period, from 39% to 56%. The numerous departures of Quebecers whose mother tongue was English for other provinces (approximately 226,000)Note 3 and the Quebec English-speaking population’s interest in learning French were significant contributors to this increase. More recently, between 2001 and 2011, English–French bilingualism among Quebec’s French-speaking population increased significantly, and the use of both languages in the workplace increased as well. Recent studies have also shown that young people whose mother tongue is French are increasingly interested in learning English and using it (or both English and French) in their daily activities (Pagé et al. 2014).Note 4

Without a doubt, international immigration is the main driver of Canadian population growth. In their study on the evolution of English–French bilingualism between 1961 and 2011, Lepage and Corbeil (2013) showed that international immigration growth, in particular between 2001 and 2011, is contributing to the stagnation, or even the decline, of English–French bilingualism in certain regions of the country, mainly in Canada outside Quebec.

Between 2001 and 2011, approximately 250,000 immigrants on average settled in the country each year. The mother tongue of the vast majority (77%) of these immigrants was neither English nor French, and approximately 10% had knowledge of both official languages when they arrived in Canada. At the time of the 2011 NHS, 4.9% of immigrants in Canada outside Quebec had knowledge of both official languages, compared with 48.8% in Quebec.Note 5

The immigrant population’s rate of English–French bilingualism is generally lower than that of the population born in Canada, in particular because most immigrants arrive in Canada as adults, at an age when learning languages is not as easy. Consequently, adult immigrants are less likely to learn both official languages than people born in Canada. Furthermore, for many, learning French means learning a third or even a fourth language.Note 6

Regarding the learning of a second language among young people, we know that, in Canada outside Quebec, young English-speakers aged 15 to 19 are generally more bilingual than their counterparts in other age groups. Indeed, at the end of high school, they are more likely to be able to conduct a conversation in both official languages. However, as can be seen in Chart 5.1, the bilingualism rate of young English-speakers aged 15 to 19 fell from 15.2% to 11.2% between 1996 and 2011. Furthermore, this skill erodes with the passage of time after graduation, generally because there are not enough opportunities to use the second language. As such, the bilingualism rate of the cohort of young people aged 15 to 19, which was 15.2% in 1996, dropped to 11.2% five years later when they were 20 to 24 years of age, then to 10.3% in 2006 when they were 25 to 29, and so on.Note 7

The loss of second-language skills among young English speakers means that the evolution of the rate of English–French bilingualism within the English-speaking population is tending to stagnate or even decline. We know that young people who are part of a French-immersion program at an English-language school for several consecutive years or an intensive French-as-a-second-language program tend to maintain their bilingualism longer than those in regular second-language programs (Allen 2008). It remains to be seen if the ongoing enthusiasm for French-immersion programs, which saw enrolment growth of 30% between 2003 and 2013, increases bilingualism over time, or if other factors exert pressure in the opposite direction.

5.3 Likely evolution of the knowledge of official languages and English–French bilingualism between now and 2036 in Canada

5.3.1 Evolution of the knowledge of French in Canada

The projection results show that between 2011 and 2036, the Canadian population able to speak French could increase from 10.2 million people to 12.5 million people. This number could be 11.7 million in the low immigration scenario, 12.2 million in the reference scenario and 12.5 million in the high immigration scenario. In relative terms, this evolution would be characterized by a drop from 29.8% at the time of the 2011 NHS to 27.9% in 2036 in the reference scenario (28.4% with low immigration and 27.6% with high immigration).

In Quebec, the number of French speakers, which was 7.5 million during the 2011 NHS, could increase to 9 million in the reference scenario (8.6 million and 9.2 million in the low and high immigration scenarios, respectively). The proportion of French speakers in Quebec, which was 94.4% of the population in 2011, would remain relatively stable between now and 2036, ranging between 93.2% in a high immigration scenario and 93.9% in a low immigration scenario.

In Canada outside Quebec, despite the potential increase in the number of French speakers (from 2.7 million in 2011 to between 3 million and 3.3 million in 2036), their demographic weight could drop from 10.2% to between 9.3% and 9.5% during this period.

As for the ability to speak English, the English-speaking population should grow in both number and percentage, not only in Canada as a whole but also in Quebec. The relative share of English speakers, which was 86% in 2011, would be between 88.7% and 88.9%. While the percentage would remain relatively stable in Canada outside Quebec (from 97.6% in 2011 to between 97.4% and 98% in 2036), Quebec would experience significant growth. The number of English speakers in this province could rise from 3.8 million at the time of the 2011 NHS to between 5.3 million and 5.7 million in 2036. This would represent an increase in this population’s demographic weight from 47.6% in 2011 to between 57.6% and 57.8%, depending on the immigration scenario considered. Note that while the size of the Quebec population would grow 20.6% between 2011 and 2036 in the reference scenario (15.1% and 24.0% in the low and high immigration scenarios, respectively), the growth rate of the number of English speakers during this same period would be 46.2% (39.2% and 50.5% in the low and high immigration scenarios, respectively). As we will see in the next section, this growth will mainly be driven by people who are able to conduct a conversation in both of the country’s official languages.

5.3.2 Evolution of the bilingualism rate

All other things being equal, the results of these language projections show that in 25 years, the number of people able to conduct a conversation in both of Canada’s official languages could increase from 6 million people in 2011 to between 7.7 million (low immigration scenario) and 8.3 million people (high immigration scenario) in 2036. The country’s English–French bilingualism rate, which was 17.5% in 2011, could be between 18.3% and 18.8% in 2036 (see Table 5.2).Note 8

According to these projections, the evolution of English–French bilingualism during this period would move in opposite directions if we consider the Quebec situation apart from that of the rest of Canada. So, while 43% of the Quebec population reported being able to conduct a conversation in both of the country’s official languages in 2011, this proportion could be between 51.8% and 52.2% in 2036 depending on the immigration scenario —an increase of 9 percentage points. Outside Quebec, this rate, which was 9.8% in 2011, could fall to between 8.9% and 9.2% in 25 years.

In terms of numbers, in 2011, close to 2.6 million people could speak English and French in Canada outside Quebec. This number is likely to increase by 373 000 to 592 000, depending on the immigration scenario, reaching slightly more than 2.9 million to slightly fewer than 3.2 million people in 2036, for a growth rate ranging between 14.5% and to 23.1%. In Quebec, the number of people able to speak English and French could increase from 3.4 million in 2011 to between 4.8 million and 5.1 million in 2036, for an overall growth rate ranging between 39.7% and 49.6%.

5.3.3 Growth rate of Canada’s bilingual population at the provincial and territorial level

The projected evolution of Canada’s bilingualism rates between 2011 and 2036 is clearly influenced by the differentials in bilingual and non-bilingual population growth. Depending on the immigration scenarios considered, the non-bilingual Canadian population could grow 17.9% (low immigration scenario) to 30.9% (high immigration scenario) between now and 2036. As for the size of the country’s bilingual population, it could grow 28.9% (low immigration scenario) to 38.2% (high immigration scenario). In other words, a major contributor to the projected growth of the country’s bilingualism rate between 2011 and 2036 would be the fact that the bilingual population’s growth rate should be slightly higher than that of the non-bilingual population, regardless of the immigration scenario considered.

In Canada outside Quebec, the non-bilingual population’s growth rate should be greater than that of the bilingual population. Therefore, in the reference scenario, between 2011 and 2036, the non-bilingual population could grow 31.2%, compared with a growth rate of 20.1% for the bilingual population. The growth rates of the non-bilingual population could be 22.0% and 35.9% in the weak and strong growth scenarios, respectively, compared with 14.5% and 23.1% for the bilingual population.

Chart 5.2 illustrates the differential growth rates by province. It shows that Quebec should play a major role in the growth of bilingualism in Canada. While the non-bilingual population could increase 1.6% to 4.7% between 2011 and 2036, or even decrease by 3.5% in a context of low immigration, the growth rate of the bilingual population could be between 40% and 50%, depending on the immigration scenario considered. Conversely, the non-bilingual population in Ontario, the country’s most populous province and the destination of four out of ten immigrants to Canada, should grow faster than its bilingual population.

It should be noted that Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, which together welcome just 1.5% of the country’s immigrants, are the only two provinces where both the non-bilingual and bilingual populations are expected to decline.Note 9

5.3.4 Evolution of bilingualism in certain regions

In 2011, 86% of the 6 million Canadians who could conduct a conversation in French and in English lived in Quebec, Ontario or New Brunswick. This situation is not expected to change between now and 2036. As can be seen in Table 5.3, which presents the regions where more than half of the country’s bilingual population is, the Quebec part of the Ottawa–Gatineau CMA should remain the most bilingual region in the country with a rate around 67%, which is an increase of 3 percentage points from the rate observed in 2011. The bilingualism rate in the Ontario part of the Ottawa–Gatineau CMA, which was 38% in 2011, should remain relatively stable between now and 2036, regardless of the immigration scenario considered.

The Montréal CMA, both on the Island of Montréal and in the rest of the CMA, should continue to come in a close second to the Quebec part of the Ottawa–Gatineau CMA. The Montréal CMA is unique because, historically, bilingualism has always been much more prevalent on the Island of Montréal than in the rest of the metropolitan area. For example, in 2011, the bilingualism rate on the Island was 58.5%, while it was 50.5% in the rest of the CMA. In 2036, the difference between the English–French bilingualism rates of these two "regions" should be very small, depending on the immigration scenario considered. The off-Island bilingualism rate is expected to increase by approximately 10 percentage points, which is the highest increase among the regions under study. This would be due to the migration to the north and south suburbs of the population whose first official language spoken (FOLS) is not French, and to the increase in bilingualism within the French-speaking population.

The French-speaking regions of New Brunswick and Ontario outside the metropolitan areas should also see an increase in their populations’ bilingualism between 2011 and 2036. The rate of English–French bilingualism in New Brunswick’s French-speaking regions could increase from 49.4% to approximately 56%, while that of Ontario’s French-speaking regions would increase from 43% to approximately 44%.

The English–French bilingualism rate should decline in the CMAs of Toronto and Vancouver, where almost half of immigrants to Canada settled in 2011. In 2011, 7.8% of Toronto’s population and 7.3% of Vancouver’s population could conduct a conversation in both official languages. In 2036, these rates could be between 6.8% and 7.1% in Toronto and between 6.5% and 6.9% in Vancouver.

5.3.5 Differential evolution of bilingualism by mother tongue

The growth of English–French bilingualism in Canada varies depending on individuals’ mother tongue or FOLS. Historically, the bilingualism rates of minority-language groups, i.e., English-speaking people in Quebec and French-speaking people in the rest of Canada, are higher than those of the majority-language groups (Houle and Corbeil 2016).

According to our microsimulation, nationwide, the bilingualism rate of the French-mother-tongue population, which was 45% in 2011, could increase by more than 8 percentage points to 53% in 2036, regardless of the immigration scenario. However, that of the English-mother-tongue population would change only slightly compared with its current level of 9.3%, reaching 9.8%. Meanwhile, the rate of English–French bilingualism of the population whose mother tongue is neither French nor English, which was 12.3% in 2011, could rise to 13.5% based on the reference scenario (13.3% in a high-immigration scenario and 14.0% in a low-immigration scenario).

Quebec’s French-mother-tongue population would have the strongest growth in English–French bilingualism in Canada, from a rate of just under 39% in 2011 to almost 49% in 2036. The English-mother-tongue population’s bilingualism rate, however, should vary only slightly over the next 25 years, settling around 70% (compared with 69.3% at the time of the 2011 NHS). Lastly, the English–French bilingualism rate of the other-mother-tongue population (population whose mother tongue is neither French nor English), which was 51% in 2011, could reach 54.7% to 56.8%, depending on the immigration scenario examined (Chart 5.3).

In Canada outside Quebec, the rates of English–French bilingualism should vary slightly. Regardless of the immigration scenario, the bilingualism rate of the English-mother-tongue population, which was 7.2% in 2011, could be close to 7.6% in 2036. Similarly, bilingualism rates should be relatively stable among the two other major groups, at 5.5% for the other-mother-tongue population and 85% for the French-speaking population.

In short, in 2011, the French-mother-tongue population outside Quebec and the English-mother-tongue population in Quebec had the highest bilingualism rates, followed by the French-mother-tongue population in Quebec. This situation should remain the same between now and 2036.Note 10

5.3.6 Evolution of English–French bilingualism and age

The ability to conduct a conversation in both of the country’s official languages is generally influenced by age, and this relationship varies significantly depending on place of residence (Quebec vs. outside Quebec) and first language, be it the mother tongue or FOLS.

The following charts present the evolution of bilingualism rates by age group between 1986 and 2011, and between 2011 and 2036 (reference scenario). The 1996 rates are also presented for English speakers in Canada outside Quebec, as that is when they were at their highest; they have dropped by almost 4 percentage points since.

Outside Quebec, the portrait of bilingualism by age group within the French FOLS population should remain practically unchanged by 2036, with the exception of an increase in the under-10 age group. This possible increase in bilingualism among this age group seems to be the continuation of a phenomenon observed between 1986 and 2011.

As for Quebec’s French-speaking population, including those whose mother tongue is French as well as those whose FOLS is French, significant increases could be observed among the population aged 25 years and older. Chart 5.5 shows that the bilingualism rate observed in 2011 among 25- to 29-year-olds in this language group should translate into a similar rate in 2036 in the group aged 50 to 54 years. In other words, contrary to what we saw 25 years ago, the Quebec population over age 35 should be much more bilingual than the previous generation, since the English skills of French-speaking Quebeckers erode little over time. Among the English FOLS population in Quebec, the bilingualism rate should remain unchanged from 2011 (data not shown), with the exception of an increase among the 65-and-older population, which could go from 48% in 2011 to 62% in 2036. English-speaking youth between 10 and 19 years of age should still have the highest bilingualism rate in the province (82%).

As for the English-speaking population (FOLS) in Canada outside Quebec, while the rate of 15.5% observed in 1996 among those aged 15 to 19 was 4 percentage points higher than the rate observed in 1986, the 2011 rate fell back to the 1986 level (Chart 5.6). In 2036, 15- to 19-year-olds would have about the same rate, i.e., between 11.5% in the high immigration scenario and 12.0% in the low immigration scenario. Furthermore, this rate should decline among the 10-to-14 age group. The relative share of young bilingual people within this age group, which was 12.8% in 2011, could drop to 11.9% in 2036 in a context of high immigration and to 12.3% in a context of low immigration.

Chart 5.6 also shows how the 2036 rate of English–French bilingualism among the English-speaking population aged 20 to 40 should be lower than that observed in 2011. This phenomenon would be the result of a combination of several phenomena, including the fact that the share of immigration within the unilingual English-speaking population, in particular among the population aged 25 to 60, is expected to grow. However, it should be noted that the decline of bilingualism within these age groups is mainly driven by the population born in Canada and by the foreign-born population who arrived in Canada before the age of 15 (generation 1.5). This decline could probably stem from the erosion of skills that begins when involvement with the school system ends.

5.3.7 English–French bilingualism by sex: Differential rates by place of residence and language

Historically, English–French bilingualism rates in Canada have varied not only by age group, FOLS or place of residence, but also by sex. For example, we know that in Canada outside Quebec, the higher propensity of English FOLS girls and young women to attend a French immersion program usually results in higher bilingualism rates in this group, at least between the ages of 10 and 30 years.

In 1986, differential bilingualism rates varied considerably by age and sex. In Quebec, English-speaking girls and young women aged 5 to 25 had higher bilingualism rates than their male counterparts. But starting at age 30, there was a significant difference in men’s favour, possibly because historically, more men have been in the labour market and their daily exposure to the second language increased as a result.

Within Quebec’s French-speaking population, little difference was observed between young men and women under 20 years of age, mainly because they all learned English as a second language in school. As was the case with their English-language counterparts, the fact that there are more francophone men in the labour market contributed to their level of bilingualism being much higher than that of women at the time, from the age when they began to work. Lastly, among the English-speaking population outside Quebec in 1986, a difference in the bilingualism rate in favour of girls and young women was in large part observed within the school-age population and among those under 30 years of age. In other words, skill erosion and the absence of opportunities to use the second language contributed to levelling these differences downward.

In light of these results observed 25 years before the 2011 Census and NHS, the questions now are: How have these differences evolved since? How are they likely to evolve in the next quarter century?

In addition to the results seen in the previous section on the possible decline in bilingualism between now and 2036 within the English-speaking population in Canada outside Quebec, the differences in favour of women should persist. Contrary to what is observed among men, the bilingualism rate of English-speaking women over the age of 40 could remain higher than those observed in 2011.

In Quebec, the differences between men and women observed in 2011 within the French-speaking population 25 years and older decreased significantly compared with the differences observed at the time of the 1986 Census. Similarly, these differences are very likely to continue decreasing, not only because of the regular use of English in the workplace in Quebec, but also as a consequence of more women in the labour market.

Lastly, while the differences observed in 1986 between English-speaking men and women in Quebec had all but disappeared in 2011, this situation is not expected to change between now and 2036.

5.3.8 English–French bilingualism and immigrant status

Because international migration should remain the main driver of Canadian population growth between now and 2036 (see Chapter 4), it is clear that the evolution of English–French bilingualism would be partly influenced by these immigrants’ likelihood to be able to conduct a conversation in both of the country’s official languages.

So, what repercussions could immigration have on the evolution of English–French bilingualism in Canada? We know that the current rate of bilingualism among immigrants in Canada outside Quebec whose FOLS is English was 4.7% in 2011, and that, depending on the immigration rate considered, it would be around 4.0% in 2036 (Chart 5.7). Given the growing demographic weight of immigrants in the population and their lower rate of English–French bilingualism than that of the population born in Canada, there is every reason to believe that this situation should exert downward pressure on the entire country’s bilingualism rate.

To verify this assumption, several scenarios can be examined, including the purely theoretical scenario where no new immigrants would be accepted between 2017 and 2036. This scenario makes it possible to examine how the country’s bilingualism rate would evolve without newcomers, all other things being equal. Chart 5.8 represents these evolutions by immigration scenario.

So, the country’s bilingualism rate, which was 17.5% in 2011, would be approximately 19.4% in 2036 in a scenario with no new immigrants, compared with 18.3% in a high immigration scenario during this period. This means that while English-language immigration exerts downward pressure on English–French bilingualism in Canada due to a lower bilingualism rate than that of the English-speaking population born in Canada, it is certainly not the only factor responsible for the full decline.

5.3.9 English–French bilingualism among young people and the maintenance of skills over time

We have seen how "erosion" or loss of bilingualism after high school is a common phenomenon among young people who live in areas of the country where contact between French- and English-language populations is infrequent. This situation is typical when opportunities to use the second language are limited or very scarce. Knowing that skill erosion usually begins around the end of high school, we opted to examine a second theoretical and implausible scenario—if we consider the total bilingual youth population—that would be identical to the reference scenario except that English–French bilingualism skills would be maintained from age 17. In other words, assuming that there were measures or conditions to allow the young English-speaking population in Canada outside Quebec to maintain their second-language skills, such as a significant increase in French-immersion program attendance among younger individuals, how would the bilingualism rate evolve in this population and in the rest of the country? We could ask ourselves, for example, what would happen if we were to double the number of children aged 5 to 14 able to conduct a conversation in both official languages, with or without the maintenance of second-language skills.

Chart 5.9 shows the evolution of the bilingualism rate in the English-speaking population outside Quebec. Instead of being 6.7% in 2036, its English–French bilingualism rate could be 11.5% (reference immigration scenario) if the second-language skills of bilingual youth were to remain at the same level as they were at age 17. Furthermore, we could assume that doubling the number of children aged 5 to 14 able to conduct a conversation in both of the country’s official languages would appreciably increase the long-term bilingualism rate of the English-speaking population in Canada outside Quebec. But, because of the erosion of second-language skills among many young adults, such a strategy would only have a small effect on this population’s bilingualism rate, which would barely reach 8.2% in 2036. However, with the assumption that the number of young bilingual people in the English-speaking population doubles and that the maintenance of second-language skills is encouraged (in other words, that these young people stay bilingual), the bilingualism rate for the entire English-speaking population in Canada outside Quebec would be more than double that observed in 2011, reaching 13.6% in 2036.

In such a scenario, in particular the scenario where the number of children aged 5 to 14 able to speak both languages is doubled and the maintenance of skills over time is fostered, the evolution of the entire Canadian population’s bilingualism rate would be significantly affected. Instead of being 18.5% (reference immigration rate scenario), the rate of English–French bilingualism across the country could be at 24.4%, which is close to 6 percentage points more than what would be observed if second-language skills were not maintained.

5.4 Overview

After increasing 1 percentage point per decade between 1961 and 2001, and even 2 percentage points between 1971 and 1981, English–French bilingualism declined between 2001 and 2011. While the demographic weight of the Quebec population within Canada continued its gradual decline during the second period, the Quebec population able to conduct a conversation in both of the country’s official languages rose by 414,000 people, to reach 3.4 million in 2011. By comparison, during the same period, the population able to speak both official languages increased by only 136,650 people in Canada outside Quebec, reaching almost 2.6 million in 2011.Note 11 In light of these results, we asked ourselves what these trends meant for the future of bilingualism in Canada.

This chapter presented the possible evolution of English–French bilingualism between 2011 and 2036 based on a number of characteristics and scenarios. First, the growth that might be observed between 2011 and 2036 would be very similar to the growth of 1.3 percentage points in the 25 years leading up to the 2011 Census and National Household Survey. Indeed, our microsimulation models show that the country’s 2011 English–French bilingualism rate of 17.5% would reach 18.3% to 18.8% in 2036, depending on the immigration scenarios considered.

Quebec would likely continue to see the strongest growth in its population able to speak both of the country’s official languages between now and 2036. According to all the projection scenarios, the Canadian population could have just over 2 million additional bilingual people by 2036. Of this number, 1.57 million would come from Quebec, i.e., 75% of the country’s total new bilingual population. By comparison, in the 25 years leading up to the 2011 Census, the country’s bilingual population grew by 1.7 million people, 1.1 million, or 63.3%, of whom were in Quebec.

In 2011, Quebec’s demographic weight within Canada was 23.3%, and in 2036 it would be between 21.9% and 22.4%. In 2011, 57.2% of the country’s bilingual population lived in Quebec. This proportion could reach 62.0% in 2036, regardless of the immigration scenario considered. Furthermore, during the same period, the growth rate of the bilingual population in Canada outside Quebec could be between 14.5% and 23.1%, depending on the immigration scenario, whereas the growth rate of the non-bilingual population could be between 22% and 36%. In Quebec, these proportions would be between 39.7% and 49.6% and between -3.5% and 4.7%, respectively.

We also found that the strongest growth in the ability to speak both English and French should be seen in the French-mother-tongue population living in the Montréal CMA, off Montréal Island. Similarly, we could see significant growth in English–French bilingualism among the French-speaking population in the non-CMA French-speaking regions of New Brunswick.

As for the evolution of bilingualism in the English-speaking population in Canada outside Quebec, the situation should not change much between now and 2036, although the rates might dip a little. By examining the consequences of applying a few theoretical scenarios, we have found that while international immigration exerts downward pressure on the evolution of the level of bilingualism, the erosion of second-language skills among young people limits the progression of English–French bilingualism in Canada even more. In fact, the comparison of different projection scenarios clearly showed that the combined effect of the increase in the number children aged 5 and 14 who are bilingual and the maintenance of their second-language skills could lead to a substantial increase in the country’s bilingualism rate between now and 2036.


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