Language Projections for Canada, 2011 to 2036
Chapter 6. Summary and conclusion

6.1 Canada’s language characteristics and the evolution of its language situation

With regard to language statistics, Canada is one of the few countries in the world to collect information on each of the “fields” recommended by the United Nations: “mother tongue, usual language (defined as the language currently spoken, or most often spoken, by the individual in his or her present home), and ability to speak one or more designated languages (United Nations, 2009).  

The 2011 Census of Canada and National Household Survey (NHS) provide a wide range of information on the language characteristics and behaviours of the Canadian population. They include seven questions on language, more than any other country’s survey.

For the purposes of this projection study on the evolution of the language portrait in Canada between 2011 and 2036, three of these questions were used in the Demosim model: the questions on mother tongue, language spoken most often at home and knowledge of official languages. From these three questions, a fourth concept was derived: First official language spoken.

The language characteristics projected in this study should be interpreted as representing major factors affecting the evolution of the country’s language situation between now and 2036. However, as we will explain later, in certain specific contexts, examining the evolution of these language characteristics does not necessarily encapsulate all of the dimensions that make up the “language situation” per se.

6.2 Main projection findings

The evolution of the main language characteristics that make up the Demosim model is founded on a set of assumptions and scenarios. In projecting a population’s language characteristics, there is a set of demographic and demolinguistic factors that play a major role in shaping the language trajectory and that form strong trends that are generally very difficult to reverse.

In some cases, however, such as learning languages, trends can evolve more rapidly due to changes in social contacts, government actions, or even social image and public opinion. Examples include the surge in registrations in French immersion programs across Canada and the rise over the past 30 years in the proportion of newcomers to Quebec who can conduct a conversation in French.

6.2.1 Mother tongue and home language

Mother tongue and the language spoken most often at home are the two main variables that have long defined, and continue to define, Canada’s language groups. This study revealed that, between 2011 and 2036, the evolution of Canada’s main language groups should be affected mainly by the growth in the population whose mother tongue or home language is neither French nor English (other language). In fact, all of the provinces and territories are expected to see a rise in the demographic weight of this group between now and 2036, mainly due to international immigration (see Chapter 3).

It is important to recall here that this group of other-language speakers is extremely heterogeneous, comprising over 200 distinct mother tongues, including both Aboriginal and so-called immigrant languages. The language projections developed with the Demosim model and presented in our study did not make it possible to know the possible change in the number and relative share of speakers of any of those 200 “other languages” by 2036.Note 1

The English- and French-mother-tongue and English and French home language groups should also continue to grow throughout Canada between now and 2036. In Quebec, the only province in Canada where French is the majority language but which also has a significant English-speaking population, the English and French groups (mother tongue and home language) should see their numbers increase between 2011 and 2036. The demographic weight of the French-speaking population—defined by one or both of the above two criteria—should decline, whereas that of the English-speaking population should rise over the projection period. More specifically, the Quebec French-mother-tongue population could decrease by 7 to 10 percentage points, and the French home language population could fall by 6 to 8 percentage points. The increase in the English-mother-tongue population could be around half a percentage point, whereas that in the English home language population could be 2 percentage points.

In the rest of Canada, the size of the English-speaking population (mother tongue and home language) should continue to grow. The French-mother-tongue population should decline, whereas the French-home-language population should either rise or fall slightly, depending on the immigration scenario considered. In terms of demographic weight, the English-mother-tongue group in Canada outside Quebec could decline by 5 to 10 percentage points, depending on the immigration scenario, while that of the English-home-language population could decrease by 5 to 6 percentage points. This decline would stem mainly from the growth of the population with an immigration background that speaks a non-official language. As for the French-speaking population, the decline in its demographic weight could be around 1 percentage point in the mother-tongue group and half a percentage point in the home language population.

In short, the projection results for the English- and French-speaking populations by mother tongue and home language reveal that only the English-speaking population in Quebec would see an increase in its demographic weight, whereas only the French-speaking population in Canada outside Quebec should see a decrease in both population size (small) and its demographic weight between 2011 and 2036.

While most immigrants’ mother tongue or home language is one other than English or French, and while both the size and demographic weight of this population should continue to rise between now and 2036, immigration will nonetheless contribute to the growth of the official language populations.

Our study showed the role and combined effect of several linguistic integration mechanisms in our country’s immigrants. In the private sphere, for example, many immigrants abandon the use of their mother tongue as the home language in favour of one of the two official languages—often as a result of marriage or children. This phenomenon of language transfers was discussed throughout this report. In Chapter 4 we noted, however, that language transfers among the other-mother-tongue population should exert a much stronger influence on the evolution of the English-speaking populations than French-speaking populations.

Immigration’s contribution to the demographic dynamics of Canada’s official language populations is explained by the fact that a number of these immigrants have English or French as a mother tongue themselves or have adopted one of these languages as the home language, but also by the fact that they use the official languages in the public sphere (work, education, stores, services, etc.). Their linguistic integration into the official language communities cannot therefore be explained by mother tongue and home language alone. In fact, it is in the public sphere that the vast majority of immigrants and their descendants use the country’s official languages—notably, at work, in educational institutions, retail environments and public service delivery locations. Even immigrants who have no knowledge of either official language upon arriving in Canada—having been admitted to the country on the basis of other selection criteria—eventually learn one (or sometimes both) official languages;Note 2 their social and economic integration into the country depends on it.

As such, the linguistic integration of immigrants into the official language populations between now and 2036 should mainly be a factor of their learning and having knowledge of the official languages, the number of speakers of which should continue to rise. Between 2011 and 2036, the demographic weight of the population that can conduct a conversation in one of the country’s official languages should remain very stable. Specifically, compared with 98.3% of the population in 2011, the proportion of the Canadian population able to speak English or French should be between 98.0% and 98.5% in 2036.

The current projection results indicate, however, that while the populations able to speak either English or French will continue to increase in numbers, their demographic weight should remain relatively unchanged. Specifically, in the country as a whole, the population able to speak English was 29.5 million at the time of the 2011 NHS and could reach between 36.5 million and 40 million in 2036, depending on the immigration scenario considered. The population able to speak French was 10.2 million in 2011 and could be between 11.7 million and 12.5 million in 2036. The demographic weight of the population able to speak English could rise from 86% in 2011 to around 89% by 2036, whereas the population able to speak French could fall from 29.8% in 2011 to between 27.6% and 28.4% in 2036, depending on the immigration scenario. That being said, with approximately 12 million speakers in the country, French would, by far, remain the country’s second most spoken language. In 2011, Spanish was the third most spoken language in the country, with 873,400 speakers. Note 3

6.2.2 First official language spoken

The size and proportion of the population that uses one of the two official languages in the private or public sphere should increase by 2036. FOLS offers a good approximation of the scope of this phenomenon.

The English FOLS population should grow in both numbers and demographic weight in the country as a whole, with the exception of a few provinces. Specifically, while the demographic weight of this population in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick should remain very high and stable, their numbers could decrease. This phenomenon attests to the population decline in these provinces characterized by low fertility and population aging not offset by immigration.

The French FOLS populations could see their size increase or stabilize in almost all regions except the Atlantic provinces; however, their demographic weight could decrease, in both Quebec and the rest of Canada (outside the territories). With respect to Quebec in particular, it is important to note that the decrease in the demographic weight of the French FOLS population could be between 2.7 and 3.6 percentage points. This decrease would thus be less than what would be observed with regard to the evolution of the population with French as a mother tongue. This situation primarily reflects the contribution of French FOLS immigrants whose mother tongue is neither French nor English to Quebec’s French-speaking population.

The decrease in the demographic weight of the French FOLS population in Canada stems mainly from the fact that the relative share of other-mother-tongue immigrants who adopt English as the home language or who, of the two official languages, only know English, should continue to grow at a faster rate than the share of immigrants who transfer to French. Note, incidentally, that at the time of the 2011 NHS, 83.4% of immigrants in all of Canada reported English as their FOLS, compared with 10.3% who reported French.Note 4

These projection results suggest that, given the major role of immigration in demographic evolution, the levels and composition of future immigration to Canada outside Quebec would be the most significant persistent factors that could slow, if not the halt, the decline of the French-speaking demographic weight over time. We first demonstrated that, regardless of immigration scenario considered, the above should not stop the relative weight of this population from declining. In order to examine the effects over the long term, we therefore simulated a change in the linguistic composition of immigration without increasing the levels of immigration in relation to the reference scenario. Such a scenario yields an estimate of the number of French-speaking immigrants (by FOLS) required each year between 2017 and 2036 in order to keep the weight of the French-speaking populations in each province constant at the 2016 level.

The results of this scenario indicate that to achieve this target, the number of French-speaking immigrants would have to be multiplied by 1.7, or 275,000 individuals over 20 years, as opposed to the 165,000 projected in the reference scenario. This increase would vary greatly from one province to another. As such, Ontario, where nearly 70% of French-speaking immigrants settle, would have to multiply the number of French-speaking immigrants projected in the reference scenario by 1.5 (50%), whereas New Brunswick, the province with the highest French FOLS population in Canada outside Quebec, would need to multiply the 7,000 immigrants projected in the reference scenario by a factor of 3.3 (230%). Recall that in 2011, the French-speaking population comprised 31% of New Brunswick’s population, while the immigrants who had settled in the province represented only 12% of the population.

6.2.3 The possible consequences of demographic evolution

The possible consequences of demographic evolution in coming years on the official language populations are numerous, some of which bear mentioning.

First, immigration, which should continue to be the main driver of growth in the major language groups across the country, is not expected to have a significant impact on the aging of Canada’s official language populations, nor on the aging of the population as a whole (Statistics Canada 2015). The percentage of the population aged 65 or over should continue to rise in both the English and French populations in all immigration scenarios.

Immigration could, however, significantly change the ethnocultural composition of the English and French groups, by increasing the share of both immigrants and the so-called second generation (children of immigrants). The growth of the population with an immigration background is expected to have the greatest consequences for the French-speaking population. In the Canadian French FOLS population, 15% were from an immigration background in 2011; a percentage which should double by 2036 under the reference scenario (29.5%). By comparison, these percentages in the English FOLS population are 44% in 2011 and 52% in 2036.

Immigration-driven demographic change could also impact the country’s English–French bilingualism. In Canada outside Quebec, for example, the population share of immigrants whose FOLS is English should increase between now and 2036, from 22.6% in the 2011 NHS to between 25.8% and 31.3%. Meanwhile, the bilingualism rate in the English FOLS population in Canada outside Quebec was 4.0% in 2011 and could fall to approximately 3.2% in 2036. In such a situation, the English–French bilingualism rate in the entire English-speaking population in Canada outside Quebec would fall slightly from 6.5% in 2011 to 6.3%, depending on the reference scenario. By contrast, the English–French bilingualism rate should increase in the French FOLS population, both in Quebec and in Canada outside Quebec. Specifically, the bilingualism rate in Quebec would rise from 44.4% in 2011 to between 50.2% and 51.8%.

In Canada outside Quebec, the pull of French as the home language should remain marginal in groups whose mother tongue is not French. The pull of English, however, should remain high among both the French- and the other-mother-tongue groups.

Part of the French-mother-tongue population tends to adopt English as the home language. In 2011, around half of the French-mother-tongue population had made a language transfer to English over the course of their lives, and the projections indicate that this proportion should not change between now and 2036. Of course, the transfer rates toward English are much higher in the provinces and territories outside of New Brunswick and the Ontario regions bordering Quebec.

As such, the pull of English outside Quebec is halting the growth of the French-speaking population in these regions. This trend should persist between now and 2036.

Language transfers toward English in Canada outside Quebec are partly due to incomplete transmission of French by parents to their children, given that the language spoken most often at home is generally the language that gets transmitted to children. Language transfers toward English are associated with exogamy; specifically, the fact that many couples formed of at least one French-mother-tongue spouse are mixed couples (the other spouse is most often English-speaking).Note 5 This context favours the transmission of English to children at the expense of French. Chapter 2 showed that the incomplete transmission of one or both parents’ French to their children has contributed to the aging of French-speaking populations in Canada outside Quebec over the years. This, in turn, has shrunk the pool of potential new French-speaking parents who could transmit their French to their children.

The numerous results presented in our study shed light on the different contexts in which the official-language minorities have evolved and should continue to evolve in Canada. The fact that English in Quebec is expected to continue to enjoy a significant pull among other-mother-tongue populations could contribute positively to the dynamics and vitality of English-speaking population, and this despite losses it could experience to migration toward the rest of Canada. However, these losses should be more than compensated for by the growth from international immigration throughout the projection period in the reference scenario. Moreover, despite its minority status in Quebec, the English-speaking group should continue to maintain high language transmission rates to children, as shown in Chart 2.2, such that its natural increase (births minus deaths) should boost this population’s growth between now and 2036.

The situation of the French-speaking population living outside Quebec is markedly different, even though, demographically, this group also stands to benefit from international immigration, but to a much lesser extent. The biggest challenge facing the French-speaking population lies in righting its age structure: increasing the number of youth who could, in turn, transmit French to their children, as this would slow its population aging. However, an effective recovery cannot stem from migration, be it internal or international, because migration does not generally have a significant impact on age structure.

6.2.4 Study limitations and future directions

We have mentioned several times throughout this report that the projections of certain population language characteristics do not necessarily or in all cases allow us to draw a complete picture of what we would call the evolution of the “language situation.” For instance, due to methodological reasons, the projections presented in our study could not account for the languages used at work or spoken regularly at home, in addition to the language spoken most often at home. Nor could they be used to predict language use in the public sphere. It is true that, generally speaking, when a language group is highly dominant owing to its size and demographic weight, the language used in the public sphere is usually dictated by what is commonly called the “law of the land” (Termote 2014), in other words, majority rule. However, in certain cases, like Montréal, two public use languages can coexist. The factors that can influence the use of one language or the other are complex and difficult to project using Demosim.

We noted the fact that information on FOLS can, in general, serve as an approximation of individuals’ main language; in other words, which language they are most comfortable using to communicate.Note 6 However, the language of public use (i.e., that used in certain spheres of public life) can differ from individuals’ main language. For example, at the time of the 2011 National Home Survey, of the Quebec workers whose FOLS was English, 22.1% reported using French most often at work, 12.1% used English and French equally at work, and 28% reported using French regularly, in addition to the language used most often, which was usually English. Among French FOLS workers, these proportions were 4.2%, 4.0% and 22.1%, respectively. Moreover, it should be noted that proportionally fewer Quebec English FOLS workers declared using English most often at work in 2011 than in 2006. Also, fewer French FOLS workers declared using French most often at work. Conversely, we are observing a growing English–French bilingualism in the workplace, particularly in the Montréal area.

That said, among people who are able to conduct a conversation in English and French, the dominant home language tends to be the language the individual prefers to use in the public sphere (see Corbeil and Houle 2013 and Termote 2014 for more on this topic).Note 7

Another important factor, which was not analyzed in depth in this study, concerns the ultimate impacts of the surge in popularity of French immersion programs in Canada outside Quebec. In the 2014–2015 school year, the number of registrations in these programs reached nearly 410,000 students, compared with 277,840 students 15 years earlier, representing a 48% increase. Data drawn from the 2006-2007 cycle of the Youth in Transition SurveyNote 8 conducted by Statistics Canada showed that young people who are part of a French immersion program maintain their second language much longer than those in regular second-language programs. How will the rise in registrations in French immersion programs impact the evolution of English–French bilingualism in Canada?

Results from chapter 5 suggest that it is not so much, strictly speaking, the strong growth in the number of youths in Canada outside Quebec able to speak both official languages that would have a significant impact on the bilingualism rate across the country by 2036. Rather, the combined effect of this growth and the increase in the number of youths who would have maintained their second language skills after having completed their high school education.

To conclude, let us note that our study did shed light on the relevance of key demographic and demolinguistic phenomena that have been driving the major trends over the past several decades, the likes of which should continue to shape the course of the language situation over the coming decades. The main purpose of this study of course was not to predict the future but to bring attention to how sensitive the evolution of these language characteristics is to the various phenomena we have described and analyzed. It is our hope that these results will prove useful to readers interested in studying these issues further.


Date modified: