Language Projections for Canada, 2011 to 2036

On the eve of the 150th anniversary of Confederation, in 2017, Canada can be described as a nation of great ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity. We owe this rich diversity largely not only to the international immigration that we have seen over the decades, particularly since the beginning of the last century, but also to the presence of Aboriginal peoples (First Nations people, Métis and Inuit) on the territory long before the arrival of the first European settlers. The 200 or so languages that are spoken or understood, which include at least some sixty Aboriginal languages, and just as many ethnic or cultural origins declared on recent censuses, are a testament to Canada’s diversity.

The expansion of linguistic diversity of the population reflects the fact that the country’s two official languages–English and French–have exerted a strong pull as languages of convergence and integration into Canadian society, particularly as languages of work, education and the delivery of government services to the public.Note 1

At the time of the 1871 CensusNote 2 – the first census conducted after Confederation – Canadians of British and French origin represented respectively 61% and 31% of the country’s population. In 2011, while 20% of the Canadian population reported a mother tongue other than English or French, close to 9 out of 10 of these individuals reported speaking English or French at home.

This duality, which defines the legislative framework of language planning in Canada, is validated by the fact that, despite the diverse language practices and characteristics that have arisen out of immigration-based population growth, the country’s two official languages remain key vectors for integrating into and becoming fully contributing members of Canadian society.Note 3

International immigration is the main driver of Canadian population growth.Note 4 The primary effect it has had on the language situation is increasing the population for whom neither English nor French is their mother tongue or home language. In addition, the geographic and linguistic make-up of international immigrants has a direct impact on the demolinguistic balance between English and French across the country, such that the vast majority of immigrants are far more likely to adopt English as the main language in Canada outside Quebec. Nationally, this influence is further exacerbated by the fact that Quebec–home to the vast majority of Canada’s French-speaking population–receives less than its share of the immigrant population in relation to its demographic weight in the country. For example, in 2011, Quebec was the province of residence of 14.4% of the country’s immigrants, whereas its population represented 23.6% of the Canadian population.Note 5

In the 25 years leading up to the 2011 Census and the 2011 National Household Survey, Canada admitted an average of 230,000 immigrants per year. During that period, the demographic weight of the population whose mother tongue was neither English nor French rose from 12.5% to 20.6%,Note 6 whereas the weight of the French-mother-tongue population fell from 25.1% to 21.7%, and the weight of the and English-mother tongue population declined from 62.3% to 57.8%.

In 1986, the English-mother-tongue population represented close to 10.4% of the Quebec population, whereas the other-mother-tongue population (other than English or French) accounted for 6.8% of the population. However, in 2011, there were considerably more individuals with an other mother tongue than with English as their mother (12.8% compared with 8.3%). Moreover, French was the mother tongue of less than 79% of the population in 2011, down 4 percentage points from 1986.

In Canada outside Quebec, the population with French as a mother tongue and even as its first official language spoken grew by more than 60,000 people in 25 years. However, its demographic weight decreased from 5% in 1986 to 4% in 2011.

As we will see later in our study, “other” languages are generally more prevalent as a mother tongue than as the home language. In 2011, while more than one in five had a mother tongue other than English or French, 12.6% of the Canadian population reported speaking a language other than English or French most often at home. This observation attests in part to the scope of the penetration of official languages in the homes of the “other mother tongue” population. This compared with 8.1% in Quebec and 14.0% in Canada outside Quebec.

With regard to knowledge of the country’s official languages, the number of people who are able to conduct a conversation in English and French grew by 1.7 million in the 25 years preceding the 2011 NHS, to 5.8 million. This translated into a rise in the bilingualism rate across the country from 16.2% to 17.5%, which was mainly attributable to the Quebec population. In fact, the growth of the bilingual English-French population was higher in Quebec than in the rest of Canada. In 2011, 57.4% of the English-French bilingual population was living in Quebec, compared with 54.9% in 1986. Furthermore, the growth observed from 1986 to 2011 across the country masks a decline of the bilingualism rate between 2001 and 2011 in Canada outside Quebec, which went from 10.3% to 9.7%.Note 7

As for knowledge of French, the minority official language across the country, 10 million people could conduct a conversation in French in 2011, compared with 8 million 25 years earlier. However, in terms of relative share, this represented a decline from 32% to just under 30%.Note 8

Given that the size and share of the immigrant population stand to grow over the next 25 years,Note 9 how will the language situation and characteristics of the country’s population change? Aside from international immigration, what demographic factors are likely to have the strongest influence on this change? How will the country’s demolinguistic balance between the English- and French-speaking populations evolve? How might the size and share of the population that are able to speak both official languages change? This study will attempt to answer these questions, among others.

The first chapter of our study presents a brief review of the literature and earlier work on projections of the language situation in Canada, and Quebec in particular. We will then demonstrate how the methodology chosen for our language projections–microsimulation–is different from the method generally used in the past (macrosimulation using the component method) and the advantages we stand to gain from it. The first chapter also discusses the main language indicators or variables from the census or the 2011 National Household Survey used in this study, and compares them with other available language data on projections of the language situation in Canada. We will conclude this chapter by presenting and justifying the various scenarios used in our language projections.

The second chapter presents the demographic factors and dimensions that have influenced the evolution of the country’s language situation over the past 40 years and the ones that are likely to shape it between now and 2036. We will present the roles and influence of immigration (levels and composition by geolinguistic origin), natural increase (births minus deaths), internal migration, as well as intragenerational and intergenerational linguistic mobility.

The third chapter of our study presents the results of our projections of the evolution of the language situation in Canada from 2011 to 2036. Specifically, we look at the mother tongue, language spoken most often at home and the first official language spoken of Canadians, and examine and present a number of alternative scenarios.

The fourth chapter examines and measures the potential influence that each factor presented in Chapter 2 could have on the evolution of language groups between now and 2036, as presented in Chapter 3. This chapter also presents the results of the evolution of language transfers (also called shifts) of Canadians; in other words, when individuals speak a language other than their mother tongue most often at home.

The fifth chapter deals with changes in knowledge of official languages and, more specifically, the evolution of English-French bilingualism in Canada and in various regions. It also discusses the evolution of the ability to conduct a conversation in French, a minority official language in Canada. We will highlight some of the factors that have, in recent decades, shaped the current status of English-French bilingualism in the country, and others that are likely to influence its development going forward. The evolution of bilingualism is examined in light of a number of scenarios regarding immigration rates, the bilingualism rates of immigrants upon arrival in Canada, and the rates of bilingualism retention among young people over time.

Lastly, the sixth chapter in our study presents an overview of the relationship between linguistic diversity and linguistic duality in Canada from 2011 to 2036. This final section sheds light on the link between a population growth driven mainly by a highly diverse immigrant population whose mother tongue is other than English or French, and the changes in the number and demographic weight of English and French speakers in Canada.

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