The number of Canadians who mainly speak a language other than English or French at home grew to 4.6 million (13% of the population)—a record high—in 2021, according to new census data released by Statistics Canada. About 25% of Canadians also reported having at least one first language other than English or French.
The increase is largely due to a rise in the number of Canadians who report speaking South Asian languages, including Hindi and Punjabi. Seven in ten Canadians whose first language is neither English nor French said they also speak an official language at home. More Canadians are also able to speak more than one language, according to the census data. The number of people who reported being able to hold a conversation in more than one language rose from 39% in 2016 to just over 41% in 2021.
Just under one-third of Canadians reported being fully bilingual, and 7% said they were trilingual. The percentage of full bilinguals able to speak languages other than English and French also increased.
“It’s not only bilingualism in French–English. It’s all types of bilingualism,” said Éric Caron-Malenfant, assistant director of the Centre for Demography at Statistics Canada, during a news conference.
Despite an increase in the number of Canadians claiming French as their first official language, the number of French speakers as a percentage of the overall population continued to decline in 2021.
According to Statistics Canada, the proportion of French speakers among Canadians has steadily declined since 1971, when 27% reported French as their first official language. That number fell to just over 21% in 2021, while 75% reported English as their first official language, about the same as the last census.
“Both numbers are increasing, people with French and English as their first official language spoken,” Caron-Malenfant said. “But not at the same pace.”
The share of predominantly French speakers in Québec fell to 77% in 2021 from 79% in 2016. The number of Québecers who reported English as their first official language topped one million for the first time.
Outside of Québec, the number of those who say French is their only official language declined in every province except British Columbia.
Cree, Inuktitut Prominent
Statistics Canada says 189,000 people reported their first language to be Indigenous, with most of those saying they speak an Indigenous language regularly.
The report says Inuktitut and Cree are being spoken by roughly 27,000 people each, making them the most commonly used Indigenous languages.
Even more Canadians—243,000—reported being able to hold a conversation in an Indigenous language. Statistics Canada claims that indicates they’re being learned as second languages.
Other Language Highlights
• The number of English–French bilingual Canadians remained steady at 18%, with a rise in Québec offset by a decline in the rest of Canada.
• There was a decline in the number of Canadians who spoke European languages such as Italian, Polish, and Greek.
• Outside of English and French, Mandarin and Punjabi are the most commonly spoken languages.
• Nunavut has the highest rate of bilingualism at 68%. The majority of those are fluent in English and Inuktitut.
• Québec has the highest trilingual population rate at 12%. In Montréal, one in five reported being able to speak three languages fluently.
• Nearly 50,000 Canadians reported knowing a sign language, with more than half that number—just under 28,000—saying they use sign language regularly at home.
Mandarin Overtakes Cantonese in Toronto
Mandarin has overtaken Cantonese as the second-most common first language in Toronto, after English. “I’ve been watching over the years, the slow increase,” said Toronto author and historian Arlene Chan, who has written several books on the history of Chinese people in Toronto. “Through each census I could see the number of Mandarin speakers coming up,” she told CBC News. Numbers for Toronto’s Census Metropolitan Area (CMA)—a vast geographic zone— reflect changing immigration patterns. Of the area’s nearly 6.2 million inhabitants, almost 280,000, or 4.5%, consider Mandarin to be their mother tongue, while Cantonese trails closely at 4.3%.