Canada is a huge country and a country of immigration, so it should come as no surprise that we have more than one Canadian language. Officially, Canada is a bilingual country, with two official Canadian languages: English and French. Despite this official status, however, the majority of Canadians speak English. Some, especially those living in Quebec or New Brunswick speak both English and French, and fewer speak only French or English with another second language. Ask anyone who lives here though and they’ll tell you that this relationship between English and French continuously forms much of Canada’s political drama.
Canadian Languages: English vs French
First, it was the Vikings that showed up on the shores of “Newfoundland” and then it was Italian explorer John Cabot, which ultimately led to North America’s oldest English-founded city: St. John’s, Newfoundland. Aside from the many indigenous nations, however, the French are accredited with first settling Canada, but then losing the war to England not long after. Regardless, English and French have become the leading languages in the country with English taking a very obvious lead.
Approximately half of the Canadian population can trace their ancestry to the British Isles and claim English as their first and only Canadian language. Once you toss in English as a second language, that number jumps to more than 90% of Canadians. That leaves less than 10% that speak only French or speak another language besides English.
Still, whenever we personally travel the world, people do ask us if we speak French. Our response is that the majority of French-speaking Canadians live in Quebec, the only province where French is the official language. The only other province with a significant French population is New Brunswick, which is also the only province that’s made its official Canadian languages both English and French. All other provinces and territories have English as the official language.
Canadian English is different from that spoken in England, primarily due to our extravagant neighbours down south. If you’ve ever spent some time in both England and the United States, you’ll likely see that Canadian English is a mix of the two, with a mix of American-style pronunciations and a mix of both British and American spelling, topped with a few uniquely Canadian-made slang specialties.
Speaking is one thing but writing is another. Most Canadians know their weight by pounds but our driver’s licenses state our weight in kilograms. We know how tall we are by feet and inches but our IDs state our height in cm. It can be a little confusing, to say the least. The exact “rules” of Canadian English tend to be fairly unclear and are often disputed. We produce our own Canadian dictionaries but even that does not help us fully choose the way to spell certain words. For the most part, we seem to lean towards the British ways (colour instead of the American color, for example) but some may choose to write for the big audience in the U.S. All in all, it seems to be up for debate.
Part of the issue lies in the fact that we’re a former British colony (and still under the commonwealth) but are far more influenced by American culture. As many of you know, American cinema and TV are very strong and that’s largely what we consume in Canada. Many of us don’t even understand British humour at this point. In terms of speaking, we’re more in line with Americans, but certainly with a lot of Canadian slang and accent.
While there’s a number of Canadian slang words, perhaps the most famous of them all is “eh?”, which is quite common and is often meant to elicit agreement or to ask for something to be repeated or explained. That’s a beautiful car, eh? Many other popular cliches such as saying “aboot” instead of “about” really don’t happen very often and likely came from very rural areas a long time ago. We’ve literally never heard it ourselves.
As an English-speaking person, I won’t get too deep into Canadian French, but having both friends and family from Quebec, I’ve come to learn that it is quite different from the French spoken in France, which is often referred to as “Parisian French”. French immigration has barely occurred since the 18th century and so the French spoken in Canada is often known as old-fashioned French. French Canadians, having learned French as a first language from their ancestors, use old-fashioned terms, pronunciations, and grammar conventions that are no longer used in France. In addition, and this goes back to the political drama between English and French in Canada, Canadian French people really don’t like to bring in English terms for modern things whereas France is much more likely to put a French spin on an English term.
In addition, the French you’ll hear in the Maritimes is different from the French you’ll hear in Quebec. Whereas most French Canadians living in Quebec are descendants of settlers from Eastern France, the vast majority of those living in the Maritimes, such as New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, are the descendants of settlers from Western France and are known as the Acadians. To further add to the mix, Canadians who learn French as a second language are much more likely to speak Persian French. So, perhaps both French and English are equally at odds in Canada.
Language in Canada Becomes Officially Bilingual
Up until the 1950s, Canada was actually known as an English-speaking country and English was significantly more dominant in terms of business, government, and culture. During this time, English-speaking Canadians held most of the power while the French-speaking Canadians remained relatively poor in contrast.
This all changed after Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution” during the 1960s when more and more Quebecors entered the middle class and demanded their language be given more status and respect. Then, the government at the time, under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (1919-2000) passed the Official Languages Act in 1969, which declared Canada an officially bilingual nation where the Canadian languages of French and English “have equality of status and equal rights and privileges.” These values were later added to the revised Canadian Constitution of 1982.
Under these new rules, Canadians have the right to interact with any institution of the federal government, whether it be the local post office or the Supreme Court, in either French or English. The 1969 Canadian Languages Act changed Canada quite significantly as it was suddenly important for all Canadians with important government jobs to speak French. Today, it can be difficult to get promoted above a certain rank in government-related jobs for those who cannot speak French. As usual, this created new problems, as it tends to favour the already bi-lingual people of Quebec who have become overrepresented in senior positions. Perhaps more alarming is the Language Police that Quebec created in 1977 when they passed a controversial piece of legislation known as “Bill 101,” which created the “l’Office Québécois de la langue Française” to monitor and fine shops and businesses that fail to properly use French on their signs, packages, menus, advertisements, and websites.
Provincially, however, none of the provincial governments are officially bilingual and are only legally required to provide services in English except for Quebec, which is only legally required to do so in French, or New Brunswick, which is the only province to officially be both English and French. Despite the legalities though, most provincial governments do provide services in different languages.
Another goal of the Languages Act was to encourage normal Canadian citizens to learn both French and English in order to truly make the country bilingual. However, many decades later, not to mention the subsidization of language schools, this goal did not come to fruition. Although French might be a beautiful language, its lack of importance outside of Quebec in terms of day-to-day living has not inspired Canadians enough to learn. For the most part, only those wishing to rise to the ranks of government seek to learn French. To further add to the divide, the Quebec government continues to pass laws that limit the use of English in workplaces and in classrooms as a way to further push the Quebec agenda of being a fully “French society”. However, just as it was back in 1969, only 17% of Canada’s population can speak both English and French.
So what’s bilingual in Canada?
- All commercial packaging.
- Anything produced by the Federal Government.
- Signs at airports and on Canadian airlines.
- Vending machines, ATMs, and other service machines.
Other Languages in Canada
Although English and French are the dominant Canadian languages, there are other languages spoken across the country as well. First and foremost, there are a number of Indigenous languages, which we’ll get into below. Then there are the languages of the immigrants who have moved here over the last century. In fact, some of these people do not speak English and are referred to as Allophones. However, this is rare and is typical only amongst new immigrants and/or their children. The most popular languages of this type are Mandarin, Cantonese, Punjabi, and Spanish.
You might be wondering how someone can immigrate to Canada without knowing English or French. Legally, one must be fluent in one of the official languages to become a citizen of Canada, but there are exceptions for seniors and very young children, which present another problem as to whether Canada should continue to somewhat enforce a common language or to accommodate other languages. Personally, especially in terms of business, it would be very costly to bridge so many languages into the market and in some ways would eliminate a cultural identity for the country. But that’s what we think. What do you think?
Indigenous Language in Canada
As you probably know by now, the Indigenous People of Canada long roamed this land long before European explorers arrived. Between the many nations that were spread out across this vast land, there were hundreds of languages and dialects. However, much like the people themselves, many were wiped out by the European settlers over the last four centuries. The Indian residential school system, in particular, wiped out much of the languages after forcing “Native education” throughout much of the 1900s as a way to make Indigenous people stop speaking their language and be part of the assimilation agenda. Many atrocities occurred with the residential school system and much of it is coming out in the open these days. We won’t go into that here but at the very least, attitudes are certainly shifting and the Canadian government is now promoting the growth and revival of the Indigenous languages it once tried to extinguish.
Less than 0.5% of the population speaks an Indigenous language as of now, with the strongest language being Cree (Quebec and the prairies) and Inuktitut (Nunavut). It’s also great to see that Canada’s newest territory, Nunavut, recognized Inuktitut as an official language while the Northwest Territories gave official status to 11 Indigenous languages.
Want to learn more about Canada?
Donna Hewko says
I’d love to go to Newfoundland on that ferry on day. I never got a chance to see all the provinces years ago and Newfoundland is the one I want to visit.
Tell that to Higgs
Rahim Charania says
Need to plan a trip so I can try this out!