For the first time since Canada began collecting mother tongue data more than a century ago, a record number of Canadians do not count English or French as their first language.
Calling Canada a “richly linguistically diverse” country, Statistics Canada report This week, one in four Canadians, or nine million people, has no official language as their mother tongue, according to 2021 census data.
I am one of those people. I was born north of Toronto, but my new immigrant parents chose to speak to me in Albanian until they enrolled me in kindergarten. My oldest friend still likes to talk about how she thought I was deaf when we met in class because I would never speak. Of course, I just don’t know many English words.
When they are at home, 4.6 million Canadians primarily speak a language other than English or French, up 16% since the last census in 2016 and a number that has been growing slowly over three decades. the past century, new data shows. In the Yukon, British Columbia and Quebec, the number of French speakers at home increased, although all other provinces and territories decreased.
When I started elementary school, the only school nearby offered a French language program, a type of bilingual program that was introduced in Canada in the 1970s. Among the academic benefits of the program, such as the Literacy studies have shown that French learners score higher than English-only students in reading, making the program popular with parents. Dependent where do you liveFrench bilinguals also tend to earn higher incomes.
Immersion in language as a child meant learning basic cell biology and long division terminology in French, while also untangling my English and Albanian. There was a time when I didn’t realize I was speaking the Albanian word “ullinj” when I’m talking about “olive.”
Of course, the stakes and urgency of learning English will be much higher for immigrants looking for work or education here.
Last November, I spent a morning with a group of newcomers from Afghanistan, Malaysia, Lebanon, China and Colombia – some of whom have been in the country for less than four months – learning English. I have watched as they diligently practice words like “groove” and phonetically pair sounds that do not exist in their mother tongue, part of a six-month language instruction program run by the input agency. sponsored by Canadian immigration.
The Census Bureau notes that the Austroasiatic-speaking population has grown at least eight times faster than the general population in Canada, along with another significant increase in the number of mother tongue speakers from East Africa. , Turkey, Philippines and Middle Eastern countries. .
Mandarin and Punjabi are the most commonly spoken languages at home apart from English and French. The Census also shows more than 180,000 speakers of an Indigenous language – a number that may be too low due to data collection gaps in remote Indigenous communities caused by the pandemic.
“Canada’s linguistic diversity is due to immigrants and indigenous populations,” said Angelica Galante, assistant professor and director of the Language Lab at McGill University in Montreal. “It’s not because Canada has a great language program that teaches Canadians how to speak multiple languages.”
She said the census results underscore the work of researchers in her field – language pedagogy – who are changing Canada’s model in which bilingual education means teaching French. for English speakers and vice versa.
“But now, we have to think about how we can envision teaching English to a multilingual community,” said Ms. Galante, an immigrant from Brazil who speaks five languages. his own, said.
Schools are a fierce battleground for languages in Quebec, where new language laws will limit enrollment in English-language junior colleges and place other restrictions aimed at reinforcing language use. France in the province.
The law, passed by Quebec’s legislature in May, also means that immigrants who settle in the province will not be able to do business with the government in a language other than French six months after they arrive. .
More than 7.8 million Canadians call French their first language, a slight increase from last year’s census. But the overall proportion of French speakers has been declining since 1971.
While enrolling in French schools has been a matter of geographical convenience for me, the value of speaking more than one language has been reinforced in many ways throughout my life. Continuing to speak and nurture each of them will be intentional.
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Vjosa Isai is a news assistant for The New York Times in Canada. Follow her on Twitter at @lavjosa.