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Aug 09, 2017

We’re speaking more languages, but is our landscape more diverse?

August 9, 2017

Each fresh wave of results from the 2016 Census brings a new appreciation for Canada’s deepening diversity, and last week’s release is no exception. As of 2016, 23 per cent of Canadians have a language other than English or French as their “mother tongue.” That figure rises to 29 per cent in Ontario and a remarkable 47 per cent – almost one in two – in Toronto.

As Statistics Canada notes, this illustrates the country’s “increasingly diverse linguistic landscape.” That headline notwithstanding, a closer look at the census findings should really prompt us to ask whether – in the context of an increasingly interconnected world – we are diverse enough.

For those who see linguistic diversity as contributing to the vibrancy of society, there are several census results that stand out as positive developments. The first is that the number of Canadians who are bilingual in terms of English and French reached a record in 2016, at 18 per cent. The other is that a number of Indigenous youth are picking up an Indigenous language as a second language, even if they did not learn it as infants in the home. This is a promising sign for the preservation of Indigenous languages in Canada.

It is also encouraging that the proliferation of languages other than English and French has not come at the expense of an ability to communicate in one of Canada’s official languages. More than 98 per cent of Canadians say they can converse in either English or French.

The census numbers, however, also raise a couple of questions about how evenly our linguistic diversity is distributed across our society. In the first instance, our “increasingly diverse linguistic landscape” is mostly driven by immigration – by the arrival in Canada of adults who speak languages other than English or French, and the passing on of these languages in the home to their Canadian-born children. It is less clear that Canadians born to English-speaking parents are learning additional languages, whether out of personal interest or to gain an advantage in the global economy.

The bar for this internationally is set pretty high. In the European Union, for instance, two-thirds of working-age adults can speak a language other than the one they learned from their parents in the home. This means, in most cases, acquiring a second (if not a third) language at school. It helps, of course, that this second language is often English, the learning of which is made easier by its ubiquity in popular culture. The point remains that the focus on foreign languages in school pays off. European societies by and large are less ethnically diverse than Canada’s, but more multilingual in terms of the ability of most adults to speak more than one language.

The other cautionary note concerns official bilingualism. The proportion of Ontarians who can speak both English and French rose between 2011 and 2016, to just more than 11 per cent. The fact remains that among Ontarians who grew up in English-speaking households, only one in 12 can speak French. In an era where anyone aspiring to hold a position of national (and, increasingly, provincial) leadership must be bilingual, too many Ontarians are selecting themselves out of contention. It is not only math or coding skills that will open doors for young people – language skills will, too.

By all means, then, let’s celebrate our growing linguistic diversity. But in an officially bilingual country nestled in a globalized world, it is important to ensure that this diversity does not end up as a thick layer of multilingual icing on top of a unilingual cake. The ability to communicate in more than one language is something that can benefit everyone, and not just those with immigrant or French-speaking parents.

Opinion published in The Globe and Mail here.

Release Date

August 9, 2017


The Globe and Mail


Andrew Parkin

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