Canadian Language

Canada is an officially bilingual country, which means it has two official languages: French and English. In practice, however, the majority of Canadians can only speak English, while a small minority speak both English and French, or English and some other language, and an even smaller minority speak only French. The complex power relationships between these four group form the essence of Canada’s “language situation,” which is one of the country’s longest-running political dramas.

Canadian English

As we discussed in the Canadian people chapter, the majority of Canadians trace their roots to an English-speaking country somewhere in the British Isles, and 17.8 million Canadians, or about 57 per cent of the population, claim English is their first and only language. If we include Canadians who speak English as a second language (mostly immigrants and French-Canadians) or native English-speakers who learned a second language at some point, the rate of English fluency in Canada climbs to somewhere around 90 per cent.

Canadian dictionaries

Two of the most definitive books on Canadian English: the Collins Gage Canadian Dictionary, and The Canadian Style, A Guide to Writing and Editing. Both are widely used for reference by Canadian journalists, civil servants and other folks with a vested interest in getting "the Canadian way" right.

Canadian English” is mostly a mix of American-style pronunciations and British-style spelling, with a few uniquely Canadian flourishes that fit into neither tradition. In all honesty, the exact “rules” of Canadian English tend to be fairly unclear and are often disputed. Publishers routinely churn out “Canadian dictionaries” and the government of Canada produces an official guide to the “Canadian style,” but it’s still common to hear Canadians — even very educated ones — argue about the correct “Canadian way” to spell or pronounce this or that word.

Since Canada is now far more influenced by American culture than British, it may be most useful to summarize the way U.S. and Canadian English deviate, since, as is the case with many things in Canada, anti-American sentiment has played a large role in shaping Canadian English conventions. Most notably, Canadian English favours the British “ou” instead of “o” in certain words with a long “uhr” sound, such as colour and flavour, and uses “re” to end certain words with a short “uhr” sound, such as centre and theatre.

Only a few English words have an “official” Canadian pronunciation that deviates from standard American practice, such as “luf-tenant” for lieutenant and “shed-uale” for schedule, but in practice, these conventions are not widely obeyed. A great many books have likewise been written about unique English-Canadian slang or colloquialisms, but again, in practice, many of these terms (such as calling a garbage disposal a “garburator” or a sofa a “chesterfield”) are either quite regional or dated.

Other cliches associated with Canadian English, such as speaking very slowly, ending every sentence with “eh?,” or pronouncing words like “about” and “house” as “aboot” and “hoose,” have long ceased to be common in anywhere but the most rural and hickish parts of the country, and are now actually considered somewhat offensive stereotypes.

Canadian French

Quebec language

In 1977, Quebec's separatist government passed a controversial piece of legislation known as "Bill 101," which did a number of things to help transition Quebec into a unilingual French province. Among other initiatives, this included the creation of a so-called "language police" to monitor and fine shops and businesses that failed to properly use French on their signs, menus and advertisements.

The fact that Canada has not had substantial amounts of French immigration since the 18th century is reflected in the unique form of French that is spoken by the nearly seven million Canadians who learned it as their first language. Known as Francophones, the vast majority of these citizens reside in the province of Quebec, the only part of Canada where French is the language of day-to-day living.

While it’s obviously difficult to get into too much detail about a foreign language when writing in English, the main differences between Canadian French and what is usually called “Parisian French” tend to centre around French-Canadians’ continual use of certain old-fashioned terms, pronunciations and grammar conventions that have been abandoned in modern France, as well as le joual, a collection of unique and sometimes vulgar or nonsensical slang terms that have been popularized by the Quebecois working-class. To an English-speaking ear, Canadian French often sounds a bit rougher or more guttural than European French, a fact popularized by the common stereotype that French-Canadians tend to use a lot of hard “dee” sounds in their speech, while Parisians use smooth “zees.”

Of the 6.6 million Canadians (about 21 per cent of the population) who claim to speak French at home, 90 per cent dwell in Quebec, while significant French-speaking minorities also reside in the provinces of New Brunswick (29 per cent), Ontario (2.4 per cent) and Manitoba (1.6 per cent). Everywhere else, native French speakers are exceedingly rare.

Official Bilingualism

Bilingual packaging

Since the passage of the Official Languages Act, all packaging in Canada is printed in both English and French. Sometimes the front label will be in English and the back French, sometimes both will be on the same side, as seen here.

Until the 1950s, it was generally taken for granted that Canada was an English-speaking country and that it was proper for English to be the country’s dominant language of business, government and culture. Under such a system, Anglophone Canadians generally held all important positions of power and influence in the country, while Quebec’s French-speaking minority remained comparatively poor and powerless. This state of affairs began to quickly change in the aftermath of Quebec’s so-called Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, when more and more Quebecers entered the middle class and began to demand their province and language finally be given equal power and respect. Sympathetic to their plight, the era culminated in Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau‘s (1919-2000) passage of the Official Languages Act of 1969, which, for the first time, declared that Canada was a bilingual nation where French and English “have equality of status and equal rights and privileges.”

Canada’s policy of official bilingualism has always been complicated and controversial, in part because many of its goals are. The most immediate consequence of the 1969 Languages Act was the creation of a permanently bilingual civil service in Ottawa, where all senior bureaucrats and politicians are expected to speak both French and English as part of their job description, in order to best service Canadians who were fluent in either language. Since most bilingual Canadians tend to live in Quebec, this new reality, in turn, helped serve as a backdoor affirmative action program for French-Canadians, and allowed them to quickly assume high rank in the federal government, and thus correct for centuries of historic discrimination. To this day, if you work in any sector of Canadian politics, military or law, it can be quite difficult to be promoted above a certain rank unless you possess strong skills in both English and French, and Canadians from the province of Quebec continue to be overrepresented at all senior levels as a result.

The meticulous drive to provide all government signage in both French and English can produce some weird results, as in the case of this Ottawa building. Its English owners gave it a French name, which still had to be translated.

Bilingualism’s other main goal was to “[foster] the full recognition and use of both English and French in Canadian society,” or, in other words, actively promote the speaking of French in English regions of Canada, and vice versa, in order to achieve a more seamlessly bilingual culture. The Canadian government thus subsidizes the teaching of French in schools across Canada, as well as English in Quebec, though the results have been decidedly mixed. Since so few Canadians outside of Quebec have much use for French in their day-to-day lives, the language has not really caught on with anyone beyond a small minority of Canadians who work in government jobs where French fluency is a requirement. The Quebec government, meanwhile, has repeatedly passed laws limiting the use of English public signs, workplaces and classrooms in order to consolidate Quebec’s identity as a purely “French society.” Today, only about 17 per cent of Canadians are said to be able to speak both French and English.

The failure to create a truly bilingual Canada, one where Canadians can drift effortlessly in and out of French anywhere in the country, has been one of the great disappointments of modern Canada, but also a social experiment that generated a lot of resentment. In western Canada especially, official bilingualism is frequently viewed as a scheme to limit the power and influence of unilingual, English-speaking Canadians (i.e., westerners) in order to centralize control of the country in the hands of a small elite based out of Quebec and Ontario. Quebecers, meanwhile, are just as likely to view bilingualism as a federal policy that forces English upon them — the very thing they were originally trying to escape from.

Other Languages

Canadians who speak neither English nor French as their first language are sometimes called Allophones, and the majority of these folks are either immigrants or members of aboriginal tribes. According to the most recent Canadian census, around six million Canadians speak a non-official language as their mother tongue, with the most popular Allophone languages being Chinese, Italian, German and Punjabi.

Multicultural signs

In a growing number of neighbourhoods in Vancouver and Toronto, foreign language signs may actually outnumber English ones. Seen here, a mini-mall directory in Vancouver.

Legally, one must be fluent in either French or English in order to become a citizen of Canada, but there are exceptions for the very young and very old, and in practice, it is not uncommon for significant numbers of immigrant Canadians in big cities to possess limited skill in anything but their birth language. This has, in turn, caused something of a dilemma as far as multiculturalism is concerned; is it reasonable to accommodate immigrants by offering them services, such as banks, hospitals and restaurants, able to serve them in their native languages? Or should we place more emphasis on teaching new Canadians the language of the majority so that they may “fit in” better with those around them?

The question is a controversial one, and in most Canadian cities both approaches are utilized to varying degrees. A government website may feature a button for a Punjabi translation and a shop in Chinatown may have only Chinese-speaking cashiers, but it may be very hard to find truly critical information, such as tax forms or legal filings in anything other than English (or in Quebec, French).

Links About Canadian Language:

Quick Facts:

  • Canada has two official languages: French and English.
  • The vast majority of Canadians speak only English, while almost all French-speakers live in the province of Quebec.
  • Government-led efforts to turn Canada into a functionally bilingual society have yielded mixed results at best.
  • In recent years, the number of Canadians who speak neither French nor English as their first language has dramatically risen through immigration.