The Most Spoken Languages in Canada

December 31, 2023

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Aerial view of Toronto waterfront

Although Canada has two official national languages (English and French), the country is home to over 200 different languages. In Canada’s Northwest Territories, several Indigenous languages, such as Cree and Inuktitut, are considered official languages in the province. Meanwhile, in Quebec, French is the official language.

We’ve looked at data from Statistics Canada to see which are the most spoken languages in Canada. The research revealed how many people said each language was their mother tongue (primary language). These answers were based on the answers of 36 million people (of Canada’s 38 million population).

The results listed whether the respondents were first, second, or third generation (or more). ‘First generation’ refers to individuals who were born outside of Canada. ‘Second generation’ is individuals with at least one parent born outside of Canada, while ‘third generation’ is those born in Canada and whose parents were also born in the country.

Without further ado, let’s see which are Canada’s top ten most spoken languages, eh!

1. English – 20 million native speakers

Around 20 million people speak English as their primary language in Canada. Around two million respondents are first-generation. However, 13.6 million are at least the third generation or more, meaning they and their parents were born in Canada.

French explorers were the first Europeans to settle in Canada in the 1600s. By the mid-1700s, the British began to fight the French for Canadian land. The French eventually lost their North American territories when they signed the Treaty of Paris in 1763. At this time, there were barely any English speakers in Canada.

English-speaking United Empire Loyalists fled the United States for Canada during the American Revolution. While the newly independent Americans sought to separate themselves from Britain, the loyalists in Canada tried to remain English. As a result, Canadian English became a mixture of both American English and British English. Canadians use the British spelling of ‘colour’ and ‘centre’, but the American ‘analyze’ and ‘jail’, for example.

Canadian accents sound similar to accents in the United States, with a dash of British pronunciations. A noticeable feature is the ‘Canadian rising’, where a single syllable is formed with two vowels. ‘Out’ may sound like ‘oot’ to non-Canadians, which could be the remnant of the Scottish immigrants or Shakespeare-era pronunciation.

The ‘Canadian vowel shift’ also makes the word ‘bit’ sound like ‘bet’ and ‘bet’ sounds like ‘bat’. The ‘o’ sound in words such as ‘cot’ and ‘job’ are pronounced the same as words with the ‘au’ sound, such as ‘caught’ and ‘stalk’ due to the β€˜low back merger’. This means Canadians pronounce ‘cot’ in the same way that they’d say ‘caught’.

2. French – 7.1 million native speakers

Over seven million people speak French in Canada. The language’s presence in the country can be traced back to the early French settlements in the 17th century. It was Canada’s most-spoken European language until Britain took control of ‘New France’ in 1763. After this point, the French elite left the country, and politics and the economy were ruled by English speakers. French teaching was also banned in some provinces, notably Ontario.

Canada’s largest French-speaking population (85%) is in Quebec. The province was historically part of New France, where French was the standard language. French remained a common language here, even after the British took control of Canada. Today, the province of Quebec is Canada’s only province where French is the official language (rather than English).

There are several French dialects in Quebec, many of which sound significantly different from the standard French spoken in France. Many phrases used in ‘quΓ©bΓ©cois’ reflect the maritime influence. One popular phrase is ’embarquer dans une voiture’, which means ’embark in a car’.

3. Chinese (incl. Mandarin, Cantonese) – 1.3 million native speakers

The third-most-popular language in Canada is Chinese, which includes the likes of Mandarin and Cantonese. 1.3 million people speak a Chinese dialect in Canada, with the vast majority first-generation immigrants. Only 2,600 people who speak Chinese are third-generation or more Canadians.

The earliest record of Chinese people in Canada was in 1788. A British fur trader hired around 70 Chinese carpenters to build a ship on Vancouver Island. In the 19th century, Chinese railway workers were hired to build sections of the Canadian Pacific Railway in British Columbia. Many Chinese immigrants knew little or no English, and most white Canadians were not welcoming to the Chinese workers. The Chinese population largely lived in separate communities in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Mandarin is the most spoken Chinese language in Canada, with over 678,000 speakers. Yue (Cantonese) is the second-most spoken Chinese language, with around 553,000 speakers.

4. Punjabi – 668,000 native speakers

Around 668,000 people speak Punjabi in Canada. Of this, over 529,000 are first-generation Canadians, while only 2,650 are third-generation or more.

Punjabis first came to Canada in the 19th century to work in the forestry industry. They mostly migrated to British Columbia, which still has Canada’s largest Punjabi population. As Punjab and Canada were both part of the British Empire at the time, Punjabis were promised jobs if they settled in Canada. They were hired by large Canadian companies such as the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Punjabi, the native language of the Punjab region of Pakistan and India, is spoken by 113 million speakers around the world.

5. Spanish – 536,000 native speakers

The fifth-most spoken language in Canada is Spanish, with approximately 536,000 speakers. While early Spanish explorers colonized large portions of Latin America and the United States, there was only one small Spanish settlement (Santa Cruz de Nuca). As such, Canada has a relatively small Spanish population in comparison to the US.

Most Spanish speakers in Canada are first-generation (around 429,000). In comparison, just 2,425 are third-generation or more.

There are around 485 million native Spanish speakers in the world, with around 41.3 million in the US.

6. Arabic – 509,000 native speakers

Approximately 509,000 people speak Arabic in Canada, which makes it the country’s sixth-most spoken language. Although a small group of Lebanese immigrants came to Canada in the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that the country’s Arab community grew. Many of the Arab immigrants came from countries such as Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.

Around 220,000 speak Arabic as their native language in Montreal, which is Canada’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers. Toronto has the second-highest concentration, with approximately 121,000 native speakers. Many native Arabic speakers are bilingual and can usually speak English too.

Over 444,000 Arabic speakers are first-generation, while just 755 Arabic speakers are third-generation or more in Canada.

7. Tagalog – 463,000 native speakers

Next on our list is the Tagalog language, which originated in the Philippines. The population of Filipinos in Canada was relatively small until the end of the 20th century. Now, the population is the third-largest Asian Canadian group and Canada’s largest group from Southeast Asia.

Between 2011 and 2016, the use of Tagalog grew by 35% in Canada, which made it the country’s fastest-growing language. The Philippines is one of the three leading sources of immigration to Canada, along with India and China.

Tagalog is the first language of the Tagalog people of the Philippines (who make up 25% of the country’s population). In its standardized form, Tagalog is the official language of the Philippines, alongside English.

8. German – 426,000 native speakers

With around 426,000 speakers, German is Canada’s eighth most-spoken language. A small number of Germans traveled to New France in the 1600s, but it wasn’t until the country came under British rule that a large number of Germans came to Canada.

There was a particularly high volume of German immigrants to Canada during the American Revolution. At the time, Britain was ruled by the German-descended King George III, who also held the title of Prince-Elector of Hanover (an area in Germany). Following the British defeat in the US, the German loyalists fled to Canada and bought the German language with them.

There are various German dialects spoken in Canada. Aside from standard German, some of the other Germanic languages include Frisian, Swiss German, and Pennsylvania German. Over 269,000 are first-generation German speakers in Canada, while over 54,000 are third-generation or more.

9. Italian – 316,000 native speakers

With around 316,000 speakers, Italian ranks ninth of Canada’s ten most-spoken languages. Italians were amongst the first Europeans to settle in Canada in the 1500s. However, the largest influx of Italian immigrants arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Many Italians settled in Montreal during the 19th century, particularly those in the hospitality trade. A number of craftsmen and musicians also traveled to Canada throughout the century. They bought the Italian language with them and formed Italian communities throughout Canada. It was these communities that helped preserve the Italian culture and language for future generations.

Of the 316,000 people who speak Italian, 90,740 speakers are first-generation and 9,545 are third-generation or more.

10. Portuguese – 239,000 native speakers

Finally, we have Portuguese, which is Canada’s tenth-most spoken language. The Portuguese were amongst the first Europeans to visit Canada in the 1400s. This arrival had a major influence on the formation of Canada as we know it. It’s thought that ‘Labrador’ originates from the Portuguese word ‘lavrador’, which means ‘small landowner or farmer’.

Canada’s largest Portuguese population is in Ontario, where about 69% of people with Portuguese heritage live. 14% of Canada’s Portuguese population live in Quebec and 8% live in British Columbia.

While first-generation speakers continue to speak Portuguese as their mother tongue, most of the later generations prefer to speak English. Of the 239,000 Portuguese speakers in Canada, 195,340 speakers are first-generation and just 1,195 are third-generation or more.

Other languages spoken in Canada

Although most of the languages on this list are European, there are a number of Indigenous languages that are spoken in Canada. In 2021, it was reported over 237,000 Indigenous people could speak an Indigenous language well enough to hold a conversation. This figure represents approximately 13.1% of Canada’s Indigenous population. This figure is a decrease of 4.3% from 2016.

Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibway account for nearly two-thirds of the Indigenous population who consider an Aboriginal language their mother tongue. Around one in five people who speak an Aboriginal language as their primary language live in Quebec. The next largest populations live in Manitoba (17.7%) and Saskatchewan (16.0%).

Summary

Modern Canada was built by European settlers, which is demonstrated by the country’s most spoken languages. Canada’s most-spoken language is English, with around 20 million native speakers. The second-most spoken language is French (Canada’s other official language), with 7.1 million speakers. Other popular languages include Chinese (such as Mandarin and Cantonese), Punjabi and Spanish.

There are also a small population of Indigenous people who speak Aboriginal languages. However, the population of native speakers is gradually declining. Only around 13% of Canada’s Indigenous population speak an Aboriginal language today.

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