Ups and Downs in Canada’s Languages: Census 2021

By: Nico Mjones, MA Applied Linguistics / Diploma in Curatorial Studies / CLM Intern

Statistics Canada recently released the data on language that it collected in the 2021 census. This data is full of new and interesting developments in language diversity in Canada. The release of the language data brings new information about official languages in Canada, Indigenous languages, and other non-official languages.

(Image Source: Statistics Canada, Census of Population, 2021)

Canada’s Official Languages & Bilingualism

There have been some changes in the statistics concerning our official languages, but they mostly follow the same trends as in previous years. Proportionally French has declined across Canada due to its significantly smaller speaker population growth. Bilingualism has increased and is particularly common among native French speakers. In the 2021 census, 6,581,680 Canadians spoke both English and French (Table 1). By comparing the data in Table 1 and Table 2, we can see that a much higher proportion of francophones are bilingual than anglophones. If there are almost 8 million people whose first official language is French (Table 2) but only about 4 million who speak French only (Table 1), this suggests that almost half of Canada’s francophones know English as well.  On the other hand, there are almost 28 million Canadians whose first official language is English, and about 25 million who know English only, then under 10% of anglophones report knowing French.

Additionally, in Quebec the number of people whose first official language was English was higher than one million for the first time. The number of people reporting French as their first official language declined in Ontario, home to the largest Francophone population outside of Quebec, and also declined in New Brunswick, the only officially bilingual province. Across many of the census’ statistics the French language has declined in proportion or in number of speakers. French has declined proportionally even where the numbers of speakers grew, as in the national mother tongue data (Table 3) and official language spoken at home (Table 4). This is likely due to immigration and to the increase in speakers of non-official languages.

Table 1. Knowledge of Official Languages

LanguageKnowledge of Official Languages 2021Knowledge of Official Languages 2016Change 2016-2021
English only25,261,655 (69%)23,757,525 (68.3%)+1,504,130
French only4,087,895 (11.2%)4,144,685 (11.9%)-56,790
English & French6,581,680 (18%)6,216,065 (17.9%)+365,615

Table 2. First Official Language Spoken

LanguageFirst Official Language 2021First Official Language 2016Change 2016-2021
English27,643,140 (75.5%)26,007,500 (74.8%)+1,635,640
French7,828,545 (21.4%)7,705,755 (22.2%)+122,790
English & French476,175 (1.3%)417,485 (1.2%)+58,690

Table 3. Mother Tongue Official Language

LanguageMother Tongue 2021Mother Tongue 2016Change 2016-2021
English only20,107,200 (54.9%)19,460,850 (56%)+646,350
French only7,189,245 (19.6%)7,166,705 (20.6%)+22,540
English & French291,325 (0.8%)165,320 (0.5%)+126,005

Table 4. Official Language Spoken Most Often at Home

LanguageLanguage spoken most often at home 2021Language spoken at home 2016Change
English23,376,200 (63.8%)22,162,865 (63.7%)+1,213,335
French7,044,855 (19.2%)6,943,800 (20%)+101,055
English & French230,955 (0.6%)160,185 (0.5%)+70,770

Canada’s Indigenous Languages and Data Collection Challenges

Not all the information in the census is fully reliable. Sociolinguists will often caution that self-reported data isn’t always accurate, because people may have different names for languages or different ideas of what knowing a language is. However, this particular census has a different data collection issue, particularly with Indigenous languages. The census reports a slight decline in Indigenous language speakers and many news outlets have made note of this, but Statistics Canada has put out a warning about their data on Indigenous languages. The 2021 census was conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic, and during the pandemic many indigenous communities were hard to reach. Many reserves locked down much more significantly than non-reserve communities, and some did not allow entry to anyone who was not a resident of the reserve. Statistics Canada also stated that there was some unwillingness to participate among Indigenous communities due to the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools. For these, and other reasons, Statistics Canada cautions against making direct comparisons between 2021 and previous censuses for the speaker statistics of indigenous languages. However, this doesn’t mean the data collected doesn’t have some useful information.

One indigenous language less likely to be as impacted by these data collection problems is Michif. Michif is the language of the Metis, who live in southern Canada but do not live on reserves. Because they are not in the far north and do not live on reservations, it is less likely that the Covid-19 pandemic impacted their enumeration. The data seem to support this: while most Indigenous languages recorded fewer speakers in the 2021 census, Michif had an increase. In 2016, there were 465 mother tongue speakers of Michif and 1,210 speakers in total. In the 2021 census, there were 485 mother tongue speakers and 1,905 speakers in total, an increase of 20 mother tongue speakers and almost 700 speakers in total. Given the small number of people who speak Michif, the increase of 700 speakers is huge, and an extremely positive sign for the language.

Statistics Canada created a list of which reserves refused or were unable to fully take part in enumeration. These were located across Canada, in 6 of the country’s 10 provinces. Based on the information that was collected, Statistics Canada estimated that there may still have been a small decline in the number of speakers of indigenous languages. Statistics Canada also announced that they would release additional information and analysis of Indigenous languages in September.

Canada’s Largest Non-Official Languages

Data from the census not only shows that the number of mother tongue speakers of non-official languages has hit a new record of 7,848,820, but that there have been significant changes in the languages spoken in Canada. One of the most noteworthy of these is the large growth in Punjabi speakers, an increase of 164,905. This makes Punjabi the 2nd largest mother tongue with 666,585 speakers. In the 2016 census, Punjabi was the 3rd largest non-official language by mother tongue, but it has now surpassed Cantonese. Mandarin remained the largest with an increase of 87,215 speakers to a total of 679,255. Spanish and Arabic, the 4th and 5th largest non-official languages, had similar large increases in speakers, of around 80,000 and 89,000 respectively. Out of the top five, only Cantonese had a decrease in mother tongue speakers. These large changes are mostly due to immigration. Most immigrants from China today speak Mandarin rather than Cantonese, and thus the number of Mandarin speakers has been growing as immigration from China continues. In the 2016 census, Mandarin showed an increase of 343,335 mother tongue speakers. While Statistics Canada won’t release data on immigration, nationality, and ethnicity until October of this year, it is known that in addition to immigration from China, immigration from India, Latin America, and Arabic speaking countries has been on the rise, and the linguistic data reflect this.

Table 5. Languages in Canada by Mother Tongue

Mandarin679,255592,040 (1)+87,215
Punjabi666,585501,680 (3)+164,905
Cantonese553,380565,270 (2)-11,890
Spanish538,870458,850 (4)+80,020
Arabic508,410419,890 (5)+88,520
Tagalog461,150431,380 (6)+29,770
Italian319,505375,635 (8)-56,130
German272,865384,035 (7)-111,170*
Portugese240,680221,540 (9)+19,140
Urdu235,290210,815 (10)+24,475
Russian197,905188,255 (12)+9,650
Iranian Persian/Farsi179,425214,200 (11)-34,775*
Vietnamese173,000156,425 (14)+16,575
Korean170,400153,425 (15)+16,975
Polish160,170181,710 (13)-21,540
* Data presented for German and Iranian/Persian is misleading due to new divisions of German and Iranian/Persian. See text for analysis.

While Cantonese remains one of the largest non-official languages in Canada, it is likely that it will continue to fall lower in the ranking of languages by size. This is similar to the situation of other languages in Canada that are transitioning from large mother tongues of recent immigrants into heritage languages of subsequent generations. Italian and Polish are historically large languages in Canada that both show large declines in mother tongue speakers in this census, declines of about 56,000 and 22,000 respectively.

German is a peculiar case of this decline: at first glance the data shows that German had the largest mother tongue decrease in Canada, with 111,170 fewer speakers. However, this is misleading because the way that German and several other languages are recorded was changed between 2016 and 2021. A number of languages, such as Plautdietsch, Pennsylvania German, Swiss German, and Low Saxon were added to the census in 2021, and these all would likely have been included under German in the 2016 census. If we combine the results for German with all of these varieties that are now listed separately, the decline is more likely to be 51,385 fewer speakers. While this is still a large number, and only second among the large languages in mother tongue decline after Italian, it is less than half the reported decline.

A similar problem with the data can be seen with the Iranian languages. Iranian Persian, or Farsi also shows a decline in speakers despite increases in previous censuses. The 2016 census recorded “Persian (Fasi)” as having 214,200 mother tongue speakers. The 2021 census shows “Iranian Persian” as having 179,425 mother tongue speakers and “Persian (Farsi), none other specified” 25,975. The census now also includes Dari, which is the official name for the Persian language as spoken in Afghanistan. Farsi and Dari are mutually intelligible (speakers of either can mostly or entirely understand the other) and have similar standards for writing, but some differences in pronunciation. Dari in 2021 is listed as having 57,220 mother tongue speakers. This suggests that Persian did not actually have a decline, but that changes to the census have divided the way the Persian language is recorded.

The census is an important tool for understanding language in Canada. There are ways in which the census can struggle to capture the necessary data for this, such as it has in 2021 with Indigenous languages. When the census does capture data, it sometimes requires additional analysis to understand what it means. This is especially true of changes to the census categories, as in the case of German and Persian. In spite of these difficulties, the 2021 census is still illuminating the state of language in Canada. The census has shown how varied the trajectory of different languages in Canada has been, how well efforts to support French and Indigenous languages have fared, and how much linguistic diversity has grown in Canada.

For language data from the 2021 census, visit: