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“Are Canadians Bilingual?” The Strange Reality of Canadian Bilingualism.

As you may know, Canada has two official languages, English and French, which has had a big impact on Canada`s civic culture. For example:

• When you reach immigration at the airport, you will be greeted in both English and French by bilingual officers (and they will speak to you in whichever language you respond in)

• You have a legal right to demand that public services are available to you in either language, including schooling.

• In order to become the Prime Minister or a high level bureaucrat, you pretty much have to be bilingual.

Because Canada is officially bilingual, people sometimes assume that Canadian people are all bilingual in English and French. But unfortunately that`s very far from being the truth. Growing up in Vancouver I had almost no exposure to the French language outside of school (where I didn`t learn much of it anyway).

Anglophones and Francophones


Canada flag and Quebec flagAnglophones (who speak English as their first language) and Francophones (who speak French as their first language) largely live in separate parts of Canada. Even though there are 10 million French Canadians, or 30% of Canada`s population, the vast majority of them live in Quebec province – where the sole official language is French. There are francophone communities in other provinces, the most significant one being in New Brunswick, but Canada is basically like two countries in one, and the amount of interaction between those two “countries” is fairly limited. That means that most Anglophone Canadians have no real exposure to French speakers and most of them don`t take their French studies seriously.

I am a classic example of Anglophone Canada

I grew up on the West coast, far from Quebec, and I don`t ever remember meeting a Francophone Canadian until I was a teenager and my friend`s cousin came from Quebec for a visit. He spoke English quite fluently despite being a rebel who spent more time getting drunk than studying, but I could barely string a single sentence together in French, despite having “studied” French at school for several years.

All of my French teachers at school had been Anglophones who spoke French to varying degrees with bad accents, the lessons were conducted mostly in English, and there was never any expectation on us to really learn anything. I remember singing some songs in French and having no idea what the words meant, and giving a presentation on hockey player Marcel Dionne — in English, in French class. WTF was that all about.

I think the most exposure I had to French was reading it on the backs of cereal boxes. In Canada all packaging is legally required to be bilingual. Who cares about making children bilingual, just make Captain Crunch bilingual and Quebec will never separate!

Bilingual cereal box in CanadaBilingual Skittles bagbilingual french english cat food can in canada

Canada bilingualism mapAnglophones growing up in areas closer to Quebec may have more interaction with French speakers. For example in Ontario, especially around Ottawa which is near the Quebec border. And maybe more important than their direct exposure to the French language, is their awareness of the French language`s relevance. The Ontarians I know tend to speak a little more French than those from the West coast.

Francophones are much more likely to be bilingual, especially the Montreal area and the areas bordering Ontario. 42% of Quebecois claim to be bilingual, as opposed to 10-15% of Anglophone Canadians (though those numbers don`t tell us how advanced their level is). The deeper you travel into Quebec province, though, the less people speak English and the more monolingual the environment becomes. In the more rural areas of Quebec there are lots of people who genuinely do not speak English at all.

Immigration creates a different kind of bilingual

Chinese signs in Richmond, BC
Chinese signs in my hometown of Richmond, near Vancouver

Canada is a nation of immigrants, and in recent decades that immigration has come from all over the world and not just Europe. That means that there are a lot of bilingual Canadians, but not necessarily bilingual in English and French. Depending on which province they immigrate to, they may be bilingual in either English or French plus their native language or heritage language. In Vancouver you hear far more Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tagalog, or Punjabi than you do French.

Canada is not bilingual

So the reality is that Francophone Canada and Anglophone Canada largely operate separately from each other, and the majority in either community feels no urgency to learn the other community`s language. Around 83% of Canadians are not proficient in both official languages.

This is probably because Canada is so damn big. Most bilingual Canadians live in the border areas where the two communities converge, because when there is interaction with speakers of the other language, the language is relevant to the other group. If Canada was much smaller country with the same two linguistic communities, then everybody might be bilingual.

Personally, I would love it if every single Canadian became bilingual. I began actively studying French only quite recently and being able to speak with Quebecois people in French has given me access to an entirely new Canada that I never knew existed. I had always thought that Quebec was the same as the rest of Canada, just with a different language. But Quebec really is different, and if more Anglophones grew to appreciate that, it could enrich our Canadian identity and ensure better relations between Quebec and the rest of the country.

  • Rob

    Being recently out of the school system might I add that most Canadians actually hate learning French, and barley scrape a passing grade out of the class. Also after the mandatory French classes are over the French classes are pretty empty. I think that if it wasn’t forced upon students that it would probably encourage more people the take the course rather than becoming a hater of French and of Quebec.

  • LangFocus

    Sorry to reply 3 months after you posted your comment!

    I know that the way French was taught in my district (in Greater Vancouver) was ridiculous. Starting in 6th grade of elementary school (11 years old) we had a visiting French teacher come to our class for 1 hour lessons every once in a while (it wasn’t even every week, I think it was maybe twice a month). And the lessons were almost all in English. I got a passing grade by doing a presentation about a hockey player from Quebec, in English. Similar in seventh grade. I took French from 8th grade through 12th grade and I literally could not pronounce a single word. I don’t mean I had a strong accent, I mean I would read the words like they were English. The combination of being forced to take the class but not actually being forced to learn it just made everybody feel like it was a waste of time. I’m sure the teachers had their own frustrations we didn’t know about, but it was just a mixed up situation.

    I wish we’d started learning French from first grade of elementary school, around 3 times a week, with speaking and listening activities, and been exposed to French language media, like Disney films or whatever.

  • Gabriele Trovato

    Hello Paul! At the moment I’m experiencing what you have said about your French learning process. I’m going to an highschool in Italy (third year) and, since I learn english in school since I was 6, I can say I’ve been learning this language for 10 years. But the real problem is that until a couple of years ago I wasn’t able to recognize a single word when I listened to english audios (for exemple songs or videos) and I struggled a lot when I tryed to read in english and understand (also my pronounciation was very bad… and my teacher’s pronunciation too). I started to learn english for real with Duolingo and then, when I finished it, I started the Esperanto course (from english) just out of curiosity (but actually I’m still learning Esperanto) and also my english skills improved. Then I started to read Harry Potter in the original language comparing it to the italian version and watching video with subtitles (now I can watch them without subtitles understading the majority of what I’m hearing).
    Ok, I’m still not fluent, but I’ve improved in english more watching your videos than studying it at school. Thank you, langfocus! 😀

  • Chipilina

    Hi Paul! Fellow Canadian here and long-time fan of your Youtube channel. I grew up in Anglophone Canada (specifically the Toronto area) but went to a French immersion school. About half of my teachers were Quebecois, and other other half were French/Swiss/Lebanese.

    Despite French being taught more “intensively” in the immersion program and starting at a young age (6-7), it’s surprising (and upsetting) to see how few of the my classmates felt that they gained enough language skills to consider themselves bilingual. Within about 3 years of graduating from high school, I’d say about ⅔ of my graduating class could not remember any French beyond how to greet somebody and introduce themselves.

    I think part of the problem is Anglophones’ lack of exposure to French (as you’ve mentioned in the blog post) and therefore a failure to see some of the social/economic/cognitive benefits to becoming bilingual. Another problem is the so-called “Anglophone laziness” when it comes to languages, and in particular the lack of urgency that Canadian Anglophones feel when it comes to learning a foreign language – English is the global lingua franca after all, as well as the official language of our only neighbouring country. The political divide between Anglophones and Francophones in Canada doesn’t help.

    Anyway, I think that no amount of early/intensive exposure to French will turn Anglophones into bilinguals if the incentives aren’t there, unfortunately.

  • HE Fei

    I just knew that you also live in Canada! I am studying for my master program in Ontario. I learnt French in China for 3 years during my undergraduate, and I found that many Canadians I have met don’t pronounce French very well (for example, the “p” in “Paris” is pronounced in an English way but not in a French way.) In China, when we learn foreign language other than English (English is the dominant foreign language in China), maybe because the teachers and learners are much less than those of English, the pronunciation is very important. When I took French lessons, the first 10 hours were only about pronunciation of different kinds of combination of letters in French. (Although the pronunciation of Japanese and Korean is quite easy for Chinese people to acquire, the first lessons are also aimed to correct the wrong pronunciation).
    I really like learning languages, hope you can upload more videoes! Thank you very much!

  • bruce quinn

    Last summer I was traveling in Brussels and doing laundry at a laundromat, where a young Canadian was in the same boat. We chatted. He was from Prince Edward Island, Canada, and I asked the same question that this article addresses – Did you have to take French? Does it help here in Belgium? His answer was something like: “Yes, we have to take five years of French, but you pretty much only learn the colors, days of the week, and the month you were born in.” Five Years !! Same can be said for many in the US who study French or Spanish for several years and are lucky to come out knowing the days of the week.

  • Steven Williams

    Hi Paul, just curious what part of Canada you’re from? I’m from Toronto but living in Calgary right now. I know some people say there’s different accents/dialects of Canadian English but I haven’t noticed anything (except for Newfoundland English) but since you’re the linguist you probably notice all the little things. Could you make a video about dialects of Canadian English? I found: Aboriginal Canadian English, Cape Breton English, Lunenburg English, Newfoundland English, Ottawa Valley English, Quebec English, Pacific West Coast English, Inland Canadian English. Also maybe explain differences between Canadian English / American /British English – are there any unique words in Canadian English or any unique French/Aboriginal/Other Immigrant loanwords?

  • Steven Williams

    I also started learning French in grade 1. It was not through the regular public program (I think they start at grade 3) but with the AIM program by Wendy Maxwell’s program. We used to do a play in french twice a year (three little pigs, louis la grenouille, and a lot more) so I was actually able to read French in elementary and also speak it since the whole class was conducted in French (english wasn’t allowed) so to use the washroom or ask for anything else we had to ask permission in French. The teacher made sure that pronouncing was correct, we watched videos from Wendy Maxwell which which were kind of repetitive where she pronounced words and did a sort of handsign as an “action” which represented the meaning of the word so if we didn’t know a word it was pretty easy to guess from the action. We also did some writing, I wasn’t the best with grammar but I was able to write a short play. After though for grade 7 when I was at middle school we did have french class but it didn’t really emphasise speaking/reading as well and focused more on just verb conjugations and even more so in high school were we just focused on verb conjugations but the class was conducted in English mostly and we rarely spoke French so I essentially forgot French and it wasn’t as interesting/interactive as when we did french plays in elementary – the grade 9 French teacher still impressed me personally as she’s from Mexico originally but she also speaks English and French fluently as well as some German and she also happens to have a PhD in Biology but she still had to follow the curriculum. I and most people didn’t continue after grade 9.

  • Steven Williams

    I also spoke Spanish when I was younger as my mom and my grandma (who only knew how to say “I don’t know English” in English) were Peruvian. My mom spoke English fluently though. So I used to speak Spanish with them before starting school but then I started to speak just English with my mom although I can still understand Spanish when my mom/aunts/her friends speak it. Knowing some Spanish also helped me understand a few words in French. I can’t speak Spanish now though, like I don’t even know what to say but I can understand Spanish and read it a bit. I remember my grandma reading a short-story in Spanish to me when I was 5/6 (I think it was snow white) and one of the evil guys started laughing and it was written as “Ja Ja Ja” but she pronounced it as “ha ha ha” so I tried to correct my grandma and say thats “Ja” (like J in Japan) since that’s what I learned in school…