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
Anglophones (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!
Anglophones 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
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.