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The 10 Most Common Immigrant Languages in Canada

With Aboriginals making up only 4.3% of its population, Canada is very much an immigrant nation. And like most immigrant nations, it is a country that is constantly changing depending on immigration trends. When I was a kid in Richmond, BC I witnessed my town changing from a mostly white population into a majority Chinese population. Nowadays it`s even more diverse due to more recent waves of immigrants.

These days, 1 in 5 Canadians speaks a foreign language at home (meaning a language aside from French, English, or Aboriginal languages).  1 in 5 Canadians amounts to about 7 million people. 2 million of them speak only a foreign language at home, while 5 million of them speak both a foreign language and English or French.

Why would they speak both?  Well, for example, children of immigrants might speak a foreign language with their parents but speak English or French with their brothers and sisters. There are also a lot of families that codeswitch between two different languages.

Currently, what are the most common immigrant languages spoken at home?

1) Chinese, with more than 1,000,000 speakers

Chinese Hanzi Traditional charactersThere have been large numbers of Chinese immigrants to Canada, including those from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland China. But Chinese is probably only the most common immigrant language if we count all Chinese dialects as one language (and that debate is a whole other can of worms).

The census breaks Chinese down into Cantonese (372,000 speakers); Mandarin (249,000 speakers); Hakka (5115 speakers) and non-specified (425,000 speakers). The confusing one is “non-specified” because that could mean Cantonese or Mandarin, but it could also mean another Chinese dialect that didn`t appear on the census. So it`s not exactly clear how many speakers there are of each Chinese dialect/language. But if we count them as separate languages, then the most common immigrant language is likely the one that comes next on the list.

2) Punjabi, with around 430,000 speakers.

Punjabi language script exampleThis one is interesting, because the Indian Sikh community doesn`t necessarily have the second largest number of immigrants, but the language is second most widely spoken. Why? Because Punjabi has a higher retention rate from generation to generation. Whereas children of Chinese-speaking immigrants often deprioritize their heritage language in favor of English or French, children of Punjabi speakers tend to maintain their heritage language. This is likely for a couple of reasons:

  • Punjabi language is important in the Sikh religion, so learning it is partly a matter of faith.
  • The Punjabi community is very closely knit with large extended families that spend more time together than most other Canadians do. This perpetually keeps the Punjabi language within their environment. If grandma doesn`t understand English, then whatcha gonna do?

Punjabi is the first or second most common immigrant language in Canada in most urban centers except for Montreal.

The next few contenders surprised me, because I`m from the Vancouver area where these languages are not all that common.  That just goes to show you how different Canada`s population can be from one place to the next.

3) Spanish, with around 410,000

Spanish speaking immigrants are largely concentrated in Eastern Canada, particularly in Montreal, Ottawa-Gatineau, and Toronto. Interestingly, a lot of them become trilingual – learning both English and French in addition to Spanish.

Spanish-speaking Canadians come from a cross-section of Latin American countries, though about half of them are from either Mexico, Colombia, or El Salvador.

Only about 2% of them come from Spain itself.

4) German, with around 409,000

This is another one I had no idea about. Similar to Spanish, the German-speaking immigrant population is more concentrated in Eastern Canada than in Vancouver. But also, German-speakers are highly concentrated amongst the older population. Look at the top heavy data on the graph. That shows that there used to be a lot of German-speakers immigrating to Canada, but that`s not the case these days. Since I don`t have a lot of contact with people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, I was probably blind to the size of the German-speaking community.

5) Italian, with around 407,000

Similar to German, Italian immigrants and their descendants are concentrated in Eastern Canada, and most of them came to Canada in past generations. Italians accounted for 70% of the immigrants to Canada in the period after World War II, a trend that stopped around 1960.

That means that Italian is largely spoken by older people, but also by some of their descendants. I suspect that Italian has a relatively high retention rate from generation to generation.

6) Arabic, with around 328,000

Example of Arabic language

Again, most Arabic speakers live in either Ontario or Quebec, with the largest Arabic-speaking community in Montreal, followed by Toronto. This is one of Canada`s more recent immigrant communities, arriving in the 80s and 90s, the largest number from Lebanon.

Keep in mind that this statistic doesn`t address Arabic dialects. Some Arabic dialects are pretty different from each other, and I have Arabic-speaking friends who were raised in Canada who can`t communicate with speakers of other dialects. Arabic speakers who are literate in formal Arabic have much less trouble with this, but many children of immigrants are not literate and only speak a dialect.

7) Tagalog, with around 327,000

Philippines mapThis one is no surprise to me, since the Vancouver area has a sizeable immigrant population from the Philippines and I have always had Tagalog-speaking friends. Unlike the last few languages above, Tagalog is more represented in British Columbia and Alberta, as well as in Manitoba. Tagalog speakers make up 5% of the population of Winnipeg, Manitoba`s largest town. I don`t know how the hell they deal with Winterpeg`s nightmarish weather, coming from a tropical paradise like the Philippines!

Tagalog is the fastest growing immigrant language in Canada, with an increase of 64% from the 2006 census to the 2011 census.

8) Portuguese, with around 211,000

Moving back to Eastern Canada once again, Portuguese is mostly heavily concentrated in Toronto, where approximately half of the total population lives, mostly in the central city areas. There are also 30,000 Portuguese speakers living centrally in Montreal. 90% of Portuguese-speaking Canadians are from Portugal, not Brazil or other Portuguese-speaking territories.

9) Urdu, with about 194,000

Urdu is a language spoken mostly by immigrants from Pakistan (and maybe some from India). It`s most highly concentrated in Ontario, mostly in Toronto and nearby cities.

Example of urdu textVancouver has a relatively small Urdu-speaking population, but it is the fastest growing Urdu community and seems to be clustered around the areas where there are lots of Punjabi-speakers. Punjabi and Urdu are to some extent mutually comprehensible. I clearly remember when I taught first grade in Canada and in my class there were several Sikh kids who could speak Punjabi, and one Pakistani kid who could speak Urdu. I asked them if they could understand each other`s languages. One of the Sikh kids emphatically proclaimed that “Yeah, they`re exactly the same! But there`s a million different words!” 🙂 Kids are awesome.

 10) Polish, with around 192,000

Concentrated in Ontario, the Polish-speaking population fell sharply between the 2006 census and the 2011 census, from 242,885 to 192,000. To me this suggests a concentration of Polish language speakers amongst older Canadians. This is one of the “old” immigration waves from several decades ago, and the Polish-speaking population will likely continue to shrink.

There are loads more languages spoken in Canada, but this list should give you an idea of Canada`s diversity and its continuously changing nature. It goes without saying that, if you live in Canada and you are interesting in learning a particular foreign language, you`ll likely be able to find a teacher or people to practice with!