Bilingual, But More

It’s one of the first things visitors to Canada notice about our country — we use both English and French. But, are most Canadians actually bilingual?

Well, whether we eat cornflakes, or flocons de maïs for breakfast, most of us understand at least a little of the other language.

But why does Canada have two official languages?


When the British defeated the French in the 1760s, English became the dominant language in the land we now call Canada.

Lots of people still spoke French, of course, especially in Quebec. But the language of power, the language of business? English.

If francophones — French-speaking people, that is — wanted to get ahead, they pretty much had to learn English.

By the 1960s, francophones in Quebec were fed up. Some even demanded the province separate from Canada and create a new French-speaking country.

In 1969, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government passed the Official Languages Act. Its goal? Ensuring that English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians got equal service from the federal government.

Official bilingualism meant all kinds of things had to be printed in both languages. But … not everything. If it was a local or provincial responsibility, it could be in one language.

Out of all the provinces, only New Brunswick has declared itself officially bilingual. Many Quebec francophones worried that bilingualism meant English would squeeze their language out. So, in 1977, Quebec passed Bill 101 — La Charte de la langue française, which protected French as the main language there.
Of course, there are hundreds of thousands of French-speaking Canadians who live outside Quebec.

Most Canadians speak English or French. Hundreds of thousands also speak an Indigenous language.

Some Canadians… well, they kind of speak both French and English… at the same time.

In parts of New Brunswick, they’ve been combining Acadian French with a bit of English for more than three hundred years. It’s called Chiac.

But before the English, before the French, even before the Vikings … for thousands of years before Europeans arrived, the First Peoples of this territory spoke all kinds of languages.

These were spoken, not written, although many also had sign languages.

In some areas, European missionaries or teachers created symbols known as syllabics to write down words from Indigenous languages.

For 150 years, the federal government forced Indigenous children into residential schools, where they were often punished for speaking their own languages.When they returned home, many couldn’t understand their grandparents’ stories or even talk to their parents.

But many Indigenous languages have survived. And more and more Indigenous people are learning them.

The Métis Nation has its own unique language, called Michif. It’s a mix of words from Plains Cree and French.

There’s been a lot of borrowing over the centuries. Some words that came from an Indigenous language are also the same in French and English, like toboggan or moccasin.

And if we were to start listing Canadian places with Indigenous names, we’d be here all day.

And because people come here from all over the world, you can hear any of 150 or more different languages, from Punjabi to Cantonese, Spanish to Urdu, Tagalog to Arabic.

It’s a uniquely Canadian mix. And we like it that way, eh?