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Immigration in Canada: A Portrait of the Foreign-born Population, 2006 Census: Immigrants came from many countries

Linguistic diversity of the immigrant population

Immigration has contributed to linguistic diversity in Canada. In 2006, nearly 150 languages were reported as a mother tongue among the foreign-born population. (Mother tongue is defined as the first language a person has learned at home in childhood and still understands at the time of the census.)

English was the largest language group. About one-fourth of Canada's foreign-born population of 6.2 million said that English alone was the language they learned during childhood and still understood.

A small share (3.1%) of the foreign-born population reported French as their only mother tongue. However, the share was much higher in Quebec, where 17.5% of the foreign-born population in the province reported French as their only mother tongue.

Data from the 2006 Census showed that 70.2% of the foreign-born population had a mother tongue other than English or French1, an increase from 67.5% in 2001. The linguistic profile of these immigrants reflected the leading source countries of immigrants to Canada from different waves.

Of the foreign-born who reported mother tongue(s) other than English or French, the largest proportion, one in five (18.6%), reported Chinese, including the various dialects, such as Cantonese and Mandarin.

It was followed by Italian (6.6%), Punjabi (5.9%), Spanish (5.8%), German (5.4%), Tagalog (4.8%) and Arabic (4.7%).

A small proportion (2.4%) of the foreign-born population reported multiple mother tongues with at least one official language.

Figure 3 Mother tongue of recent immigrants, 1981 to 2006

Most immigrants reported knowledge of English and/or French

In 2006, the majority of the foreign-born (93.6%) reported that they could converse in English and/or French. This was also the case for newcomers (90.7%), including those who had a mother tongue other than English or French, 88.5% of whom reported knowledge of at least one official language. Only a small proportion of the newcomers (9.3%) said that they were not able to conduct a conversation in either English or French.

Furthermore, use of English and/or French increased as immigrants lived in Canada longer. Among the foreign-born non-English, non-French speakers who came before 1961, a majority (70.2%) reported speaking at least one official language at home in 2006. In contrast, a majority (74.4%) of newcomers who did not have English or French as their mother tongue reported speaking a non-official language most often at home.

Official language proficiency is an important issue for immigrant adjustment in Canada. A recent Statistics Canada survey, the Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Canada, indicated that learning English or French was one of the challenges frequently cited by newcomers, second only to finding an adequate job.2

For a more detailed discussion of the language dynamics of immigrants in Canada, see The Evolving Linguistic Portrait, 2006 Census.


  1. Include a small number of individuals reporting multiple non-official languages as mother tongue.
  2. Statistics Canada, 2007, Canadian Social Trends, Statistics Canada, Catalogue no. 11-008, Special edition.

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