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Languages Reference Guide, 2006 Census

Catalogue no. 97-555-GWE2006003

Definitions and explanations of variable concepts

The census collects a wealth of information on the languages of people living in Canada. Census data on languages are used to measure the size, evolution and socio-economic composition of language groups. Specifically, language data from the census are used in implementing and administering a number of federal and provincial statutes, including the:

  • Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) – Canada
  • Official Languages Act (1988) – Canada
  • Official Languages Act – New Brunswick
  • Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) – Quebec

Language data are also used by researchers, community groups, health-care providers, businesses and other organizations throughout the country to ensure equal opportunity for everyone.  Data on language knowledge and use are important to consider when dealing with issues related to human resources policies, local education and training, health promotion, and community programs and services.

The following variables, as defined in the 2006 Census Dictionary, have been created from language data collected in the census on May 16, 2006:

In Canada, 'official languages' refer to English and French. 'Non-official languages' refer to all other languages.


The mother tongue question is asked of all census respondents and was included as Question 7 on the 2006 Census Form 2A questionnaire and as Question 16 on the 2006 Census Form 2B questionnaire.

The knowledge of official languages question (Question 13), the knowledge of non-official languages question (Question 14), the home language question (Question 15) and the language of work question (Question 48) were not included on the Form 2A questionnaire, but were included on the 2006 Census Form 2B questionnaire. The 2B questionnaire was used to enumerate a 20% sample of all private households in Canada. To assist people whose first language was neither English nor French, the census questions were translated into 62 other languages, including 18 Aboriginal languages.

2006 Census data on languages were also obtained for persons living in private households on Indian reserves, Indian settlements and in remote areas who were enumerated with the 2006 Census Form 2D questionnaire.  The 2D language questions were the same as the 2B language questions, but the examples, where provided for write-in responses, were for Aboriginal languages specifically.

There was no first official language spoken question included in the census: this variable was derived from the questions on knowledge of official languages, mother tongue, and language spoken most often at home (Question 15[a]).

The census home language question (Question 15) was divided into two parts.  Part A asked respondents 'What language does this person speak most often at home?' while Part B asked respondents 'Does this person speak any other languages on a regular basis at home?' The language of work question followed the same format, asking (A) 'In this job, what language did this person use most often?' and (B) 'Did this person use any other languages on a regular basis in this job?'.

On the English version of the census forms, mark-in circles for English appear first, while on the French version of all census forms, the mark-in circles for French appear first.


Data from language questions in the census are used to derive summary and detailed variables which provide a linguistic portrait of the population living in Canada.  Information is provided on English and French speaking communities as well as other language groups, including those who speak Aboriginal languages.

Please refer to the tables accessible from the 'Data' section of this document to view the specific language classifications created for standard and specialized data products for the 2006 Census. The classification of languages collected in 2006 is available in the 2006 Census Dictionary List of figures 9, 9A to 9F. A comparison of languages collected in the 2006, 2001 and 1996 censuses is also available in the 2006 Census Dictionary List of appendices. Appendix G presents the classification of Mother tongue, home language and language of work, while Appendix H presents that of Knowledge of non-official languages. 


2006 Census Census Trends, 2006 Census

2001 Census

1996 Census

Data quality

Information from the census undergoes data quality verification to ensure that published data are of the highest quality.

The overall quality of 2006 Census data for the language variables is considered to be good. This assessment was based on a review of response rates, imputation rates, a comparison of 2006 counts to those obtained in previous censuses, and a comparison of findings compared to the data from the Landed Immigrant Data System (LIDS) database of Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC).

2006 non-response rates ranged from a high of 3.5% for the question on knowledge of non-official languages to a low of 2.1% for the question on mother tongue (20% sample). Internet responses showed lower non-response rates for the language questions. Imputation rates ranged from a high of 1.9% for the question on knowledge of non-official languages to a low of 0.9% for the question on home language.

2006 Census counts for the specific languages included in each language variable are generally at expected levels, based on 2001 Census results and information on immigration patterns and citizenship acquisition obtained from the CIC database. However, data users should be aware of the following issues:

  • According to studies on data certification, the 2006 Census statistics on knowledge of official languages could underestimate the category 'English and French' and overestimate the category 'French only,' particularly for the francophone population and, therefore, for the whole population in general. The proportion of Francophones who reported being bilingual was slightly lower in 2006 than in 2001 in every province except Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and British Columbia and in the territories. It is difficult to account for a trend reversal in the level of bilingualism among the Francophones, especially outside Quebec, in provinces where language transfer rates are particularly high and rising. 1 For example, the proportion of Francophones in Ontario who reported being bilingual was 89.4% in 2001, up from 88.4% in 1996, but it fell back to 88.4% in 2006. A similar reverse trend was observed in New Brunswick. In New Brunswick, 71.7% of Francophones reported being bilingual in 2001, up from 69.1% in 1996. But the proportion dropped below the 1996 level to 68.3% in 2006.
  • When comparing the 2006 Census results to those of the 2001 Census, it appears that there is some overestimation of persons reporting Siouan languages (Dakota/Sioux) in British Columbia and, as a result, also at the Canada level. Although it affects a relatively small population, it is best to apply caution when analysing the census data for Siouan languages (Dakota/Sioux) in these geographies.

Historical comparability

Over time, the format and wording of census questions is updated to better reflect information about respondents understanding of those questions or to respond to data capture requirements. As a result, data users must be aware of these differences when comparing data over time.

There were no changes to the wording, instructions or response categories in any of the language questions asked on the census 2B questionnaire between 2001 and 2006. The only change for 2006 was that the 'Other–Specify' write-in space for the knowledge of non-official languages question (Question 14), the home language question (Question 15), the mother tongue question (Question 16) and the language of work question (Question 48) on the paper form were structured so that they were comprised of 11 segmented boxes, rather than consisting of just one unsegmented line, with up to 80 characters allowed on the databases for each write-in response. As such, while it is expected that the new limitations on write-in spaces may encourage some respondents to write-in shorter, more abbreviated responses in 2006, or, in the knowledge of non-official languages question (Question 14), to use more lines to indicate a multiple response than they used in 2001, it is unlikely that data comparability was significantly affected by the change in format between 2001 and 2006.

In addition to using segmented boxes in 2006, the number of write-in spaces provided for the knowledge of non-official languages question (Question 14) was reduced to two lines in 2006 from three lines in 2001. 2006 Census data showed that the change in questionnaire design for Question 14 did have an impact on the multiple responses patterns. Compared to 2001, there was a drop in both the count and the percentage of respondents reporting knowledge of three or more non-official languages (from 0.6% in 2001 to 0.1% in 2006), while there was an increase in the knowledge of two non-official languages in 2006 (from 2.5% in 2001 to 3.2% in 2006). The combined percentage of these two categories remained fairly stable between 2006 and 2001 censuses. The distribution of knowing two or more non-official languages was 3.3% in 2006 and 3.0% in 2001.

In 2006, a number of new language categories were released separately. In order to compare the data between categories in 2006 and 2001 censuses, data users should consult the following additional information for comparing 2006 and 2001 language categories.

  • The 2001 category of Serbo-Croatian is equivalent to the sum of the 2006 categories of Serbo-Croatian and Bosnian.
  • The 2001 category of Turkic languages, n.i.e. is equivalent to the sum of the 2006 categories of Turkic languages, n.i.e. and Azerbaijani.
  • The 2001 category of Semitic languages, n.i.e. is equivalent to the sum of the 2006 categories of Semitic languages, n.i.e., Berber languages (Kabyle), Oromo, and Afro-Asiatic languages, n.i.e.
  • The 2001 category of Sino-Tibetan languages, n.i.e. is equivalent to the sum of the 2006 categories of Sino-Tibetan languages, n.i.e. and Tibetan languages.
  • In 2006, Austro-Asiatic languages, n.i.e. and Asiatic languages, n.i.e. are grouped into the residual category - Other languages.
  • The 2001 category of Malayo-Polynesian languages, n.i.e. is equivalent to the sum of the 2006 categories of Malayo-Polynesian languages, n.i.e., Bisayan languages, Ilocano, and Pampango.
  • The 2001 category of Bantu languages, n.i.e. is equivalent to the sum of the 2006 categories of Bantu languages, n.i.e., Lingala, Rundi (Kirundi), Rwanda (Kinyarwanda), and Shona.
  • The 2001 category of Niger-Congo languages, n.i.e. is equivalent to the sum of the 2006 categories of Niger-Congo languages, n.i.e., Edo, Igbo, and Wolof.

For additional information on the comparability of language data over time, please refer to the 2006 Census Dictionary entries for the language variables listed in the 'Definitions and explanations of variable concepts' section of this document.


  1. Language transfer refers to the use of a language most often at home which is different from the mother tongue.