French and English, Canada’s Official Languages

Two of the Many Tongues Spoken in a Country of Many Nations

The languages of a country can tell a great deal about its history, culture, and people, especially when those languages are legally designated as the official tongues for government and schools. Many countries have only one official language despite the many other languages that might be in everyday use in homes and schools.

Other countries, like Switzerland, have four or five official tongues. In Canada, the historic struggle between the French and the English to possess the northern colonies of the New World resulted in the establishment of two official languages. Although they now compete for use with many other languages, they still remain the two dominant languages of the country.

The Official Languages of Canada

The official designation of French and English as Canada’s official languages only hints at the country’s linguistic diversity. The Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) lists 86 living languages in use among the 32, 271,000 people in the 2001 Canadian census, with English used by 20,000,000 and French by 6,700,000. One of the main dialects of English is spoken in Newfoundland, where the speech patterns and accent resemble the dialect of Ireland. Canadian French, in contrast, has four main dialects, which include Québécois, Franco-Ontarien, Acadian (Acadien), and Shippagan.

Each dialect has its own unique terminology and usage which might cause moments of confusion for visitors from other parts of the country. In British Columbia, for example, a telephone line within an organization is called a “local,” while in many other parts of the country, it is an “extension.” Similarly, the term “dainties” to designate small cakes and cookies eaten at special events in Manitoba is largely unknown in the rest of the country. Besides these regional differences are the many Canadians who speak foreign languages such as Welsh, Polish, Bulgarian, and Arabic or indigenous languages such as Algonquin, Cree, and Micmac.



Official Languages in Government and Daily Life

Despite having two official languages for Government of Canada documents and services, most of the provinces are officially unilingual. According to the Government of Canada website, English is the most commonly used tongue except in Quebec, where French is the official language. Only New Brunswick, with a large French population among the English speakers, is officially bilingual.

Having two official languages has affected daily life in Canada, with instruction manuals and food labels printed in both languages, French language classes available in many schools, and many bilingual services in government offices. Although languages such as German and Ukrainian are commonly used in some parts of the country, people almost everywhere in Canada will understand at least one of the official languages.

With two official languages and many other tongues spoken throughout the country, Canada has many ways for its people to communicate.