There are many countries on the globe that have two or more official languages. From small countries like Switzerland or Belgium here in Europe to multi-lingual and multi-cultural countries like India, China or Russia. But when you ask people where we have a unique constellation of two of the major European languages spoken in one country, they will most likely answer with Canada.
Just as a quick reminder English is spoken by around 341 million people as their first language and 508 million learn it as a second language. It is also the most commonly studied language in the European Union. The second most commonly studied language here is (still) French, spoken by around 220 million people and studied by around 116 million worldwide.
Now, it has always puzzled me to imagine how people can live together in one country, however the big majority of them being not bilingual. Let’s have a look at some of the numbers recently published as an infographic in Canada’s Official Languages Letter.
Generally speaking, ¾ of Canada’s population speak English as their first official language whereas ¼ of Canadians speaks French as their first language. As this is somewhat widely known, let’s get more granular. Only a mere 17% of all Canadians speak both languages and only 7% of the English speaking population are bilingual when they don’t live in Quebec which was really a surprising revelation to me!
If we take the French speaking province of Quebec we could expect that the numbers are less harsh, and indeed in Quebec itself 69% of Anglophones also speak French whereas only 36% of Francophones speak English. The roughly ⅔ to ⅓ split explains itself due to the dominance of French in Quebec. Outside of the province speakers of French as their first language tend to adapt in high numbers with 84% of Francophones living in the rest of Canada also speak English.
Now, I think this discrepancy or lack of bilingualism could become potentially harmful when it comes to seeking employment in the public sector if we consider that both languages are official languages in Canada. Well, at least it must be good to be a translator or an interpreter in Canada.
The numbers show that here as well we have more than ⅔ of Anglophones (71%) and less than ⅓ of Francophones (29%) but 40% of all positions require knowledge of both English and French. Also, 84% of the population believe that one can find a better job when they speak both languages and 81% are in favor of bilingualism in Canada.
One might ask though, why there is this huge gap between being in favor and believing in better opportunities for bilinguals but still so relatively few people really being bilingual in Canada. It makes no sense from an economic point of view as bilingual Canadians earn more money and have a better chance to find jobs. So there must be emotional reasons behind the decision to stick with one language like protectionism of ones culture and heritage which is certainly true for the French speaking part of Canada. For the English speakers it’s certainly the same “English is sufficient” attitude we see in the United States and the UK.
It would be interesting to compare Canadian numbers with some from Switzerland where you not only have French and German but also Italian and Rhaeto-Romanic as official languages which likely makes the situation even more complicated.