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Lingua Alteratia: Canada’s Most Spoken Languages

A tongue painted with the Canadian flag representing the most spoken languages in Canada

According to Statistics Canada’s 2011 census, about two million people in Canada speak a language at home that is neither English nor French. When you add in people who speak at least some English or French along with another language at home, you’re looking at about a fifth of the country. So what are the most spoken languages in Canada? English is still number one, with 56.9% of Canadians calling it their mother tongue and 85% of the country possessing a working knowledge of it. At number two, French is the mother tongue of 21.3% of Canadians with 30.1% of all Canadians possessing a working knowledge of it. However, despite 94.4% of Quebec being able to speak French, according to the census, the Romance language is slowly declining across the country for two main reasons: French speakers continue to learn English as a second language and newcomers to Canada choose to learn English over French as their second language. So, if English is going strong and French is becoming more and more localized, what languages across the country are on the rise? And what do they tell us about the future of the Canadian market when it comes to creating a successful business – at home and abroad – and about attracting the right talent to make it all happen?

Canada’s most spoken non-official languages

Once upon a time, bilingualism in Canada meant one was able to speak both English and French. However, currently only about 17.5% of Canadians say they can carry on conversations in both official languages. There are now more than 200 languages spoken in Canada, and after English and French, Chinese (both Cantonese and Mandarin) and Punjabi round out the top four at 472,080 and 456,090 individuals respectively. In fact, Asian languages presently make up 56% of all non-official languages in Canada. Even the fastest growing language in Canada is an Asian one: Tagalog, a language of the Philippines, has jumped 64% between 2006 and 2011.

Canada’s most spoken languages vs. the world

So how much do the most prominent and growing languages in Canada compare with those on the international scene? The greatest alignment is seen with regard to Chinese, specifically Mandarin, which is China’s official and most widely spoken language. With close to a billion speakers, Mandarin has become the most prominent business language worldwide next to English because of China’s rise as an economic superpower. Among the other most spoken languages in the world, including Spanish, French (which is actually the most common language used on the internet next to English), Russian, and German, German stands out as one of the most important in the business world because of Germany’s position as a powerhouse exporter.

However, other less widely spoken languages have gained great prominence in international business, particularly because of the industries their countries are associated with. For those in the petroleum industry, Arabic is obviously good to know – particularly since 56% of the world’s oil reserves are in the Middle East and 60% of the Middle East speaks Arabic. Unfortunately, Arabic, along with Mandarin, is among the hardest languages to learn for those with an Indo-European mother tongue, especially since there are so many very different dialects of it. Japanese is particularly valuable in the technology industry, and Portuguese is advantageous to know because of Brazil’s rise to economic prominence thanks to its prosperous mining, agricultural, and manufacturing sectors.

A 2005 study by Albert Saiz, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania, and Elena Zoido, an economist at the consulting group LECG, reflects some of the facts stated above. The study looked at what wage premiums were attached to certain languages. The study showed that German and Chinese (along with Russian and Italian) garnered Americans a 4% wage premium, while French and Spanish were worth only 2.7% and 1.7% respectively.

What does it all mean for Canadian employers?

The statistics on languages spoken around the world shed some light on what language requirements employers should look for if they conduct business overseas, particularly in certain sectors. While Mandarin is an obvious advantage, particularly since so many Canadians speak it, German and Arabic are spoken more in Canada than many might think. In fact, in 2011, about 1.2% of Canadians said German was their first language (409,200 people) and about 1% (327,870 people) said Arabic was their first language (up from 261,640 people in 2006).

But what about organizations doing business within Canada? Well, different languages are indicative of different markets, and therefore different – and growing – business opportunities. It’s estimated that Canada currently has more than 200 ethnic groups and that visible minorities will make up more than 50% of the populations of Vancouver and Toronto by 2017. The continued success of many Canadian companies will therefore rely more and more on their ability to effectively market to those groups in their languages via the media they consume, such as cultural television stations, newspapers, websites, and events. That’s also why having a diverse workforce reflective of the country’s multiculturalism is a competitive advantage, and why organizations that eschew diversity, purposely or inadvertently, or who fail to foster cultural competence and diversity management, may be left in the dust.

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