Canadian Bilingualism: pourquoi c’est important

by Benoit Hardy-Vallée

More than a hundred languages are spoken in Canada. But since the land north of the 49th parallel was established mostly by English and French settlers, these two ethnic groups are still the two main linguistic groups. Not only do many Canadians speak English, French or both languages – but bilingualism is an official government policy that is supervised by the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages and protected by the Constitution.

English and French account today, according to Statistics Canada, for 59 percent and 23 percent of Canadians’ mother tongues. 18 percent of the population, nearly 5.2 million people – define themselves as bilingual. Most of those live in the "bilingual belt", i.e., the region that covers northern New Brunswick, southern Quebec, north-eastern Ontario and southern Manitoba. Among Canadian provinces, Quebec has the highest rate of bilingualism – 41 percent and this figure is constantly growing. New Brunswick follows closely with 34 percent.

Bilingualism is an integral part of the Canadian state. A study conducted for the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages supports this view, "seven out of ten Canadians think that living in a country with two official languages is one of the things that really defines what it means to be Canadian".

However – and this information is important for newcomers – living in a bilingual country does not mean that all Canadians must speak both French and English. As noted by Professor Monica Heller of the University of Toronto, a specialist in bilingualism issues in Canada, "Canadian policy encourages people to learn another language in a spirit of mutual understanding, but there is nothing in the policy that requires them to do so (unless you want a job in the Public Service)." Canadian schoolchildren do not necessarily understand both languages, but have the opportunity to learn a second one: thus 50 percent of English-speaking students and 60 percent of French students learn a second language.

Why be bilingual?

A bilingual country, population or even culture (the movie Bon Cop, Bad Cop is probably the best example of a bilingual cultural production) is an asset for individuals and for society. Research in psychology shows that bilingualism or learning a second language enhances reasoning and problem-solving abilities (this is also true of immigrants who learn English or French as a second language). Canadian bilingual children also demonstrate a better understanding of cultural differences and a greater ability to communicate. By being bilingual, one becomes more open, more flexible. Harold Chorney from Concordia University, wrote in 1998, that our society "is more open to critical understanding, more supple in its appreciation of different ways of problem solving and more stimulated to becoming involved." The openness that bilingualism provides is therefore reflected throughout society, which can lead, at the political level, to a greater stability.

Economically speaking, bilingualism is also an asset. In May 1995, in Ottawa, a symposium entitled New Canadian Perspectives: Official Languages and the Economy brought together representatives of the private sector, government officials and university researchers. The contribution of bilingualism to the Canadian economy was referred to as an "asset", "investment", "economic dynamism", "marketing factor", something "favourable to industry".

Bilingualism and the labour market

Recruiters often see bilingualism as a sign of experience and education. Moreover, when two employees have equal skills, companies are more likely to promote a bilingual employee. According to a survey undertaken by Professor Chorney, bilingual employees are perceived as more sociable and more persevering (learning another language is no mean feat). As one employer interviewed by Chorney said, "having bilingual skills in a rapidly changing world made the employee much more flexible and more valuable to the company in their capacity to adapt." Nearly a third of all the hiring managers contacted by in 2006 claimed that they will recruit more bilingual employees. Similarly, a study by Canadian Heritage concluded that bilinguals can find a job and change jobs more easily than unilinguals.

While all these things are also true of allophones (people whose first language is neither English nor French), the Canadian system favours those fluent in the official languages.

It is not surprising that the unemployment rate is lower among the bilingual population. Alex Armstrong, a Ph.D. candidate at Queen’s University whose research involves labour market and public policy issues, investigated the economic advantages of bilingualism in the Canadian job market. He concluded, "bilingual workers in Canada enjoy a significant earnings advantage over workers who speak only English or French. The wage differential is most apparent among workers in Quebec, public sector employees and women. Bilingualism is a form of human capital that has innate value in the labour market and, as well, serves as a signal to employers that an individual has the desire and capacity to learn." And newcomers also benefit from being bilingual: Alice and Emi Nakamura from the University of Alberta showed that immigrants who master English and French will have more chances of finding a job and earn better wages.

Bilingualism is good for individuals and good for society. It benefits us politically, socially and economically. As a proverb in central Europe says, "the more languages you speak the more times you are a human being."


The Bilingual Advantage

In Ontario, these employment agencies specialize in the recruitment of bilingual candidates:

About Canadian bilingualism :