Canada's future as a bilingual country is not threatened by the growth of other language groups, according to the Official Languages Commissioner.
Recently released 2011 census data on language showed that those with a mother tongue other than English or French are on the verge of surpassing those whose first language is French. But Official Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser said it is distressing that some commentators have seized on these figures as evidence of the decline of the French language in Canada. That view is inaccurate, he told The Globe and Mail editorial board Tuesday.
"English and French are the two dominant languages, they are the official languages, they are the languages of the national conversation. Even if there are more people who speak other languages, they speak no single other language," Mr. Fraser said.
In fact, as Mr. Fraser pointed out, 22 per cent of Canadians speak French while only 3 per cent speak one of several Chinese languages, the next largest language group.
Historically, immigrants have integrated into the mainstream language of their community, whether English or French, Mr. Fraser said. That pattern will continue despite the plethora of languages brought to Canada by the roughly 250,000 immigrants that arrive annually, he added.
But a more difficult question is what's happening to French outside Quebec. In a city such as Calgary, for example, French ranks as the 11th most common language spoken at home. In Toronto, it's 18th.
Outside Quebec, roughly one million have French as a mother tongue. Of all the other Canadians outside the province (about 25 million people) only about 6 to 7 per cent (about 1.5 million) say they can conduct a conversation in French, according to demographer Réjean Lachappelle. That figure is usually much higher among teenagers, though, because they are less likely to have forgotten what they've learned in school, he said.
"The explanation [for that gap] is that it's something you learn but many people don't use it and don't make the investment to maintain it. It's like geometry, I suppose," Mr. Lachappelle said.
The economic incentives for people in the rest of Canada to pursue bilingualism are not overwhelming. A 2010 study by economists Nicholas Christofides and Robert Swidinsky found that for anglophone men in the rest of Canada, bilingualism is worth an additional 3.8 per cent a year in earnings if they work exclusively in English. If they work in both languages, it's worth an additional 5.4 per cent a year. In Quebec, by comparison, bilingual francophones who frequently use English at work earn a premium of more than 20 per cent.
Mr. Fraser said there should be more opportunities for Canadians to acquire, maintain and strengthen their language skills, but he doesn't hold out hope for a golden age when all Canadians will be bilingual. He does look forward to the day, however, when English-French bilingualism is understood to be a requirement for a national leadership role.
"One of the things I find unfortunate is this tendency, dare I say particularly in Toronto, to see mastery of both official languages as a Quebec issue or an Ottawa issue," Mr. Fraser said. "I find there's a recognition in the extremities of the country that they can spend their careers and have very successful lives speaking only English. But if they want to play on the national stage [there is] a real recognition of how important it is to speak French."