Gian Kaur, 2, was born in Canada but her first language is Punjabi. She is photographed with father Balpreet Singh and her mother Baljeet Kaur at their home in Newmarket on October 23, 2012. In 2006, Punjabi was the sixth most common mother tongue. In the last census, it's use jumped 34.4 per cent.
OTTAWA — As the Canadian government moves to toughen language requirements for newcomers, the latest census figures suggest that more than two million people speak neither English nor French at home.
According to Statistics Canada, the figure more than doubles when individuals are asked about the non-official language they speak “most often” at home.
Overall, one-fifth of Canada’s population reported speaking a foreign tongue at least some of the time at home.
More than 200 languages were reported in the 2011 census, with Chinese languages continuing to dominate, with more than a million people saying they speak either Mandarin, Cantonese or Chinese (a non-specified category that includes Mandarin or Cantonese).
Punjabi was listed as the next most common foreign language spoken in Canadian households, with 460,000 reporting it as their mother tongue.
It also has the highest retention rate – something that comes as no surprise to Balpreet Singh Boparai of the World Sikh Organization of Canada.
As a second-generation Canadian, Boparai learned it from his parents at home and now his two-year-old daughter Gian is learning it.
“What makes the Sikh relationship with Punjabi a little bit different is it’s not just cultural, it’s also religious. Part of our faith is to be able to read scripture and that is in Punjabi and Gurmukhi,” the Toronto-area resident said, adding it’s also important to know Punjabi in order to communicate with relatives.
“For me it was important to have Punjabi first because I knew it was not something easy to pick up outside the home.”
That said, speaking Punjabi at home growing up didn’t stop him from picking up both English and French, languages he expects his daughter will also pursue.
While the use of foreign languages in Canadian households has gone largely unchanged since 2006, the government has started to crack down on immigrants who aren’t proficient in at least one official language.
This year, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney unveiled tough new language requirements for those seeking citizenship or permanent residence.
Strong language skills are thought to improve newcomers’ chances of getting a good job and integrating into society. Kenney has also noted a correlation between immigration fraud and regions that don’t make proficiency in one of Canada’s official languages a priority.
That said, the figures suggest the use of multiple languages at home has increased since 2006. Last year, 11.5 per cent of the population said they used English as well as an immigrant language at home compared to just 9.1 per cent in 2006.
In all, Asian languages now account for 56 per cent of non-official languages in Canada, while just 40 per cent are of European origin.
Tagalog, a Philippines-based language, saw a huge jump in popularity in Canada in 2011 with 279,000 people reporting speaking it at home — a 64 per cent increase over 2006.
The use of Mandarin (51 per cent), Arabic (47 per cent), Hindi (44 per cent), Creole (42 per cent), Bengali (40 per cent), Persian (33 per cent) and Spanish (32 per cent) also saw significant growth since 2006.
Meanwhile, the number of Italian, Polish and Greek speakers has declined.
The vast majority of those who said they speak an immigrant language at home live in a major Canadian city.
In Toronto, 1.8 million people said they spoke an immigrant language, a number two-and-a-half times greater than that reported in Vancouver.
Chinese languages accounted for the largest number of immigrant tongues reported in both cities, followed by Punjabi.
Chinese languages also topped the list in Calgary and Edmonton, where Punjabi and Tagalog are also dominant.
In Montreal and the National Capital Region, Arabic and Spanish are most common.
Other languages commonly spoken in Canadian households are Spanish, Italian, Urdu and German.
Retention rates among those who speak foreign languages are highest among Punjabi, Mandarin, Tamil, Urdu, Korean and Persian speakers, the figures suggest.