English and French are the only two official languages of Canada at the national level, although many other languages are spoken by immigrants or indigenous people in Canada. All federal government communications and services are required by law to be available in both official languages. However, each province is free to decide which languages it wishes to adopt as official languages at the provincial level, which means that provincial government departments do not necessarily provide services in both languages (for example, British Columbia provides services only in English, while Quebec provides services only in French). Most Canadians are functionally monolingual, although some regions of the country have both English and French speakers. More than a quarter of Canadians are bilingual or multilingual. A majority of Montreal and Gatineau residents and about 40% of Ottawa residents are at least conversationally confident bilingual. New Brunswick is officially bilingual.
English is the predominant language in all regions except Quebec, where French is dominant and actively promoted as the main language. However, there are many French-speaking communities scattered throughout the country, such as :
- the National Capital Region around Ottawa and various cities between Ottawa and Montreal
- Parts of eastern and northern Ontario,
- the city of Winnipeg (especially St. Boniface) and areas to the south,
- the Bonnie Doon neighbourhood in Edmonton, and several surrounding communities,
- many parts of the Acadian region of Atlantic Canada, scattered across Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island).
Similarly, there are English-speaking communities in Quebec, especially in the western suburbs of Montréal. Most Francophones outside Quebec are bilingual, as are most Anglophones living in Quebec.
Canadian English uses a mixture of British and American spelling, often with American vocabulary (“gas” instead of “petrol”) and British spelling (a “meter” is a measuring instrument, a “metre” is a unit of length). Many British terms that are not commonly understood in the United States are widely used in Canada. Some words are also pronounced British rather than American, but the accents of Canadians and Americans are nevertheless quite similar. The standard Canadian accent differs from the American accent in that it is less nasal and faster (common phrases that normally consist of two words are pronounced as if there is no space between them). Canadian English also tends to have a stronger French influence than other varieties of English, and Canadians are also more likely than other English speakers to pronounce French loanwords in their original French pronunciation.
Atlantic Canada has the greatest diversity of regional accents in English-speaking North America, largely due to the isolated nature of the fishing communities along the Atlantic coast before the advent of modern telecommunications and transportation. A visitor to the Atlantic provinces may have difficulty understanding the strong local accents, which are rich in maritime slang and idiom, especially in rural areas. From Ontario westwards, the accent of English Canadians is more or less the same from region to region and is similar to that spoken by people in the northern border states of the United States.
English-speaking Canadians are generally not required to take French courses after their first year of high school. As a result, many citizens outside Quebec do not speak or use French unless they are closely related to someone who does, or they have chosen to study French for personal or professional interest. Ottawa is an exception, as French is required for many public service jobs. Classes in other languages (e.g. Spanish, German and Japanese) are offered, but only a small minority of students take these courses, and those who do rarely go beyond the basics. As Canada is a popular destination for immigrants from all over the world, you will often hear different languages spoken in the country’s major cities, and you will often find suburbs where the main language is that of the immigrant community in question. Most immigrants learn English or French to speak their native language with family and friends.
In Québec, you can generally speak English in Montreal, Gatineau, the busier parts of Québec City and some traditionally English-speaking rural areas such as the Lower North Shore and the Chaleur Bay area. Elsewhere in the province, however, knowledge of French ranges from very useful to downright essential. Even if you are just passing through, it is useful to know at least enough French to read road signs (especially if you plan to get off the highways and onto back roads). It can also be helpful to know at least a few basic phrases of French in large cities, where an attempt to communicate in French is often appreciated by travellers. The varieties of French spoken in Quebec and the Acadian regions differ from each other and from European French in accent and vocabulary. Some Franco-Europeans have difficulty understanding Canadian French. Nevertheless, all French-speaking Canadians learn standard French in school, so they will generally be able to speak standard French when necessary.
Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal are home to large populations of Chinese migrants, and Cantonese is widely spoken in the Chinatowns of these cities. Mandarin is increasingly spoken due to the recent influx of migrants from mainland China and the growing importance of the Chinese tourism industry. Other Chinese dialects are also spoken, but are less common.
There are also dozens of Aboriginal languages spoken by many Canadians of Aboriginal descent. In Nunavut, more than half the population speaks Inuktitut, a traditional Inuit language, and a significant minority speaks Inuinnaqtun. However, most of these people also speak English or French, so it is not usually necessary to learn these languages to communicate, although it would certainly impress your hosts.
Two sign languages are predominant in Canada. American Sign Language, or ASL, is used in English-speaking Canada; Quebec Sign Language, or LSQ, is used in French-speaking Canada. Although these two languages are different, they have some degree of mutual intelligibility. Both belong to the French sign language family, and LSQ is considered a mixture of French sign language and ASL.