Canada is recognized world-wide as a country with two official languages: English and French. However, Canada has long been a multicultural and multilingual country. Recently published census data confirm that diversity is on the rise. Effective communication with Canadian customers necessitates not only an understanding of official language policy, but also an understanding of the other languages spoken by this nation of almost 35 million.
The official history of bilingualism in Canada began in 1867 when British North America Act (now the Constitution Act) allowed parliamentary debates to be conducted in either English or French. The act also required that parliamentary journals, records and laws be published in both languages. Official bilingualism advanced by fits and starts until, in 1988, under Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Parliament passed the Official languages act making English and French the official languages of Canada.
In October 2012, Statistics Canada published new census data demonstrating that unofficial bilingualism was on the rise. According to a recent article in The Globe and Mail, “The new bilingualism is increasingly a combination of either English or French and one of the 200 other languages spoken in this country.”
Specifically, the data shows that 87.3% of Canadians speak the official languages at home (66.3% English; 21% French). The other 12.6% speak other languages. Here are the top 10:
Irene Daley, senior strategy manager, Kraft Canada, presented her own statistics at the Multicultural Marketing Conference held in Toronto last summer. Marketing magazine interpreted Daley’s statistics this way: “By 2013, one in four Canadians will belong to a visible minority.”
What makes things yet more complicated in Canada is that each province has a unique linguistic profile. For instance, the majority of Chinese speakers call British Columbia home. Another large community of Chinese-speakers lives in Ontario. Ontario, primarily the greater Toronto metropolitan area, also has large communities of immigrants who speak Punjabi, Urdu and Tagalog. In fact, according to the new data, Tagalog is the fastest growing language in Canada. In Quebec, Italian has long been the third most popular language. Immigration from the Maghreb and Haiti, however, has greatly increased the importance of Creole and Arabic.
Clearly, the word “bilingual” can never adequately describe Canada’s rich cultural diversity. And marketing professionals are beginning to sit up and take notice. Ignoring the diversity of cultures in Canada can be a costly error. Bic Canada found that out the hard way. As “official” Canada tackles the challenges of welcoming a new generation of immigrants, the business community, both homegrown and from afar, will also have to adapt its marketing strategies to a meet the needs of a dynamic, ever-changing Canadian cultural mosaic.
If you are focusing your business on Canadian customers, English and Canadian French are great starting points. You may want to do some digging to find out if other languages may be useful, and then engage a strong translation and localization services partner to make sure your message is heard.