Chinese languages gain ground in Metro Vancouver: 2016 census

August 29, 2017

By Douglas Todd, Times Colonist |

Chinese languages are becoming more predominant in Metro Vancouver and across Canada, according to newly released 2016 census figures.

The proportion of Metro Vancouver residents who speak Chinese dialects continues to rise and is now more than double those who speak Punjabi.

With almost one third of new arrivals to Metro Vancouver since 2011 speaking a Chinese language, the total number of residents who have Mandarin or Cantonese as their mother tongue has swelled to 373,000.

That dwarfs the 163,000 residents whose mother tongue is Punjabi, which Statistics Canada says is the second largest “immigrant language” in Metro Vancouver.

An analysis of data released last week from the 2016 Canadian census shows the country’s major cities are developing different characters based on languages spoken — Arabic is the leading immigrant language in Montreal, Tagalog (Filipino) leads in Calgary, and Chinese leads in Toronto and Metro Vancouver.

Of Canada’s major cities, Metro Vancouver has the biggest proportion of residents — 25 per cent — who speak neither English nor French in their homes, with the largest group of them speaking a Chinese “immigrant language,” a term that Statistics Canada uses to distinguishes them from English or French, the languages of the early settlers who established Canada’s public institutions.

Across Canada more than 1.2 million people have either Mandarin or Cantonese as their mother tongue (an increase of 18 per cent in five years), while 543,000 have Punjabi, 510,000 have Tagalog, 495,000 have Spanish and 486,000 have Arabic.

The 13 per cent overall increase in the use of immigrant languages across Canada — to the point where 7.7 million people (22 per cent) speak a language other than English or French in their homes — illustrates how public officials are moving away from expecting immigrants to “assimilate,” says Vancouver statistician Jens Von Bergmann.

“Parents are being encouraged to pass on their mother tongue to their children. Generally, it’s considered great to have a language other than English or French,” said Von Bergmann, who speaks to his young child in his native tongue of German, while his wife talks with their son in her native Mandarin.

Von Bergmann, who has created interactive online maps based on census language data, says that immigrants are more likely to hold onto their mother tongues if they live in places such as Vancouver or Toronto, where large numbers of people speak the same language.

The 2016 census data shows that 1.1 million out of Metro Vancouver’s population of 2.44 million (44 per cent) have a mother tongue other than English or French, though most are able to communicate in English.

However, Metro Vancouver also has the highest proportion of residents who acknowledge they cannot carry on a conversation in either English or French (5.6 per cent of the region’s population, or 138,000 people).

The proportion who can’t speak English or French rises to 11.2 per cent in the City of Richmond, which is the highest ratio of any municipality in the country.

Richmond has for years been the centre of controversy over the expansion of Chinese-language signs, as well as over Chinese-language condo meetings.

While University of B.C. linguist Bonny Norton says Canadians value multilingualism, she cautions that people who do not learn one of Canada’s two official languages are unable to take part in important public “conversations.”

In addition, studies by Canada’s immigration department found that newcomers who cannot speak English or French struggle, with one-third lower earnings than other Canadians.

A Statistics Canada study by Edward Ng also discovered that immigrants with poor skills in English or French are three times more likely to report poor health.

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