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How immigrants keep their language alive in Canada


Keeping their language while assimilating and learning the nuances of a new culture can be a challenging process for new immigrants.
Excerpts from a Statistics Canada report:

Immigrant-language transmission is one element of the settlement process for immigrant communities in Canada.


Like religion, language of origin can be a marker of ethnicity, and can provide socioeconomic advantages like access to certain goods and services offered by or for the immigrant community. Immigrant children’s academic success is associated with maintaining one’s language of origin and ethnic loyalties. The survival of immigrant languages and their intergenerational transmission in this country are also issues related to Canadian multiculturalism. Both the Canadian Multiculturalism Act and the preamble to the Official Languages Act state that Canada should encourage the preservation of foreign languages and enhance their status and use.

In Canada, studies show that while immigrant groups of European origin have had more difficulty preserving their language over time, more recent immigrant groups, such as those who speak Spanish, Chinese or Punjabi, are generally more likely to maintain theirs.
Several factors influence whether immigrant languages are passed on from one generation to another. The most important factor is the extent to which children are exposed to those languages within the family. Exposure to one’s immigrant language can also occur outside the home, and through contact with other children who are also exposed to those languages and various learning activities organized by language communities, as well as through greater contact with other people with the same mother tongue. From this perspective, the fact that most immigrants who settled in Canada since the end of the Second World War were family immigrants has definitely had a positive effect on the vitality of immigrant languages. In all cases, it is primarily through adults, especially mothers, that language is passed on to children.

The data are drawn from the long forms of the 1981 and 2006 censuses, which were completed by 20 per cent of Canadian households.
In 2006, the four immigrant languages transmitted most
often were Armenian, Punjabi, Bengali and Urdu.

Language transmission differs greatly from one language group to another. For some language groups (Dutch, Italian, Creole and Tagalog), transmission of the mother’s mother tongue to children under 18 years of age, either as a mother tongue or as a language spoken most often or on a regular basis at home, does not exceed 20 per cent. Conversely, the intensity of language transmission is very high for the Armenian, Punjabi, Chinese, Persian, Turkish, Bengali and Urdu groups, among which it exceeds 70 per cent. However, for some languages, such as Portuguese, Greek, Creole and Hindi, the percentages of those who report that they can speak the language are much higher than the percentages who report the language as a mother tongue or a language spoken at home.


The intensity of immigrant-language transmission is generally on the rise.


For all language groups, in the 1981 Census, immigrant languages were passed on to 41 per cent of Canadian-born children under 18 years of age. In the 2006 Census immigrant languages were passed on to 55 per cent of Canadian-born children in this age group – an increase of 14 percentage points.

Between 1981 and 2006, the composition of immigration changed considerably, and the changes may have had a major impact on the intensity of immigrant-language transmission. The same changes were evident for women’s socioeconomic profile in relation to their education level, the linguistic tradition of the country where they were born (according to the status of English and French in that country), and the mother-tongue groups to which they belonged. For example, in 1981, seven per cent of mothers had a university degree, compared to 28 per cent in 2006. In 1981, 13 per cent of mothers came from a country where French or English had special status, compared to 53 per cent in 2006.

In terms of mother tongue, in 1981, the distribution was dominated by European languages, whereas the situation was completely different 25 years later, when people with Chinese, Tagalog, Punjabi, Arabic and Spanish mother tongues accounted for the majority of immigrants.
Since more-educated women are less likely to pass on their mother tongue to their children, the immigrant-language transmission, already stronger in 2006 than in 1981, would have been even more so if mothers’ education profile had remained unchanged.


From one generation to another living in Canada, immigrant-language transmission declines.


To study how intergenerational language transmission has changed over time, mothers in 1981 were compared with their daughters who had become mothers 25 years later, in 2006. The intensity of intergenerational language transmission moved in the opposite direction from historic transmission. Whereas 41 per cent of mothers passed on their language in 1981, the corresponding proportion for their daughters 25 years later was only 23 per cent. It is the ‘marriage market,’ more than any other factor, that determines how intergenerational language transmission changes over time. As many studies have documented, Canadian-born daughters of immigrant mothers are exposed to a marriage market dominated by a large demographic pool of potential partners with English or French as their mother tongue who do not know the immigrant language.

However, while this downward trend was observed for Italian, Greek and Chinese groups, the language transmission of second-generation women to their children was found to be the strongest for those whose mother tongue was Punjabi (53 per cent).

Many characteristics of mothers in 2006 were different from those of their own mothers 25 years earlier. They became, on average, mothers at a younger age, a higher percentage had a university degree and their immigrant mothers, the daughters who had become mothers in 2006 had spent their entire childhood and adolescence in Canada. The social and cultural context of childhood can have a lasting influence on values and behaviours, including the desire to pass on one’s mother tongue.

Two language groups stand out from the others from the standpoint of intergenerational transmission. In the Punjabi group, one-third of the grandchildren of 1981 women would have their grandmother’s mother tongue, whereas in the Greek group, the proportion would be one-quarter – Greek-speaking people comprise a population that has been settled in Canada for a relatively long time.

The composition of families or households is closely linked to language transmission. The presence of pre-school-aged children (first- or second-generation children) in the family and the presence of adults who know neither English nor French within the household are two factors positively associated with language transmission.

The arrival of new speakers of an immigrant language helps to keep it alive.


In addition, the steady influx of new immigrants had a positive influence on the transmission of immigrant mother tongues. These new immigrants generally do not have as good knowledge of the official languages and tend to concentrate in cities and form ‘ethnic’ neighbourhoods where the use of English and French is less widespread and may be seen as less essential in everyday life
– ENÉ HOULE

• René Houle is a senior analyst in the Social and Aboriginal Statistics Division at Statistics Canada.

Posted: Oct 6, 2011

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