Official Languages: linguistic duality or bilingualism?

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act, the concepts of linguistic duality and bilingualism are under the spotlight as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act. But are we really familiar with the exact meaning of these terms? Following is a list of a few fast facts that help better clarify these terms, especially within the Canadian context.

Linguistic duality simplified

  • There are two official languages in Canada: French and English.

  • These languages are spoken by the linguistic majorities that make up our society.

  • Almost all Canadians (98% according to Statistics Canada) speak one or the other of these languages. The majority of them, 26 million people, are unilingual—that is, they speak either only French or only English.

  • The majority of Francophones reside in Quebec, while the majority of Anglophones live in the remaining provinces and territories.

  • In addition to French and English, no less than 200 languages (not official but equally important) are spoken in Canada.

  • Our linguistic duality has nurtured our respect for one another.

Definition of linguistic duality: the coexistence of two majority language groups, including minority language communities spread across the country (Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages in Canada).

Definition of linguistic duality simplified: In Canada, we speak either French or English, and we live in either a majority situation or a minority situation.

Bilingualism 101

The benefits of bilingualism are undeniable. The more we are able to master languages, the more doors will open to us. The bilingualism of individuals remains a matter of choice. Each person can decide to be unilingual or to become bilingual, trilingual or multilingual.

Definition of bilingualism: situation of an individual speaking two different languages (individual bilingualism); situation of a community in which two languages are used concurrently (Larousse).

  • In Canada, we are also familiar with institutional bilingualism. Our government has clearly established, from the outset, French and English as our country’s official languages.

  • Formalization began in 1867 with the British North America Act and was further cemented in 1969 with the passage of the Official Languages Act (OLA).

  • The OLA recognizes the formal status of French and English in all federal institutions. Its purpose is to ensure that each member of the public has access to all federal services in the official language of their choice.

Today, 50 years after the adoption of the OLA, the government has announced its intention to modernize it. New information technologies of the digital age as well as the demographic challenges of official language minority communities are just two of the issues that have spurred us to reconsider our approach to official languages.

On tour!

Since April, a caravan has been traveling across the country to promote linguistic duality as part of the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the OLA. As we continue to discuss the issues surrounding Canada’s official languages, the bonjour, my friend tour is gathering stories that reflect our overall vision of linguistic duality.

Want to learn more about the OLA and linguistic duality?

Check out the tour’s learning activity guide!