A-Z of Canada: B is for Bi-Lingual

B is for... bi-lingual

I’ve tried to sex this post up but failed miserably. Perhaps I should have run with “B is for Buttertarts”. In any case, the blame lies squarely with S for getting me up three times last night. All complaints addressed to her please. If language is your thing, go ahead and enjoy. If this isn’t your bag, then go have a trawl through LoveAllBlogs, and find something that is… 



B is for Bi-LingualCanada is a bi-lingual country. English and French are enshrined in its constitution – although strangely, learning French is not compulsory in schools. All federal services, policies and laws must be enacted and available in both languages. All MP’s, including the Prime Minister, need to be fluent in them. Canada’s premier, Stephen Harper, routinely fields queries in both French and English at Prime Minister’s Questions.



For the average visitor to Canada, this commitment to bilingualism results in some obvious differences:


  • Packaging: everything has both English and French instructions/descriptions/listed ingredients. And let me tell you – when you’re looking for the cooking instructions on a packet of frozen fish, it takes an average of three turns of the box before you’re facing the correct language, the right way up. With French on one side and English on the other it’s like the “toast always lands butter-side down” issue. I’ve never yet picked up a box and been facing the right side. That said, it’s a great chance to brush up on your vocab!
  • Proper pronunciation: French words are actually pronounced correctly, for example, “foy-AY” not “foy-ER”, or “ON-velope” instead of “EN-velope”. At home in Britain we always referred to the GAR-age, with the stress on the first syllable. Here everyone pronounces it “Gar-aaaaage” with the stress on the second syllable, in line with the French. I can see the reasoning here, but K thinks I’m being poncey when I do it, so I must make my Canadian friends laugh when I mention the “Garridge”!
  • Road signs: another area where both languages are catered to. Bi-lingual road signs appear on provincial highways or in areas under federal jurisdiction, such as airports, unless you’re driving in Quebec, where they will all be in French. Bonne Chance with that!
  • Schools: French Immersion schools are a popular choice in central and eastern Canada. Pupils are taught entirely in French, the idea being that total immersion in the language will foster a swift understanding and mastery of it. It sounds a little “sink or swim” but apparently works well with young children. I have no idea how non-French-speaking parents help with the homework though!



Bi-Lingual Road SignsUnless you are travelling throughout the more remote parts of Quebec, English is all you need to get by in Canada. Its bi-lingual status is more of an official designation. The majority of inhabitants are English speakers and knowledge of the two languages is determined largely by where you live. Almost 95% of Quebec’s inhabitants (Quebecers) speak French (or Quebecois, as it is known) but only 40% speak English. That’s still better than the rest of the country, where 97% speak English but only 7% speak French. Each of Canada’s 10 provinces and three territories adopt their own official language policy. At a provincial level, Quebec – lovingly deemed Canada’s smoking section –  is the only province that is unilingual, vehemently French in every way, while New Brunswick holds the honour of being the only officially bi-lingual province.

Quebecois (or joual) is different from the French spoken in France and there is a fair degree of snobbery between the two languages about who is correct. Canadian French is thought to originate from the Classical French of the 15th and 17th century which became isolated from European French with the onset of British rule in Canada in 1760. Older pronunciations were retained here that later died out in France, thus the French spoken in Quebec can be unintelligible to a Parisian!



Although not part of the commitment to bilingualism, it would be remiss not to mention the wealth of other languages spoken here. After English and French, Italian, German, Chinese and Punjabi speakers are numerous, as are speakers of the indigenous languages, such as Cree, Micmac, Ojibwe, Inukitut, Algonquin, Blackfoot and Mohawk to name a few.

Canada truly is a melting-pot of many cultures. Can you think of anywhere else like it?

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Whitby Shores, Whitby, Ontario

By Aisha Ashraf

An autistic Irish immigrant in a cross-cultural marriage, Aisha Ashraf is the archetypal outlander, writing to root herself through place and perspective. Published in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, River Teeth, HuffPost and elsewhere, her work explores the legacy of trauma, the nature of being an outsider and the narrow confines of belonging. She currently lives in Canada.


  1. If someone who speaks two languages is called bi-lingual. And someone who speaks more than two is a polyglot. What do you call someone who only speaks one language? An american… ha ha. I know it’s an old joke but it sure is funny.

  2. I had to say “garage” out loud a few times to hear that one sounded right and one like a ‘British accent’ to my Canadian ears!

    And, yup, the immersion really does work. Kids are like sponges for languages. And though I did not take it myself, I have heard adult friends slip back into the language with apparent ease despite not using it for years. Me, I stick to knowing all the French on my cereal boxes because it’s easier than turning the thing over 3 times to find the English

    1. Hahaha! I’m with you on the cereal box issue Kelly. Glad you tried out the pronunciation for yourself – hope the rest of your family are not filling out the committal papers for the nearest mental health facility!

  3. Reading this post made me think of Wales. It’s a similar situation in that in some parts of the country, Welsh is compulsory at school, and across the board, road signs, document and public servants must all be bilingual.

    In North West Wales, a lot of people use Welsh as their everyday language but the closer you get to the English border, the less common it is. As you might expect, in rural parts, people use Welsh more but in cities, there are people with very strong Welsh accents who can’t speak the language.

  4. Lots of our stuff is in many langauges, but thankfully not the groceries or the road signs – although we do have some road signs specifically to remind visitors we drive on the left in Australia.

    How strange that everything has to be in both and the PMs must be fluent, but French is not compulsory! The wonders of bureaucracy stike again!

  5. As an English speaking parent, I did send my children to French Immersion, total immersion from kindergarten on. I volunteered in all their classes from kindergarten through to grade 8, so as they were learning, I was learning again (I have a year of university French). Of course, their pronunciation is far better than mine, and I am continually corrected, which is a good thing in this situation. I wish you luck in your new adopted country.

    1. Wow Catherine, that’s dedication! I always wondered how non-French speaking parents could help their kids with homework…that’s one way of solving the problem! Thanks for the good wishes 🙂

  6. I love this, especially the part of turning the packages over and over trying to work out the ingredients or cooking directions.

    I’m not sure if it’s the same on the east coast, but in BC there are some French words that just don’t get pronounced right. Notre Dame for example is pronounced the American way… Notre like Noter, and Dame like Fame with a D.


  7. My husband says garridge and I say garage … isn’t it interesting that Canada is officially bilingual and Quebec is unilingual … with language police! I’m living in Eastern Ontario where French is as commonly heard as English – I marvel at those that switch back and forth between the two, sometimes not even realizing it, and with no trace of accent in either language. I wish … however, 8 years of school (Parisien) French sadly does me little good with the patois of Quebeckers. When I was in France I conversed and found I could understand without even translating in my head and here at home I’m afraid to speak a word because I know I won’t undersand what comes back at me. Interesting to see through the eyes of an expat.

  8. Just like to point out, Joual is not quebec french.

    Joual is what quebecois call crappy street slang french that low class people speak.

    Also Quebecois/Quebeckers don’t say they speak quebecois…they say they speak french. I don’t know where you heard any of what you said about quebecois and quebec in general some i may agree with but in large part the language section you are incorrect.

    1. “Quebecois (or joual) is different from the French spoken in France and there is a fair degree of snobbery between the two languages about who is correct.”
      While I accept I erred in referring to joual as Quebecois (it being slang as you point out), I can’t escape the notion that your comment serves only to confirm what I stated above.

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