Asian language speakers are on the rise in British Columbia, latest census data shows

According to Statistics Canada, more people in British Columbia speak languages ​​other than English and French — the country’s two official languages ​​— as their first language, in a context of population growth driven by international migration.

The latest 2021 census data released Wednesday shows that 31% of British Columbians are native speakers of languages ​​that are neither Indigenous nor “official”, an increase from 27% five years ago.

The percentage of the province’s population speaking English as their first language has decreased slightly from 71.1% in 2016 to 70.6% in 2021, while those speaking French as their first language have seen a slight increase, from 1.56% to 1.62%.

British Columbia is the third fastest growing province in Canada, with its population increasing by 7.6% since 2016. According to Statistics Canada, immigration from elsewhere in the world is a key driver of growth and the increasingly diverse linguistic landscape across the country.

Growth of Asian languages ​​in British Columbia

British Columbia has seen strong growth in the number of people speaking Asian languages ​​– including Punjabi, Cantonese, Mandarin and Tagalog – as their first language, a trend that Statistics Canada says mirrors recent waves of immigration from countries like India, China and the Philippines.

In Vancouver, for example, 4.25% of the population speak Cantonese as their first language, making it the second most popular language in the city.

Cantonese instructor Raymond Pai (白文杰) says that when he arrived in Vancouver in 2015 to start teaching at the University of British Columbia, he mainly heard Mandarin.

But more and more local Mandarin speakers have learned Cantonese at university over the years, in part, he says, because of an interest in Hong Kong pop culture.

Raymond Pai, pictured near the Asia Center at UBC, says he expects more people in Vancouver to speak Cantonese as new waves of immigrants arrive from Hong Kong. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Pai says he expects Cantonese to become more commonly spoken in Vancouver in the future as more Cantonese-speaking immigrants arrive from his hometown of Hong Kong.

“I feel that Cantonese is experiencing a comeback.”

Tagalog is widely spoken — second only to English — in Fort St. John — a northern British Columbia community of more than 21,000 people — whose native speakers make up 3.2% of the city’s population.

Alan Moreno Yu created the Barangay Fort St. John Community Group in 2015 when he emigrated from Manila. He says more and more Filipinos have continued to move to the northern city since the 1960s due to the lower cost of living and higher salaries.

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Alan Moreno Yu, far left, and his fellow Filipinos celebrate Filipino Heritage Month at City Hall in Fort St. John, British Columbia, last June. (Alan Moreno Yu/Facebook)

Moreno Yu’s group called on the city council to declare June Filipino Heritage Month, citing the local Filipino community’s deep connection to their home culture.

“We’re very proud of our heritage. We’re very proud of our language and we seem to be doing very well in preserving our culture,” he said.

Preserving Europe’s linguistic heritage

It’s a sentiment shared by the many native speakers of European languages ​​across British Columbia.

Wendy Voykin, born Vasilisa Gaveilovna Voykin (Василиса Гавриловна Войкина) to a Doukhobor family, had more than four decades of experience teaching the language in public schools in Castlegar, where 4.2% of the population speaks Russian as a first language.

Voykin says she is fluent in Russian thanks to her father – also a teacher – who allowed only Russian at home during her childhood.

“I thank him for bringing the love of Russian literature, Russian history, Russian geography into our household. We didn’t go to school to learn that.”

A number of children in traditional Russian skirts.
Wendy Voykin high school students in Castlegar, British Columbia, are dressed in Russian costumes performing folk dances at school in 2015. (Submitted by Wendy Voykin)

German teacher Rolf Hirschkorn, who grew up in Vernon – where German is the second most widely spoken language – says he still has fond memories of the German cultural events he has attended since childhood with his parents in the town of Okanagan.

Unlike his mother, who only spoke German at home, Hirschkorn says he speaks mostly English to his children, but he often encouraged them to learn German by speaking the language to them, as he believes the skill intercultural helps to dismantle stereotypes.

“It’s really important for us to understand other cultures,” he said. “It also gives us a better understanding of why we are the way we are in Canada.”

Three people dress up in traditional German attire.  The person in the center, a woman, is holding a baby.  The woman is dressed in a traditional blue dress.  The person on the left, a man, wears a hat and a gray blazer.  The man on the right is wearing a gray t-shirt and jeans.
Rolf Hirschkorn, far right, pictured with his granddaughter and parents, dressed in traditional Bavarian costumes, at the Oktoberfest event hosted by the Edelweiss Society of Vernon in 2006. (Submitted by Rolf Hirschkorn)

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