Asian language speakers growing in B.C., latest census data shows

·4 min read
Multilingual welcome signs are pictured at the entrance of a community centre in West Vancouver. The latest census data shows a growing number of British Columbians speak languages other than Indigenous languages, English and French as their native tongue. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Multilingual welcome signs are pictured at the entrance of a community centre in West Vancouver. The latest census data shows a growing number of British Columbians speak languages other than Indigenous languages, English and French as their native tongue. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

More people in British Columbia are speaking, as their first language, languages other than English and French — the country's two official languages — amid population growth driven by international migration, according to Statistics Canada.

The latest 2021 census data released on Wednesday shows that 31 per cent of British Columbians are native speakers of languages that are neither Indigenous nor "official," an increase from 27 per cent five years ago.

The percentage of the province's population speaking English as a birth language dropped marginally from 71.1 per cent in 2016 to 70.6 per cent in 2021, while those speaking French as a first language witnessed a small increase from 1.56 per cent to 1.62 per cent.

British Columbia is the third fastest-growing province in Canada, with its population rising 7.6 per cent since 2016. Statistics Canada says immigration from elsewhere around the world is a key driver of the growth and the increasingly diverse linguistic landscape across the country.

Growth of Asian languages in B.C.

B.C. has seen robust growth in those speaking Asian languages — including Punjabi, Cantonese, Mandarin and Tagalog — as their first language, a trend that Statistics Canada said reflects recent waves of immigration from countries such as India, China and the Philippines.

Native speakers of Asian languages growing in B.C.

 

In Vancouver, for instance, 4.25 per cent of the population speaks Cantonese as a first language, making it the second most popular language in the city.

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

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

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Pai says he expects Cantonese will 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 enjoying a comeback."

Tagalog is widely spoken — second only to English — in Fort St. John — a northern B.C. community of more than 21,000 residents — with its native speakers taking up 3.2 per cent of the city's population.

Alan Moreno Yu established the Barangay Fort St. John community group in 2015 when he emigrated from Manila. He says more Filipinos have continued making the northern town home since the '60s because of the lower cost of living and higher salaries.

Alan Moreno Yu/Facebook
Alan Moreno Yu/Facebook

Moreno Yu's group has been asking city council to declare June as Filipino Heritage Month, citing the local Filipino community's deep connection to its home culture.

"We are very proud of our heritage. We are very proud of our language, and we seem to do very well in preserving our culture," he said.

Preserving European linguistic heritage

It's a sentiment shared by the many native speakers of European languages across B.C.

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

Native speakers of European languages in B.C.

 

Voykin says she's fluent in Russian thanks to her father — also a teacher — who allowed only Russian to be spoken at home during her childhood.

"I thank him for passing on the love of Russian literature, of Russian history, of Russian geography within our household. We didn't go to school to learn that."

Submitted by Wendy Voykin
Submitted by Wendy Voykin

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

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

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

Submitted by Rolf Hirschkorn
Submitted by Rolf Hirschkorn