Inside Montreal’s Changing Language Landscape

Montreal has undergone a significant demographic shift over the past decade.

According to the World Population Review website, Canada is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse places on earth, scoring 0.6 of 0.9 on the 2021 Greenberg’s Diversity Index. While much of the evidence for this figure comes from Toronto, where half of the residents are not native to this country, Montreal has undergone a significant shift in its own demographics over the past decade, too.

Bilingual Residents

For many reasons, the world’s multicultural nature grows with each passing year. In some places, like Africa, the local mix of people is due to the presence of many different religions and ethnic groupings (up to 100 in Chad), while, in the West, immigration plays a much larger role in the creation of human diversity. As a one-time colonial outpost of the French, Montreal is a good example of the latter.

Increased accessibility to language tools has encouraged modern people to visit or study in other countries. Learning English, for instance, is possible on websites like Preply, which has more than 12,000 tutors available for remote study but university courses remain popular too. Online tutors simply offer a more ad-hoc way of learning a new language, without such large financial barriers to entry. This allows students to find tutors suited to their needs.

Montreal is, of course, famous worldwide for its bilingual French/English residents, a group of people that makes up around half of the city. However, figures taken from recent censuses indicate that the number of Canadians who speak a language other than English or French at home has grown to a fifth of the population. As French may now be in decline in Montreal, local trends are worth investigating.

Language ‘Sprawl’

Since the turn of the millennium, the city has undergone something of a language ‘sprawl’, as large concentrations of non-local languages split up and move away from Laval and the Island and into the outer suburbs. While it’s difficult to determine what is causing this movement, it could hint at higher-status families abandoning high population areas for the much more peaceful city limits.

Historically, apart from English or French, the Island’s most commonly spoken language is Arabic but Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Creole, and Hebrew are also present within Montreal. Recently, though, Montreal’s incoming population is arriving from new places, chiefly, India (Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, and Telugu speakers) and parts of East Africa that speak Swahili, like Tanzania and Kenya.

More than many places in the world, Quebec is protective over its French roots and fears a slide into a majority English-speaking country. For this reason, many of Montreal’s foreign residents come from French-speaking countries, including Burkina Faso, Guinea, Gabon, and Mali. In total, though, there are more than fifty countries, regions, cities, and districts that speak French worldwide, including France.

Earlier this year, Montreal’s diminishing number of French speakers prompted rather drastic action in the form of Bill 96, which would enforce the language in certain interactions, such as when retailers are talking to customers. While controversial, it nevertheless creates an opportunity to discuss what shape the city’s language landscape will take in the near future.