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Mandarin now Toronto's 2nd-most common first language, reflecting years of demographic change

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2022-08-18 Kate McGillivray
Arlene Chan, a historian of Toronto's Chinatown, isn't surprised to learn that Mandarin is now a more common mother tongue than Cantonese in the city. © Martin Trainor/CBC Arlene Chan, a historian of Toronto's Chinatown, isn't surprised to learn that Mandarin is now a more common mother tongue than Cantonese in the city.

Toronto author and historian Arlene Chan has been expecting it to happen for years.

And with this week's census release, it finally did: Mandarin has edged out Cantonese as the second-most common first language in Toronto, after English. 

"I've been watching over the years, the slow increase," said Chan, who has written several books on the history of Chinese people in Toronto. 

"Through each census I could see the number of Mandarin speakers coming up," she told CBC News. 

On Wednesday, Statistics Canada released its 2021 census report on linguistic diversity and use of English and French in Canada. 

The report's numbers for Toronto's Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) — a vast geographic zone recognized by Statistics Canada that includes communities from Milton to Pickering and all the way up to Mono — paints a portrait of changing immigration patterns that have been decades in the making. 

Of that area's nearly 6.2 million inhabitants, almost 280,000, or 4.5 per cent, consider Mandarin their mother tongue, meaning it is their first language learned at home in childhood and still understood at the time the census was taken. 

Cantonese is close behind, with 4.3 per cent. 

Those numbers are in keeping with larger trends, with Statistics Canada reporting that there is an increasing diversity of languages other than English and French spoken in Canadian homes — with Mandarin in first place nationally as well. 

The decline of Taishanese

Looking back to 2016, the positions were reversed, with Cantonese speakers very slightly ahead of Mandarin speakers in the Toronto CMA.

Cast back even further and the gulf widens, with a Toronto report from 2006 describing two-thirds of the city's Chinese speakers as Cantonese, and just one-third as Mandarin. 

That makes sense, says Chan, based on who has been immigrating to Canada — and when.

 

Prior to the late 1960s, she said, the dominant language in Toronto's Chinatown was Taishanese, a Cantonese village dialect that Chan herself grew up speaking. 

Then came waves of immigration from Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong, "so we started seeing the village dialect of Taishanese replaced by Cantonese," she said. 

A new wave from China began in the 1980s, she continued, "when China allowed its citizens to start leaving the country. So Hong Kong was replaced as the largest source of immigrants coming into Canada," and the number of Mandarin speakers grew. 

Chinese policy with ripple effects in Canada

Valerie Ann Preston, a professor of geography at York University, agrees immigration patterns are likely behind the change, adding that another contributing factor could be the Chinese government's growing insistence on Mandarin as the standard national language. 

"I wonder if the People's Republic of China government's emphasis on Mandarin as THE Chinese language is increasing its use among Chinese populations around the world," she wrote to CBC Toronto in an e-mail. 

According to a report in the Guardian, China passed laws in 2000 to standardize spoken and written language. In each province, a language committee is charged with monitoring and policing the use of Mandarin.

The move has been linked to the declining use of other dialects in the China, with the same article reporting that Mandarin is now being spoken by more than 80 per cent of China's population, up from 70 per cent a decade ago

Here in Toronto, numbers for other Chinese dialects, such as Min Dong and Hakka, tell a more complex story, with some — like Min Dong — increasing slightly since 2016, and others, such as Wu (also called Shanghainese,) appearing to decline by more than 6,000 speakers in the same time period.

Aging Cantonese speakers 

For Rachel Wei, who works as an office assistant at the Federation of Chinese Canadians in Markham, the events she helps organize still feel like they are evenly split linguistically. 

At a recent food festival put on by the federation, Cantonese and Mandarin speakers were "about 50/50," she told the CBC in a phone interview. 

"But most likely the people who speak Cantonese can speak Mandarin as well," she added, explaining she often hears business owners conferring together in Cantonese before switching to Mandarin to serve customers. 

Wei says she sees one main exception to that flexibility: older generations. 

"A lot of seniors can't understand Mandarin that well," she said. 

To improve her communication and build new relationships, Wei, who grew up speaking Mandarin, says she's now studying Cantonese.

For Chan, the gradual aging out of one language in favour of another is just one more piece of history repeating itself. 

"We faced the same issue when more and more Cantonese speakers were replacing Taishanese," she said.

"There was a bit of an issue with the Taishanese seniors. So we've gone through this before." 

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