Living in Belgium, where French is one of the national languages, I get this remark a lot: “you’re Canadian and you don’t speak French?” It’s quite shocking to every European I’ve come into contact with.
In Belgium, there are three official languages: Flemish (60%), French (40%), and German (1%). Flemish is spoken mainly in Flanders (in northern Belgium -the pretty touristic part) and French in the Wallonia (the south). I’m not an expert, but I think it’s safe to say that most Belgian citizens and residents don’t speak all three official languages. In my experience, the French often only speak French, but most of the Flemish speak English or have an understanding of English. I have yet to meet a Belgian with German as a first language in the eight months since I’ve been here (probably because they live in a different part of the country).
In Belgium, 59% and 53% of the Flemings know French or English respectively; only 19% and 17% of the Walloons [aka French] know Dutch [similar to Flemish] or English.(ref)
Canada with its provinces is larger than ten European Countries put together. If you would like to think of each of Canada’s provinces as a “country” then the national languages would be:
British Columbia: English
Ontario: English with some French.
Quebec: French and some English
Prince Edward Island: English
Nova Scotia: English
Newfoundland: Some form of English (just kidding. English)
New Brunswick: English
Northwest Territories: English, Cree and others.
Nunavut: Inuktitu and English
Therefore, Canada with its provinces is approximately 65% English speaking, 21% French, and 17% bilingual. (ref)
In Canada, although there are two official languages, as far as I know, there are no requirements to learn the second language of the country. In Alberta, French is only required in the 6th year of school (age 10-11 for most children) and after that year, French is no longer a required subject.
Coming from Western Canada, I only speak English. So despite what Europeans may think, the majority of Canadians are English speakers only. If you meet a French Canadian, it’s like meeting a Flemish-speaking French Belgian. Well, ok maybe it’s not that rare, but its not the majority that’s for sure.
To conclude (because I couldn’t have summarized it better):
“Official bilingualism should not be confused with personal bilingualism, which is the capacity of a person to speak two languages. This distinction was articulated in the 1967 report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which stated:
A bilingual country is not one where all the inhabitants necessarily have to speak two languages; rather it is a country where the principal public and private institutions must provide services in two languages to the citizens, the vast majority of whom may well be unilingual.” (ref)
Yes, I’m from Canada and no, I don’t speak French.