Canada: English or French?

Canada: English or French?

English or French? The short answer is both. English and French are both Canada’s official languages, with 56.9% of the population considering English their first language and 21.3 considering French their first language. However, that doesn’t mean you have to know both languages to study in Canada. And who cares about short answers, anyway?

For a little context, both English and French became the official languages that could be used on Parliament and all Canadian courts in 1867. A little later, in 1969, the first Official Languages Act recognized the equal status of both of them throughout the federal administration. Even after the Constitution Act of 1982, this means that in any institution of Parliament and government, for any legal/official issue, it doesn’t matter where you are in Canada, you can get help in both languages.

Well, the only thing is this doesn’t apply for local governments and private institutions. That explains why when you look at Quebec, for example, it only names French as the official language.

So… What does this mean if you want to study in Canada?

It means you might have the option of studying in an English-speaking university or a French-speaking university, though you will find that most are English-speaking ones.

Just to think about your odds, let’s see Times Higher Education’s rank for Canada’s Top 5 Universities:

  1. University of Toronto (Ontario)
  2. University of British Columbia (British Columbia)
  3. McGill University (Quebec)
  4. McMaster University (Ontario)
  5. University of Montreal (Quebec)

Among these, while both McGill University and University of Montreal are in Quebec, the only francophone is the University of Montreal. However, on 11th place in this same list is Laval University, also situated in Quebec, and also mostly a French-speaking university. 

You would expect that you need to be a hundred percent proficient in French to be admitted to these universities, but they actually have different sets of requirements on their websites.

University of Montreal (Université de Montréal)

The University of Montreal claims that though it is French-speaking, it is also open to English-speaking students for some of its graduate level programs. Their research departments in the graduate-level programs embrace and encourage bilingualism. Some of the Master’s Degrees offered this way include Business Law in a Global Context, Insurance Medicine and Medicolegal Expertise, and Optometry. For Doctorates, they have Biochemistry, Geography, Virology and Immunology, among others. Moreover, their English studies programs do require you to be able to speak and understand English pretty well.

The number of students who apply to this university that are mainly English-speakers grows every year, and “Thanks to them, UdeM can boast about being as multicultural and bilingual as Montreal.”

UdeM offers some “success stories” from some of their english-speaking students on their website, so prospective students can feel a bit more comfortable hearing their perspective. Last but not least, UdeM has many tools and services such as workshops and tutoring to help such students improve in French if they wish to do so. Most of these resources are free upon admission, and if you need help in other personal, social, or financial matters, the university can help you in either language. One Grad student in Microbiology, Infectiology and Immunology, Gustavo Balduino Leite, even claims that if you need to, you can take some courses in an English-speaking university and transfer the credits to UdeM.

Laval University (Université Laval)

For ULaval, being able to speak French is a must. On their admission requirements, they list “French Proficiency” because as a French-language institution, all assignments and exams are written in French. Therefore, if you didn’t complete primary or secondary school in French, you will have to take the TFI. TFI stands for Test de français international, which is literally just an international French test to make sure you will be able to get by in a French-speaking environment. It is much like the TOEFL for international students applying to American universities, and ULaval says it should be taken “at an institution that is a part of the Educational Testing Service.

However, even if you don’t think you have perfect proficiency in French, you still have a shot. If your score is only a little behind from what ULaval expects your level to be, you will be placed in one or two French courses for non-francophones. ULaval School of Languages offers programs and courses at different levels as well if you’re just looking to, in general, improve your French.

So, while Laval University seems to have a lot less opportunities for English-speakers than University of Montreal, ULaval does offer some English courses through the Faculty of Business Administration. The Faculty of Letters also offers programs in English Studies and teaching English as a Second Language.

As you can see from these examples, whether you want to study in English, in French, or mostly in French even though you haven’t mastered it yet, there are definitely options for you in Canada.

Also, even when it comes to adapting in a country with more than one official language, the opportunities are endless and will depend on where you go. Since Canada is one of the most multicultural countries in the world, according to the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, a lot of people speak more than one language.

Even University of Montreal mentions in their student stories that while it is a French university, most of their students will know English anyway. Also, a fifth of Canadians speak another language other than both English and French as their mother tongue.

Mandarin is the third most spoken language in Canada, commonly spoken in major metropolitan areas. After Mandarin, Cantonese is also popular in large cities. Finally, the fifth most spoken language is Punjabi. This last one, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages explains is “the most frequently reported immigrant language in Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton.”

With the two most spoken languages in the world being Mandarin and English, it’s nice to see that Canada’s population, which takes pride in its openness towards foreigners, reflects this in its most common languages besides the official ones.

Like I said, opportunities are endless, so if you’re looking to study in a different environment, get involved with different cultures and maybe even learn a new language just from living there, Canada will be an extremely interesting option to look into.

Show More

Wendy is an international student from Ecuador who just graduated from Seattle University with a double major in Creative Writing and Theatre. She’s excited to share some of the stories of things she’s learned in her time in the U.S.

Download Study in the USA® Magazines