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The dynamics of German language maintenance in Canada

1.0 Introduction

Manfred Prokop and Gerhard Bas
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This paper is an updated and expanded version of the final chapter, “The
Dynamics of Language Maintenance,” in German language maintenance across
Canada: A handbook
(Sherwood Park, 2004), by Manfred Prokop and Gerhard

On December 4, 2007, Statistics Canada released data on “immigration and citizenship” and “language” gathered during the 2006 Census, some of which may have been a surprise to members of Canada’s German-speaking community. Briefly, the findings may be summarized in two sets of conclusions:

1.1 Birthplace
Immigrants from German-speaking countries represent an ever-decreasing share of Canada’s immigrant population. The Census found 176,040 Canadians who had been born in Germany, but the vast majority had immigrated before 1991 (N=149,020). 6,155 individuals came between 1991 and 1995, another 8,595 between 1996 and 2001, and 7,635 arrived between 2001 and 2006. They represented 0.7% of the total number of immigrants who came to Canada between 2001 and 2006.

21,130 Canadians were reported to have been born in Austria – 19,205 before 1991 and only 510 arriving in the last five years.

20,925 Canadians were born in Switzerland according to the 2006 Census. 19,995 had immigrated before 1991 and 1,855 arrived between 2001 and 2006; of those, almost half settled in Quebec.

In sum, approximately 9,200 immigrants from German-speaking countries arrived in Canada between 2001 and 2006.

1.2 Mother tongue
In 2001, German stood in fourth place in Canada as “the language first learned and still understood” (single mother tongue; see Table 1) with 438,080 persons, behind English, French, and Italian. Another 17,460 Canadians reported to have acquired German as one of several mother tongues in their childhood. In 2006, Chinese overtook German and Italian and moved into third place, displacing German into fifth.

Table 1 Select mother tongues, single and multiple responses, Canada, 2001 and 2006 [1]

Moreover, Canada’s German-speaking community continues to age dramatically, especially in the urban areas.

German in urban areas. In 2006, almost 37% of all Canadians who “had learned German at home as the first language and still understood it” were 65 years of age or older. But in Toronto, for instance, 18,370 German mother tongue speakers (46%) were 65 years of age and older. On the other hand, 775 Toronto children between 0 and 9 years were reported by their parents as learning German as their mother tongue – this is 1.9% of the total population of 40,415 Torontonians with German mother tongue. Figure 1 shows the distribution, and changes from 2001.

Fig. 1 German mother tongue by age groups, Toronto, 2001 and 2006 [2]

Clearly, the inverted population pyramid points to the passing of the immigrant generation. Note, however, the small increase the number of children reported to be learning German as their mother from 2001 to 2006 (from 220 to 410 children in the 0 to 4 age group and from 210 to 365 in the 5 to 9 years group) that can be explained by the recent surge of immigrants from Germany (N=7,635) and Austria (N=100). Of those born in Germany, 2,505 persons (32.8%) settled in Ontario, and most of them gravitated towards the larger centres, such as Toronto (N=1,235), Ottawa (N=265), and Kitchener (N=135). No data on the age of the immigrants are available, but it is likely that they were younger and were raising a family.

A similar, often even more pronounced, skewed distribution of German mother tongue speakers by age groups applies to smaller urban centres as well. For example, in stereotypically “German” Kitchener (Ontario) 6,610 persons reported having learned German as their first language (see Fig. 2), but there is only a very small number of children doing so (20 between 0 and 4, and 30 between 5 and 9). Moreover, the total number of German mother tongue speakers declined from 7,790 to 6,610 from 1996 to 2006.

In Medicine Hat (Alberta), which has a strong “German” past, there were no children below the age of 10 who were learning German as their first language, and only 10 in the 10-14 year age group – out of a total number 2,365 persons with German mother tongue – who were reported by their parents to be acquiring German as their first language. The population with German mother tongue declined from 3,280 in 1996 to 2,365 in 2006.

Fig. 2 German mother tongue by age groups, Kitchener, ON and Medicine Hat, AB, for 2006 [3]


Language loss over increasing age reduces the number of children who will learn German as their mother tongue and “the language spoken most often at home” (home language). Research[4] has shown that less one third of the under-10 population who are reported by their parents to learn German as their first language will actually do so and use German regularly in the home; by age 24, only ca. 10% can and do use German as their home language. In other words, only about 80 of the ca. 780 Toronto children who are learning German as their mother tongue will actually acquire sufficient proficiency to use German on a daily basis. The situation is even more critical in Kitchener and Medicine Hat and similar localities.

German in the rural areas. On the other hand, in rural areas with high populations of Hutterites and conservative Mennonites (see the Appendix for details on the two groups), the number of children who are growing up with German as their first language and as their home language is rising rapidly. The following are examples of population pyramids for Fort Mile County in southern Alberta – which is heavily populated by Hutterites – and Mackenzie M.D. in Alberta’s far north where Old Colony Mennonites have settled.

Fig. 3 German mother tongue by age groups, Forty Mile Co. and Mackenzie M.D. (Alberta), for 2006 [5]

In both localities the number of speakers of German as a mother tongue increased substantially over the five years from 1996 to 2006 (Forty Mile Co.: from 740 to 1,220; Mackenzie M.D.: from 3,725 to 6,515), and in both there are very large numbers of children up to the age 14. In 2006, in Forty Mile County, 150 children below the age of 5 and 160 between 5 and 9 years were acquiring German as their mother tongue, accounting for 25% of the total population there with German mother tongue. Only about 9% of the German mother-tongue population in Fort Mile Co. were 65 years of age or older.

In the Mackenzie Municipal District alone, the 2006 Census found 1,590 children up to the age of 9 who were acquiring German as their first language. Compare this number to Toronto where were 775 children up to the age of 9 who were reported by their parents to learn German as their mother tongue!

Figure 4 demonstrates similar developments in two localities in rural Ontario, Malahide Township in Elgin County and Norfolk County. In Malahide TP, the total population with German mother tongue increased from 2,060 to 2,410 persons from 1996 to 2006; in Norfolk County their number increased from 2,025 to 4,580. Again, comparatively large numbers of children dominated the respective population pyramids.

Fig. 4 German mother tongue by age groups, Malahide TP (Elgin Co.) and Norfolk County, Ontario, for 2006 [6]

These two localities are by no means unusual. Similar developments can be observed in Wellesley Township in Waterloo County where 13% of the 3,290 residents with German mother tongue were four years old or younger (N=425), or in the Huron-Kinloss TP in County Bruce where 18% of the 220 German mother tongue speakers were children in the same age group. Plotting population distributions for each locality in the table (except Kitchener, Waterloo, and Toronto) yields pyramidal shapes, but no “trees.”

Intergenerational transfer of language knowledge (e.g., the ability to use German as a home language) also varies by urban vs. rural residence, as shown in the following table. Canadawide, 54% of all persons 15 years of age and older speaking German most often as their home language belonged to the immigrant generation, 11% belonged to the second and 35% belonged to the third or higher generation of home language speakers of German. One would therefore assume that German as a home language is maintained respectably well into the third generation. This breakdown of the cumulative data is deceptive, however. In Ontario, 69% of the group were first-generation immigrants who used German most often in the home, 8% of them were their descendants, and 23% were third-generation users of German. In Alberta, on the other hand, only 35% of those who spoke German at home most often were immigrants, but 52% belonged to the third generation!

When the data are further analyzed by urban vs. rural residence of those Ontarians and Albertans over the age of 14 who spoke German most frequently in the home, very clear differences begin to emerge from the averages: In Toronto, Kitchener, Waterloo, Edmonton (and, almost in Calgary) more than 90% of this group consisted of German-speaking immigrants, while the numbers of those in these cities who used German in the second generation made up only about 5%, and a mere 1% or 2% spoke German at home in the third or higher generation. Evidently, intergenerational transfer of German as a home language from the first to the second, and even more so, to the third is very low in these urban areas. 

Table 1a  Number of persons speaking German most often at home for the population 15 years and over, by generation, 2006

Source: Statistics Canada, 2006 Census of Population, Statistics Canada catalogue no. 97-555-XCB2006038.

In the rural areas in Ontario and Alberta referenced above, the breakdown is rather different and shows distinct patterns. In Malahide Township in Elgin County (Ontario), 81% of the 690 persons who spoke German most often at home belonged to the first generation; a similarly high percentage was observed for neighbouring Norfolk County. On the other hand, in Wellesley TWP (Waterloo County) and Huron Kinloss (Bruce County), more than 90% of the group members belonged to the third generation.

Although detailed statistics are regrettably not available, these townships have been foremost among those to which conservative Mennonites from Central and South America have emigrated or re-immigrated. Since the late 1960s the dominant destination in Canada has been the intensive farming and industrial region focusing on the counties of Essex, Chatham-Kent, Elgin, and Norfolk and extending all the way north to Bruce and Grey. Most recently, large numbers of Low German-speaking returnees from Mexico, Belize, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. [7] According to the Regional Manager of the Mennonite Central Committee Aylmer Resource Centre, at least 10,000 people in the area were estimated to listen to a low-power FM Low German radio station in 2004 which had been put up recently. [8] 

The difference in the two patterns of intergenerational language transfer can be explained by the fact that the groups in Wellesley and Huron-Kinloss are well-established and have not had as many new immigrants as the groups in Malahide TWP and Norfolk County. Obviously the percentage of immigrants using German as a home language in these areas will be higher.

In Alberta, the very large conservative Mennonite settlement in Mackenzie M.D. shows, on the one hand, a very well-established community with 2,640 persons 15 years and older (78%) being third-generation users of German as the home language and the effect of recent Mennonite (re-)immigration from Latin America as 415 persons (12%) belonged to the immigrant generation. The M.D. of Clear Hills nearby in northwestern Alberta also displays both a mature and an immigrant Mennonite community with large numbers of persons speaking German most often at home in the third or higher generation.

In Forty Mile County in southern Alberta with a high concentration of Hutterites there is also a large number of third-generation users of German as a home language (305 persons who were 15 years or older, or 60%), but 100 persons of the total group (20%) were immigrants; they were likely Hutterite immigrants from the U.S.

It may be concluded that in the rural areas German as a home language is indeed passed on extensively to the second and third generation, but this is not the case in the cities and towns.

The distribution of users of German as the language spoken most often at home by age group is also of great interest as it sheds light on future trends in language maintenance (see Table 1b). The first thing one notices is the large number of older Canadians with German mother tongue who speak German at home more frequently than another language: Of the more than 450,000 persons, 66% were 45 years of age or older.

The language maintenance pattern previously observed – language use by urban vs. rural residence – also applies here. 82% of all Torontonians with German as their mother tongue spoke English at home most frequently; only 15% spoke German and ca. three percent spoke both English and German. For the youngest age group (less than 15 years old), the parents indicated that almost half spoke English at home and the other half used German as the most frequent home language. But in the 15-24 year age group 22% spoke German at home, followed by 14%, 12%, 12% and 19%, respectively, for the subsequent age groups. Edmonton showed an almost identical distribution over the various age groups.

In the Mackenzie M.D. and the Clear Hills M.D. in northern Alberta – where large numbers of conservative Mennonites live – the pattern was quite different. There very high numbers (between ca. 80% and 90%) in all age groups reported to be using German as the most frequent language in the home.

Table 1b Number of persons with German mother tongue speaking German most often at home, by age groups, 2006

Source: Statistics Canada, 2006 Census of Population, Statistics Canada catalogue no. 97-555-XCB2006029.

Note: Percentages do not necessarily add up to 100% because the German mother tongue speakers who spoke French at home, English and French, French and a non-official language, and English and French and a non-official language were ignored because of their low frequencies in the locations selected.

Similar age distributions can be found wherever Hutterites live in western Canada. More detail on the use and maintenance of the German language among Hutterites and Mennonites may be found in the Appendix.

1.3 The implications of language loss

Language loss appears to be an unavoidable fact of life in almost all linguistic groups, especially if there is no replenishment of the linguistic pool by immigration. While to some the loss of one’s mother tongue and home language is considered regrettable, this view has not always been shared by everyone and at all times. For a hundred years, Canadian censuses have observed the readiness with which German speakers surrendered their mother tongue in favour of English [9], and around the turn of the 19th century “the Germans” were particularly welcome in Canada because they caused so little difficulty by not insisting on maintaining a separate cultural and linguistic identity. [10] As a German-speaking immigrant to Alberta observed more than 100 years ago:I had studied some French in the school in Russia, but no English. After two or three months I had no problem to understand people and started gradually thinking in English. After that I was on my way to becoming a new Canadian. [11]


We did not speak German at home. After all, we were in Canada now. [12]

The Canadian government has been aware of the trend of language transfer from the unofficial to one of the official languages for many decades. In 1971, it was observed that

 [i]n the [Prairie Region], it is unlikely that the concentration of non-official languages will continue much beyond the present generation. ...

The ultimate transfer to French or English home language by individuals who have learned non-official languages as mother tongues or their children appears to be a virtual certainty...

The language transfer of non-official languages to English and French is concerned mainly with post-World-War II immigrants. The children of these immigrants, and certainly these immigrants’ grandchildren, will be able to speak only English and French.

The 1981 Census stated that “the minority languages are not maintaining their position,” [15] with the shift taking place predominantly towards English. In 2006, it was reported that “most of the children and grandchildren of [German, Italian, Ukrainian and Polish] immigrants have English or French as their mother tongue. As such, they no longer contribute to the growth of the language group of their parents or grandparents.” [16]

German as a home language. From 1971 until 1996 the census asked which language was spoken most often in the home, and the results were evaluated in a comparable manner (from 1996 on, the Census used different survey methodologies, and the figures are no longer comparable; see below). Table 2 shows that over these 25 years the use of German as a home language in Canada fell from 213,350 to 114,085 – a decrease by 46%. Of the provinces with large German-speaking communities, Quebec registered the sharpest decline with 70%, followed by Saskatchewan with 62%. In British Columbia and Ontario the decline amounted to almost 50%, in Manitoba to 45%, and in Alberta it was 19%.

Table 2 German as a home language in Canada, the provinces and territories (single responses), and decreases between 1971 and 1996; “language spoken most often at home”,  2006

Why is it of interest to know whether the use of a certain language in the home increases or decreases over time? Clearly, if there are fewer people who speak – for instance – German at home, fewer children will be able to hear and acquire it as their mother tongue and maybe become reasonably proficient in it. Unless they are proficient in their mother tongue (and are motivated to do so) the chance that they, in turn, will use German at home with their own children is drastically reduced, which means that even fewer people grow up with German as their mother tongue, and so on. Conversely, if there are more children over a period of time who grow up with German as their mother tongue and home language they are more likely to be able to use German with their own children, leading to an even greater number of German mother tongue speakers, and so on. In other words, the extent to which a language is maintained in the home as the language most frequently spoken is a strong predictor of the extent to which the language will flourish, survive, or disappear in subsequent generations.

Exploring the dynamics of German language maintenance. A recent study by Prokop and Bassler (2004) documented the settlement of German-speaking immigrants and the state of German as a mother tongue and home language across Canada over the last 150 years. On the basis of census and other data, it came to the conclusion that German will rapidly disappear in the urban areas as the first language learned in childhood and as the primary language spoken at home – unless current patterns of language maintenance and immigration levels change substantially. In rural areas where Hutterites and conservative Mennonite groups have settled, German will continue to exist, and even flourish.

This paper will address selected sociocultural, political, religious, and personal factors affecting language maintenance in Canada – in particular, the maintenance of German as a mother tongue and home language – and will offer conceptualizations of the linguistic vitality of the German language in Canada.

[1] Census of Canada (henceforth cited as CC) 2001, 97F0007XCB01002, CC 2006: 97-555-XCB2006007. Note 1: Chinese, not otherwise specified.

[2] Statistics Canada, 2006 Census of Population, Statistics Canada catalogue no. 97-555-XCB2006016.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Manfred Prokop, The German language in Alberta. Maintenance and teaching (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1990), pp. 82-94.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The large 75+ age group for German mother tongue speakers in Norfolk County is probably due to the older Mennonite returnees from Central and South America.

[8] Personal communication from Abe Harms, Regional Manager of the MCC Aylmer Resource Centre. Received on June 2, 2004.

[9] CC, Vol. XIII, p. 551.

[10] Alberta Department of Education, Annual Report, 1903, p. 50; AR, 1919, p. 69; AR, 1920, pp. 92-93.

[11] Earl Clifford Stacey, ed., Beaverlodge to the Rockies (Beaverlodge: Beaverlodge and District Historical Association, 1974), p. 298.

[12] Earl Clifford Stacey, ed., Early Furrows (Provost: Senior Citizens Club of Provost, 1977), p. 381.

[13] John Kralt, “Language in Canada,” CC 1971, Vol. V, Part I (Bull. 5.1-7), p. 24.

[14] Kralt, pp. 72-73.

[15] CC 1981, 99-935, n.p.

[16] Jean-Pierre Corbeil and Christine Blaser, Demography Division, Statistics Canada: The Evolving Linguistic Portrait, 2006 Census: Findings. Catalogue no. 97-555-XWE2006001.