MONTREAL - As Quebecers continue to wrangle with each other about whether immigrants pose a threat to the province's identity, new figures show newcomers may actually be helping to preserve the French language.

Data from the 2006 census released Tuesday suggests immigrants to Quebec are increasingly opting to speak French over English.

Some 51 per cent of allophones, those people whose mother tongue is neither of Canada's two official languages, transferred their home language to French in 2006. That's up from 46 per cent in 2001 and 39 per cent in 1996.

The proportion of transfers to English is on the decline, resting at 49 per cent last year.

The surge is particularly pronounced among new immigrants -- three out of four who landed since 2001 and use either French or English speak mainly French at home.

The numbers come as a controversial commission on the integration of minorities wraps its work after hearing a litany of Quebecers testify about their fears of having the province's culture diluted by immigrants.

But the latest Statistics Canada results belie the notion -- often espoused by sovereigntist and nationalists -- that the province has been unable to stop an inevitable slide towards English.

On the contrary, they hint at the success Quebec's language and immigration polices have had in safeguarding the French-speaking majority.

For French-speaking immigrants like Chanthaphone Soutannouvong the numbers don't come as much of a surprise.

"A lot of people speak only French in Quebec, so immigrants have to adapt,'' he says. "The laws obviously did something. People just accept French now. That's how it is, we live in Quebec.''

Soutannouvong's family came to Canada in 1980 after fleeing the communist regime in Laos -- formerly part of French Indochina. Their familiarity with the French-language was a major factor in their move to Quebec, which has an agreement with the federal government giving it a say in who settles in the province.

Under Quebec's language charter, also known as Bill 101, Soutannouvong and his two sisters were forced to attend French schools. It wasn't long before French overtook Lao as the language spoken most at home.

"In the last five years or so I've been trying to speak Lao to them, because before that I strictly spoke French to them,'' says the 30-year-old Montreal office manager.

Quebec created its department of immigration in 1968 and tasked it with increasing the numbers of a francophone majority thought fragile at the time.

Since then Statistics Canada has tracked a rise in the number of immigrants from former French colonies in North Africa (Morocco, Algeria)/>/> and the Middle East (Lebanon, Syria).

"These immigrants usually have a tendency to adopt French as a second language,'' says Jean-Pierre Corbeil, chief specialist of language statistics at Statistics Canada. "Obviously when they come to Quebec they have a tendency to also speak that language at home because their children have to go to French schools because of Bill 101.''

For many years this trend was generally limited to these immigrant communities, while most other newcomers turned to English. No longer, says Corbeil.

"We've seen that since 1971, of the proportion of these immigrants who have made a language shift, the tendency is for them to adopt French instead of English.''

Soutannouvong himself has noticed the gradual impact the province's language and immigration policies have had on the linguistic make-up of the Asian community in recent years.

"When I was younger, people would always address me in English right away. Now I don't find that as much,'' he said.

"There is more French, at least in the Asian community. Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians are from the three countries that were colonized by the French, so it's normal for them to speak French. But then you have a lot of Chinese people now speaking French. Thai people are starting to learn French. I think the language laws helped with that.''

Quebec's language charter, which puts strict limits on who can be schooled in English, celebrated its 30th anniversary earlier this year. Brought in by Rene Levesque's Parti Quebecois government, it was hailed by sovereigntists as a milestone piece of legislation.

And while many anglophones originally protested bitterly against its implementation, most are now resigned to its legacy.

"Bill 101 has for the most part been accepted by English-speaking communities in Quebec,'' says Sylvia Martin-Laforge, director general of the Quebec Community Groups Network, an anglo-rights lobby.

"It's obvious that someone who comes to Quebec has got to know what the game plan is here. They choose to work, live and play within that game plan.''

She added that rather than drive a wedge between Quebec's two solitudes, as some originally feared, the bill has prompted anglophones to pick up another language.

As for Quebec's political leaders, they continue to portray themselves as defenders of a French-language threatened by North America's overwhelmingly anglophone culture.

"We're a linguistic minority...and immigrants need francization,'' Quebec's Opposition leader Mario Dumont said just prior to the start of the accommodation hearings this summer. "It's quite a challenge.''

Corbeil points out that the latest census results will infuse a litte fact in what has been a largely emotional debate.

"If you have more information you can certainly help explain what's going on and prevent some kind of misinterpretation of the situation,'' he says.