Census 2021: An opportunity to acknowledge multilingualism
As four researchers in Linguistics working in the UK, we have sent a letter to the UK statistics authority, calling for a review of the wording of the question about languages in the next census.
Professor Yaron Matras
University of Manchester
Dr Thomas H Bak
University of Edinburgh
Dr Mark Sebba
University of Lancaster
Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett
University of Cambridge
Read our open letter to the UK Statistics Authority
Sir David Norgrove
Chair, UK Statistics Authority
1 Drummond Gate
London, SW1V 2QQ
5 March 2018
Question on Language in 2021 Census
Dear Sir David,
We write as university researchers with an interest and expertise in the UK’s language diversity.
The 2011 national censuses were the first to contain a question about language other than questions about the indigenous Celtic languages, which were asked in earlier censuses. This acknowledged the country’s language diversity, giving the government and the public an opportunity to assess language needs, to take an inventory of valuable language skills, and to gain a better understanding of a key element of the country’s cultural fabric.
However, the way the question was asked was based on the assumption that one person can only speak one ‘main’ language (or, in the Scottish version, just one language other than English at home). Accordingly, it did not allow participants to name different languages. The division into ‘main language’ versus English does not reflect the diversity and complexity of the current linguistic landscape in the UK. Research has found that many respondents under-reported their use of languages other than English, as the question ‘What is your main language?’ could be interpreted in different ways: Some interpreted ‘main language’ as the language they know best, others as the language they use most frequently, and others still as the language they feel most attached to emotionally.
We are aware that the ONS trialled a number of alternative questions before deciding on the ‘main language’ question (for England and Wales) and could not find a satisfactory question that allowed multiple languages in the response. Nevertheless we think that relatively small changes to the question, allowing for more than one language to be reported, would greatly improve the quality of the data and its usefulness. We believe that what is desirable is a question which would not force the respondents to choose between English and another language (e.g. their heritage or community language) and would allow them to name more than one language apart from English. We know of a number of countries that have successfully implemented such questions in their national censuses, in a variety of ways.
We would be pleased to discuss these and other options with officials from the Statistics Authority and provide any assistance required.
Professor Yaron Matras, University of Manchester
Dr Thomas H. Bak, University of Edinburgh
Dr Mark Sebba, University of Lancaster
Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett, University of Cambridge
Read our response to the UK Statistics Authority
In April 2018, we received a letter from John Pullinger, National Statistician and Chief Executive, UK Statistics Authority.
In May 2018, we responded and you can read our letter here: Letter to National Statistician, 2021 Census question on languages.
Read about our meeting with officials from the Office for National Statistics
In July 2018, we met with officials at the Office for National Statistics to make suggestions for improvement of the question on languages ahead of the 2021 Census. But the officials are reluctant to act, and it seems that to get results, researchers will have to engage more widely to promote a general vision of a linguistically diverse society. You can read more about the meeting here.
Matras, Yaron, Robertson, Alex & Jones, Charlotte. 2016. Using the school setting to map community languages: a pilot study in Manchester, England. International Journal of Multilingualism 16:3. 353-366.
Mehmedbegovic, Dina and Bak, Thomas H. 2017. Towards an interdisciplinary lifetime approach to multilingualism. From implicit assumptions to current evidence. European Journal of Language Policy 9.2 https://doi.org/10.3828/ejlp.2017.10
Bak, Thomas H., & Mehmedbegovic, Dina. 2017. Healthy linguistic diet: the value of linguistic diversity and language learning across the lifespan. Languages, Society & Policy https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.9854
Office for National Statistics user consultation: Reactions to census question on languages
Census question on languages in other countries
Click on the images below to see examples of census questions on languages in other countries: