The Census may fail to capture the UK’s language diversity, researchers warn

Researchers at The University of Manchester’s Multilingual Manchester research unit have advised the Office for National Statistics that the next Census is likely to fail to fully capture the UK’s language diversity.

The questions set to appear in the 2021 Census were published last week in a government White Paper - however, the researchers say that the question ‘What is your main language’ is interpreted differently by different people, and as a result the statistics fail to show the whole picture.

The question was first introduced in the 2011 Census - the results showed that over 8% of the population declared a ‘main language’ other than English, and that Polish was the second most widely spoken language in England and Wales, after English.

“Some people interpreted ‘main language’ as the language they know best, others as the one they learned first, others took it to refer to the language they used most frequently, and some to the one they felt emotionally most attached to”, says Professor Yaron Matras, who leads Multilingual Manchester.

His critique is shared by researchers at the universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, and Lancaster, who together signed an open letter earlier this year asking the Office for National Statistics to consider amending the question.

The current wording only allows respondents to list a single language other than English - this ignores the reality of many multilingual households across the UK, where more than one language is used in the home.
Professor Yaron Matras

The researchers suggest as an alternative wording - ‘Which languages are used in the household?’. Support has come from Shadow Immigration Minister Afzal Khan MP, Lord David Blunkett, and the Chief Executive of Manchester City Council, Joanne Roney OBE - she wrote to the UK Statistics Authority to say that collecting more accurate information on languages would help local authorities to improve services.

The researchers pointed out that other countries with an English speaking majority - such as New Zealand, Australia, Canada and South Africa - have better-worded questions on language in their census questionnaires, and allow multiple responses.

“We are hoping that the UK might learn from these countries, which all have an established history of immigration, and that the UK might in this way adjust to the reality of a globalised and open world”, says Professor Matras.

So far, the Office for National Statistics has agreed to consider revising the guidance notes for users in response to the suggestions made by the researchers, in an effort to introduce more clarity for the term ‘main language’, but it is still ruling out allowing users to list more than one language other than English.

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