Yaron Matras, Professor of Linguistics, discusses the importance of changing the census question “What is your main language?” and the impact this change could have.
- The census question on language lacks a clear definition of what it means by ‘main language’ and forces multilingual households to select just one language.
- The Brexit debate includes conversations about the importance of languages for international relations, raising questions about the value of languages for the UK.
- National policy and the efforts of lobbyists should take a holistic approach that is both outwards and inwards looking, and changing the census question can inform these decisions.
In the coming weeks, Parliament is due to consider a White Paper on the Census 2021 questionnaire for England and Wales. The draft includes the question “What is your main language?”, first introduced in 2011. Back then, 8% of the population declared a ‘main language’ other than English or Welsh. They included around half a million speakers of Polish and a combined total of more than a million for Panjabi, Urdu, Bengali and Gujarati. Net migration has since risen and it is likely that the number will now be significantly higher.
Crucially, there is evidence that the way the question was worded led many respondents to under-report their use of other languages.
The problem with the question
For a start, many were confused by the term ‘main’ and whether it referred to first language, preferred language, or the one used most frequently. The Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) own survey showed that the question placed a ‘burden’ on respondents. Dataset triangulation indicates that many adult respondents listed the official national language of their country of origin rather than their family or ethnic language.
Another problem was that the questionnaire only allowed one ‘main language’. Multilingual households, where, for example, Urdu is spoken alongside Panjabi or a combination is used with English, were forced to withhold information.
As a result, the census failed to provide a full picture of the country’s language diversity, or of language needs and skills.
Other countries with an English-speaking majority have much more fine-tuned questions. New Zealand asks in which languages respondents can have a conversation about everyday things. Canada asks respondents to list any language used on a regular basis. South Africa asks which two languages are spoken most often in the household. The US, Australia, Ireland and Scotland ask whether a language other than English is spoken in the home.
Over the past year I and a group of fellow researchers have been trying to persuade ONS officials to consider revising the question, but so far to no avail. Why is England playing stubborn and isolating itself on this issue from the rest of the English-speaking world?
Language and Brexit
Public discussions over the past couple of years have seen claims and counter-claims about language. The Brexit debate was accompanied by linguaphobic arguments such as Nigel Farage’s assertion that “there are entire areas of our cities where nobody speaks English”. Following the referendum, there were reports of violent attacks against residents who were heard speaking other languages. In October 2016, Theresa May used her Brexit speech to the Conservative conference to declare that Britain will succeed on the global stage because “our language is the language of the world”. At the same time, the British Academy suggested that a shortage of foreign language skills is costing the UK 3.5% of GDP, and the British Council argued that in the run up to Brexit language skills are “more vital than ever” if the UK is to remain ‘outward looking’ and ‘open for business’.
The concerns are driven by reports of a continuing decline in the uptake of secondary school qualifications in languages, especially French and German, and falling student numbers in university degree courses in Modern Languages. Some commentators have proposed that as migration from the EU is reduced, the employability of UK language graduates could increase, leading to a rise in language studies as people “seek to take advantage of the skills gap the breakup with the EU will open”. In August 2018, School Standards Minister Nick Gibb announced an initiative to boost language skills, stating: “It has never been more important for young people to learn a foreign language than now.”
Many stakeholders feel that this is not enough. In February 2019, the four national academies called on the government to develop a national strategy for languages. This was echoed by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Languages, which called for a “national recovery programme for modern languages”, while a group of researchers is asking the government to appoint a ‘Chief Government Linguist’ to coordinate language policy.
Much of the emphasis has been on the suggestion that language skills can give the UK an advantage in areas such as national security, defence, soft power, and diplomacy, as well as trade; there seems to be a perception that ‘Rule Britannia’ could be an effective argument to get the attention of policy makers. Academics in Modern Languages are of course concerned not just about the national interest, but also about the future of their disciplines. Since 2009, the field has been in crisis mode, its membership described as feeling “beleaguered”. Some academics admit that the discipline is “fragmented” and needs to re-think its identity, and others call for reform. They want to re-consider the mission statement and portfolio, especially of the distinction between ‘modern’ and ‘community’ languages.
Changing the census question
The census question on languages is an instrument that is both symbolic and practical. The study of German and French may be in decline, but the number of young people who attend weekend supplementary schools to study the ‘heritage’ languages of their parents is at an all-time high. Yet they receive little support either from government, or from universities.
National policy and the efforts of lobbyists should take a holistic approach that is both outwards and inwards looking. Languages are important on the global arena, but they are also an integral feature of Britain’s diverse society. We need to understand our population and support the cultural confidence and skills of all residents. Amending the census question would give us a sharper picture of the country’s multilingual reality. It would also signal a break with the monolingual mindset that has been guiding policy in England so far. That would be an important step toward repairing community relations as well as an international image that have both been badly damaged by the Brexit decision.