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Census 2021 – UK risks missing out on important language data

Date: 20/12/2018

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Draft proposals in White Paper won’t reveal the true extent of language diversity and ability.

Language experts from some of the UK’s leading Universities have warned that proposals for the next census risk underestimating the true level of multilingualism and language capability of the population. They argue that proposals in the recent Census White Paper setting out wording on the language question for the 2021 census in England and Wales are limiting, and that they may therefore fail to capture the full picture of much-needed language skills nationally. The publication of the Census White Paper last week presents an ideal opportunity to debate and improve the census questions relating to language capabilities nationally.

The 2011 census asked, for the first time, about languages other than English and Welsh, and about residents’ proficiency in English. The results showed that 8% of the country’s households did not use English as their main language. Concern has emerged that the division into ‘main language’ versus English does not reflect the diversity and complexity of the current linguistic landscape in the UK, and may confuse respondents who are multilingual. 

Better information about language capability in the UK will assist policymakers and service providers in areas such as health, education and employment skills, as well as informing research into cultural diversity, social cohesion and identity. A number of parliamentarians have expressed their support for ways to improve the question on language, including a recent question from Lord Blunkett on the matter.

According to Professor Yaron Matras, University of Manchester: The Census is the most important data gathering source we have. The planned question around language risks missing out some valuable information. There is still time to make changes before the next national census in 2021. We believe that relatively small adjustments to the questions on language – such as allowing respondents to list their use of more than one language in the home – could provide a more informative response indicating a fuller picture of actual language use as well as language skills.”

Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett, University of Cambridge, commented: “It is important for the government, local authorities and other stakeholders to have an accurate picture of the language skills and the multilingualism of the UK. We welcome the opportunity to offer our expertise in ensuring the census questions relating to languages provide accurate and informative data.”

Researchers have been engaging with local authorities of linguistically diverse cities such as Manchester, with public service providers, and with community groups in order to better understand the impact of language diversity, and to improve the tools that allow government to collect accurate data. Researchers at the University of Manchester’s Multilingual Manchester research unit have also been developing methods to collect information on language needs and language use from different sources and to bring them together into a holistic dataset. This data tool is now available to trial and any new census findings will add to this resource.

Professor Yaron Matras, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Manchester and Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett (Mobile 07947 022964), Professor of French Philology and Linguistics, University of Cambridge are available for comment.

Please contact Ciaran Higgins, Communications officer, OWRI tel: 07716 218474 or email: ciaran.higgins@qub.ac.uk for further details.

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The Open World Research Initiative is a major four year research programme into modern languages involving several UK Universities and a range of partners, learn more  at: ahrc.ukri.org/owri or by following us on Twitter at @OWRILangauges.

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