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2021 census shows English decreasing as main language but masks England and Wales’ true diversity

The latest release of data from the 2021 census has given us new information about the languages people speak across England and Wales. There is growing linguistic diversity: over 90 different languages were reported as the main language of people living in England and Wales.

However, the ways in which the census asked people about their language use and language proficiency call into question the accuracy and relevance of the data. Many more people may speak additional languages than recorded in the census.

The 2021 census revealed that the proportion of residents who speak English (or English or Welsh in Wales) as their main language has decreased since the last census, falling from 92.3% to 91.1%. This means that 8.9% of residents of England and Wales – over 5 million people – speak another language other than English or Welsh as their main language.

The top ten other languages spoken by residents were Polish, Romanian, Panjabi, Urdu, Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, Bengali, Gujarati and Italian.

Percentage of people who reported English (English or Welsh in Wales) as a main language in the 2021 census, by local authority:

However, these figures mask wide variation in language use. The 2021 census asked people, “What is your main language?” with the options given as “English” (“English or Welsh” in Wales) or “other”. If they answered “other”, respondents were asked to give their main language, and also asked, “How well can you speak English?”

People who reported English as their main language were not able to list any additional languages that they spoke. People who answered “other” were also only able to list one language, and then were asked their English language proficiency, with categories ranging from “Can speak English very well” to “Cannot speak English”.

The census language question required bilingual and multilingual people – who may have grown up speaking one or more languages at home and others at school or with their friends – to choose between their languages.

Research has shown that multilingual people may already experience conflict around language use and identity in their daily lives. They have to negotiate the requirement to use English at work or school alongside desires to maintain community languages and connections to their families and heritage.

For some people, their “main language” could be the language they spend most of their time speaking. For others, it may be the language they feel best represents their identity.

A person who speaks five different languages would only be able to report English or Welsh and one other language, or just English if they consider English their main language. This means that the number of speakers of languages other than English or Welsh could be dramatically underestimated in the 2021 census.

A different picture

This is clear in the differences between the language data from the census and that reported by schools. All schools in England are required to complete a termly census recording demographic information about their pupils and staff.

In 2020-21, 19.5% of pupils in schools in England were recorded as having a first language other than English. There is a significant discrepancy between this figure and the 9.2% of residents in England who are recorded as speaking a language other than English as their main language in the 2021 census.

It is unlikely that there is a significantly higher proportion of speakers of other languages in school-aged pupils than across the general population. This is because children are likely to live with family members who also speak the same additional language or languages.

My own research with pupils in diverse schools has shown that many multilingual young people communicate in several languages in different environments and with different people. Pupils spend so many of their waking hours at school communicating in English that they may consider it their “main language”. But the national census may not fully capture the additional languages they may speak at home, with friends, in their places of worship, or in phone calls with relatives overseas.

The UK census data is used by many different people and industries, including government departments, public sector organisations, local authorities, charities, community groups, businesses and researchers. Census data informs important decision making at local, regional, and national levels around public services, such as education, healthcare, and transport. It is imperative that census data is accurate to inform decisions and policies.

Regarding language specifically, organisations need a reliable picture of the languages spoken in the UK population and their language needs. This information helps them to plan and provide appropriate translation services, educational support for speakers of other languages, and translated signage and documentation.

Linguistic inclusivity is also important to make speakers of other languages feel valued and part of multicultural British society.

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