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The British Academy backs calls for changing Census questions on multilingualism in the UK

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The British Academy today supports calls for the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to reconsider the wording of questions in the Census which collect data on the languages spoken in the UK.

Questions on languages other than the indigenous Celtic languages were introduced for the first time in 2011, providing a valuable source of data on the breadth of other languages spoken across the country, as well as on levels of proficiency in English. This information is vital for the planning of public services.

But the way the questions are currently asked arguably reflects a common assumption that monolingualism is the norm, dismissing the possibility of fluency in two or more languages.

The Multilingual Manchester project held an event today in the Houses of Parliament to urge the ONS, which conducts the Census in England and Wales, to change the wording of questions in the 2021 Census to improve the quality and value of the data collected. Speakers at the event included Professor Yaron Matras from Multilingual Manchester, Lord Blunkett, Afzal Khan MP, and Jenny Cheshire FBA.

The Multilingual Manchester project aims to promote awareness of language diversity in the city-region and beyond. It is funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council as part of the Open World Research Initiative.

The British Academy, which earlier this year called on Government to implement a national strategy for language learning, supports Multilingual Manchester’s objectives in this call.

As the Academy stated in its call for action, English is the bedrock of civic participation in the UK. But the UK itself, as well as the world beyond, is multilingual. Multilingualism is a natural condition in which humans have long thrived and learned to be creative and tolerant. Having competence in more than just English gives citizens windows onto other worlds; it broadens their mental horizons; it does so in a deeply physical way, by teaching them to produce unfamiliar sounds; and it makes them more likely to be curious and respectful when encountering other cultures and communities.

Multilingualism is also associated with better cognitive performance and higher academic achievement in children, and with slower cognitive ageing.

A relatively straightforward amendment to the Census questions would greatly improve the quality and usefulness of the data collected for both public service providers and for research.

Enabling respondents to report use of more than one language other than English would also send a message that the UK’s linguistic diversity is valued. Stronger recognition of the competence of multilingual individuals has the potential to be an asset for the UK. It supports social integration by acknowledging the crucial role of language as part of an individual’s social identity. It would also contribute to our national linguistic capacity, which is vital for trade and business, for diplomacy, soft power, security and our work in international development.

Professor Neil Kenny, Lead Fellow for Languages at the British Academy, said:

“The UK has untapped reservoirs of linguistic capacity. We need to actively recognise competence in languages other than English among UK citizens, and support them to develop these skills, while at the same time increasing the uptake of language-learning for monolingual English speakers in both education and the workplace.”

The Academy is working with the AHRC, the ASCL, UUK and the British Council on specific recommendations on how to improve language learning across the UK. These will be published later this year.

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