For the first time in its history, the 2011 Census posed questions related to multilingualism in England and Wales (see image). However, although this development as such is commendable, it is my view that there is room for these questions to improve in the 2021 Census. In this post, I will discuss an incorrect assumption which underlies the language related questions in the 2011 Census.
The assumption with which I take issue is evident as one progresses from question 18 to 19. Here, the assumption is that there is no variation in proficiency levels within the group of people who mark English as their “main language”, i.e. if English is your “main language”, you will speak it just as well (or just as poorly) as the next person, who likewise claims English to be his or her “main language”, so you can progress to question 20 without filling in question 19. Depending on how prescriptivist your take on language is, you might find this assumption questionable. Surely, it’s not that contentious to claim that some English speakers have a better command of the English language than others (e.g. they know more words, or are able to use those words more elegantly), or, alternatively (if you don’t accept the former), that one’s command of the English language develops over time (e.g. I certainly hope that my English monolingual students (many, but not all of them are monolinguals) have a better command of the English language after studying than before they started their degrees). To take an extreme example, I wouldn’t think twice if someone told me that Noam Chomsky has a better command of the English language than I do, and nor would I think twice if someone told me that my command of the English language is better now than when I was 18 years old (well, I hope they would tell me that – and, at any rate, I wouldn’t mind if someone compared my English with Noam Chomsky’s, however poorly I fair in the comparison). Professor Chomsky and I would probably both put down English as our “main language”, but how well we speak English varies. The point is that even amongst people who claim that English is their “main language”, there is very possibly variation in how well they do so. Moreover, if we draw bilinguals into the equation, who claim that English is their “main language”, but perhaps speak another, or even a few more languages on top of English, there might be even more variation in their proficiency levels in English. Essentially, it would be nice to know how well English speakers claim to speak English.
Furthermore, the questions in the 2011 Census imply that those who have English as their “main language” have a higher proficiency in English than those who don’t claim English to be their “main language”. Currently, “[o]f the eight per cent (4.2 million) of usual residents aged three and over who reported a main language other than English, 41 per cent (1.7 million) could speak English very well, 38 per cent (1.6 million) could speak English well, 17 per cent (726,000) could speak English but not well and the remaining three per cent (138,000) could not speak English at all”. I do wonder how the “main-language-English-speakers” would rate themselves had they been asked to answer this same question. Indeed, if we were asked to rate each other, we might score all in all quite poorly (think Emma Thompson’s review of school girl English). I would probably say “well” for myself (probably not “very well”) and it would depend on a lot of factors such as with whom I compare myself. If it were Noam Chomsky, I might go down to “not well”.
However, and this I want to emphasise, we really don’t know how to interpret the ratings from the “non-English-main-language-speakers” unless we have ratings from the “main-language-English-speakers”. And this we would only get if we asked both groups how well they speak English. I think that this should be done for the 2021 Census. Then we’ll know what those percentages – 41, 38, 17, and 3 per cent – really mean.
Esther de Leeuw