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‘English a foreign tongue’: The 2011 Census in England and the misunderstanding of multilingualism

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<mark>Journal publication date</mark>21/03/2017
<mark>Journal</mark>Journal of Language and Politics
Issue number2
Number of pages21
Pages (from-to)264-284
Publication StatusPublished
<mark>Original language</mark>English


The 2011 UK Census was the first decennial census to ask a question about language in England. The period during which the census was planned coincided with a period of intense politicisation of the language issue.
The census results showed that 98.3% of the adult population either spoke English as their main language, or could speak it well or very well. These statistics produced a media frenzy focussed on the number of people who supposedly could not speak English. There were misunderstandings among journalists and politicians about what the statistics meant, with ‘not speaking English as a main language’ being interpreted as ‘not speaking English’.
This paper discusses the census in England and its aftermath, revealing a lack of understanding of multilingualism and literacies by the monolingual majority. Not only were the census questions possibly flawed, but the results fed into anti-immigration discourse and were used to reduce services for non-speakers of English.

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© 2017 John Benjamins