Scotland census under fire for sidelining foreign languages

A young Arab girl with a hijab completes a school exercise with her best friend
A young Arab girl with a hijab completes a school exercise with her best friend
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The growing number of multilingual speakers in Scotland are being sidelined by the country’s census which portrays a “monolingual English-only speaking country”, experts have warned.

There are now calls for the changes to the next national census in 2021, to better reflect the “linguistic diversity” of the country.

Think tank Reform Scotland says the current system “conveys a negative attitude to languages.”

MSPs will today vote on the Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill at Holyrood, but there are calls for a more suitable question about the languages spoken in Scotland.

Reform Scotland Research Director Alison Payne said: “We do not know precisely how extensively other languages are spoken in Scottish households, because sufficient data does not exist to tell us this due to the flawed nature of the census question.

“We can fix this relatively simply, by asking a better question, and indeed a question which does not suggest speaking a language other than English is a bad thing.

“A minor change will give us more accurate and better data which can help inform government strategy to encourage more people to speak more languages.”

The current questions asks “Do you use a language other than English at home?” but campaigners say this distort s the real situation if respondents believe that answering ‘yes’, implies they do not also speak English. There is also only scope to specify a single other language when more may be spoken.

And there are fears the 2021 census will make things worse by moving towards the question “what is your main language?” question, as used in the 2011 Census in England.

As many Scots use different languages at work and at home, there are fears this will produce unreliable results, resulting in a bad basis for language policy.

Dr Thomas Bak, Reader at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences is among those leading the call for change.

He says the current system “leads to a systematic underestimation of the linguistic richness and diversity of contemporary Scotland, painting an inaccurate picture of a monolingual English-only speaking country.”

He added: “At the same time, it conveys a negative attitude to languages, seen as a burden to get rid of, rather than a valuable skill for individuals and the society.”

Holyrood’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee has called on the Scottish Government to consider changing the question following the evidence it has received.

A spokeswoman for National Records Scotland, which run the census, said: “The aim of the language questions is to identify people for whom English is not their main language, and their level of proficiency in English to support service provision.

“We have considered the committee’s recommendations, and the evidence it has received carefully, and NRS will work with them for the next steps as we prepare the proposed questions to be asked to ensure the Census captures the information needed to shape services in Scotland and reflect all of Scottish society.

MSPs will vote on the general principles of the census legislation at Holyrood, but there could be changes made at stages 2 and 3 to meet the demands of campaigners.