Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Reform Scotland welcomes Committee’s call for Scottish Government to examine languages question

Today (Thursday 28 February) the Scottish Parliament will debate Stage 1 of the Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill.  Reform Scotland has called for the legislation to be used to create a better question on which languages are spoken in Scotland.

Reform Scotland submitted written evidence to the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee’s inquiry into the Bill, following its report Breaking the Languages Barrier, released in October.  In its letter, the think tank noted that the current question on languages (“Do you use a language other than English at home?”) may distort the real situation if respondents believe that by answering ‘yes’, they are implying that they do not also speak English.

Furthermore, there is only scope to specify a single other language, whereas in our multicultural society more may be spoken. There is also a danger that the way the question is phrased conveys the assumption that speaking a language other than English is a problem rather than a benefit.

Reform Scotland is delighted that the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee has called on the Scottish Government to consider changing the question following the evidence it has received.

Commenting Reform Scotland Research Director Alison Payne said:

“The Scottish Government has set the welcome goal of all children learning two additional languages by the end of primary school.  To achieve this it makes sense for us to embrace Scotland’s growing number of multilingual citizens. This presents a wonderful opportunity not only for pupils to learn and engage with native speakers and learn from their peers, but actually use the language skills they learn. Having more citizens speaking a wider range of languages should be an opportunity for all to learn more and help bring us together.

“However, 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.”

Dr Thomas Bak, Reader at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences added:

“While the respondents can name several ethnic and national identities, they are allowed to name only one language spoken at home. This 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. 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.

“However, the current plan for the Census 2021 goes even further, planning to abandon the Scottish “language spoken at home” question in favour of the “what is your main language?” question, as used in the 2011 Census in England. This is even more problematic, as many people use different languages at work and at home. Hence, the question is bound to produce unreliable results, offering the worst possible basis for language policy.”