Language, lies and statistics

Speak English, people! says British politician

Speak English, people! says British politician Ed Miliband (Source:

Every ten years the UK government conducts a census, which every British resident is obliged by law to take part in. The last one happened in 2011, and the results are now in the process of being released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The 2011 census contained a section on language. Respondents were asked to name their main language, and those who named a language other than English or Welsh were also asked to indicate how well they spoke English—very well, well, not well, or not at all. This question about English proficiency had not been asked before, and its inclusion was a sign of the political times. In the last few years, politicians have become obsessed with promoting the English language as a symbol of ‘Britishness’. All the mainstream political parties now deploy a kind of rhetoric in which speaking English is a patriotic duty, while not speaking it is a threat to national unity and ‘social cohesion’.

In many countries this sort of rhetoric has a long history, but in Britain, for various reasons, it does not. For one thing, the modern UK is a union of four historic nations: there is no single British national identity, and no single language that all Britons have always spoken. English only became the majority language of some parts of the UK in the 20th century, and it has never been given ‘official’ status in law. Nor, until recently, has its status featured prominently on the mainstream political agenda. The only politicians who consistently raised the subject were representatives of the Celtic nationalist parties, whose concern was not the status of English but the rights of Britain’s Welsh and Gaelic-speaking minorities. Elsewhere in British politics, the feeling was quite strong that what languages people spoke was not the business of the state.

But around the turn of the millennium this began to change. Two main developments prompted the shift: on one hand, increasing popular concern about rising numbers of immigrants, and on the other, increasing anxiety about the threat of radical Islam. This was seen not only as an external threat, but also as an internal one, especially after the ‘7/7’ bombings that killed more than 50 people in London in July 2005. Unlike the 9/11 attackers in the US, the 7/7 bombers were native rather than foreign: most were of Pakistani ancestry, but they were born and bred in Britain. Attention began to focus on the problem of the ‘home grown terrorist’, prototypically imagined as a young male Muslim who had been radicalized because he wasn’t properly integrated into British society.

In 2006, in response to these concerns, the Labour administration created a new department for ‘communities and local government’, whose remit included responsibility for promoting better integration or ‘social cohesion’. It soon became clear that what this actually meant was attacking the ideology of multiculturalism, and removing whatever structures had supported it in practice. And multilingualism, the linguistic correlate of multiculturalism, was one of the easiest and most obvious targets.

In 2008, after a security report announced that multiculturalism was making Britain ‘a soft touch for terrorists’, the minister in charge of the department for communities made a speech castigating local councils for translating material into community languages. This, she suggested, was ghettoizing minorities, giving them no incentive to bother learning English, and so preventing them from integrating with the majority. We all knew where that would lead: ultimately, it was implied, it would lead to more suicide bombings on London underground trains. (Though inconveniently for this theory, the 7/7 bombers did speak English like the natives they were; they even left martyrdom videos in Yorkshire-accented English.)

Since 2008, a steady stream of this kind of rhetoric from politicians and in the media has created a new ‘folk devil’: the immigrant, or member of an established minority ethnic group, who doesn’t speak English and can’t be bothered to learn it. This figure is blamed for all kinds of things: for sending non-English-speaking children to school where they will hold the natives’ children back; for demanding translation and interpreting services that cost the taxpayer millions; for putting up signs in shops that make the natives feel excluded; for fragmenting our communities and threatening our security. Our main political parties have vied with each other to whip up anxiety and resentment which they can then address by taking punitive action against linguistic shirkers and freeloaders.

Labour’s main contribution when they were in power was to ‘reform’ the immigration laws to reflect the new importance accorded to speaking English. First they brought in a citizenship test that has to be taken in ‘a recognized British language’ (aka English—in theory you could do it in Welsh or Gaelic, but Home Office statistics suggest that no one ever does), and then they tightened the English language requirements for those needing work or family visas. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government which came to power in 2010 continued the demonizing process. In 2011, the Tory communities minister Eric Pickles declared it unacceptable for anyone to leave a British school unable to ‘speak English like a native’: young people who fell short of that ideal were making themselves, he said, ‘an unemployable subclass’. Which was rich, considering that unemployment among 16-22 year-olds was running at about 20%–large numbers of young people couldn’t get jobs whatever languages they did or didn’t speak, because there were no jobs.

The Labour Party, now in opposition, has evidently decided that their best strategy is to be even tougher on this issue than the Tories. In December 2012 the party leader Ed Miliband made a speech outlining Labour’s future policy on ‘social integration’. ‘We should start’, he said, ‘with language’. He went on to announce that a future Labour government will cut back further on resources for translation and interpreting, make immigrant parents sign ‘home-school agreements’ underlining their responsibility for ensuring their children speak English, and bring in English proficiency tests for any public sector worker whose job involves talking to members of the public.

Banging on about the importance of English, and the menace of the immigrant who can’t/won’t speak it, is now such a political commonplace, a week scarcely passes without some politician or other making a speech or a comment on the subject. And so far, no one (apart from academics like myself, whose opinions may safely be dismissed as ivory tower nonsense) has challenged the basic presuppositions of this discourse. But the census, whose findings on language were released a couple of weeks ago, has provided what I’m hoping will be some usable ammunition.

If you read about these findings in the media you will probably wonder what I’m talking about, since the reporting was mostly framed by the very presuppositions I’ve just been criticizing. The press and the national TV channels all went with the same story: ‘Polish now Britain’s second language’. In the right wing press, another popular story was ‘22% of households in London contain no one who has English as their main language’. But if you go to the ONS website and take a look at their facts and figures, you may well conclude that the most significant finding is not how many British residents speak Polish, it’s how few of them don’t speak any English.

According to the census data, English in 2011 was the declared main language of 92% of British residents over the age of 3 (around 50 million people). Of the 8% who named another main language, 80% (3.3 million) reported speaking English well or very well. 726,000 said they did speak English but not well, and 138,000 said they spoke no English. The ONS has done the maths: those with limited or no proficiency in English are 1.6% of the British population; those with no proficiency are less than 0.5% of the population. (And that figure must include pre-school children and people who had only just arrived in Britain at the time of the census.)

So, the UK government’s attempt to ascertain the scale of the problem they’ve been talking about incessantly for the past five years has revealed that they’ve been making a mountain out of a molehill—or to put it another way, manufacturing a moral panic. It’s ugly, it’s shameful, and it’s time for it to stop.

Author Deborah Cameron

Deborah Cameron is Professor of Language and Communication at Oxford University. She is interested in the politics of language, and has researched and published on a range of subjects including architecture, call centres, gender and sexuality, globalization, grammar-teaching and verbal hygiene.

More posts by Deborah Cameron
  • Hm,it it seems to me that the UK contains many more millions of people than ever before, from many more places, with very much more diversity and with much higher expectations of what the state owes them than ever before. And this is all as it should be. And they will be interested in maintaining their first languages, and that this is as it should be.

    On the other hand, rights always come with responsibilities, and I think it might be right that if you want to be English, you should speak English. Would anyone be prepared to pay the taxes it would cost, even if possible, to provide every service the British Government provides in all 6000+ languages that immigrants could conceivably speak? Or is someone suggesting that some immigrants are more important than others?

    Here is a better solution, offer all British services (including language induction classes) in English or Esperanto because Esperanto is 5-10 times less burdensome to learn than English, depending on your linguistic background. This puts less burden on the disadvantaged, will reduce expense to the community as a whole and will provide a more equitable welcome for immigrants.

  • Penelope: my point is that this discussion of whether or not people ‘should’ speak English is a red herring: the vast majority–99.5% of all residents over the age of 3–*do* speak it, according to the government’s own statisticians.

  • Many thanks for this very thought-provoking piece. I went from reading it to listening to a program about English poetry on the radio and felt a range of mixed emotions in trying to connect the two. Thanks to globalisation and population movement on a grand scale, we see the commodification and marketing of dominant languages, causing such injustice and inequity in so many situations, as we see regularly in the case of English on this blog. Yet on the other, we see the ownership of these languages by speakers of diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds all over the world. To illustrate, hearing multicultural, transnational English speakers with a huge variety of accents discussing English poetry of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries is an inspiration to me. It also causes me deep distress to hear my language described as a “killer” of other languages and I hate to see it being used as an instrument of oppression in the name of xenophobia, ethnocentrism, uniformity, racial vilification and nationalism. Sorry if I am going off on a tangent. You really got me thinking over my morning coffee!

  • Ingrid Ferguson

    Reading this piece during International Mother Language Week was particularly interesting to me. Here we are celebrating the number of languages spoken around us on a daily basis, and also recognizing that English is such a common language that it brings us all together, while politicians and scare-mongers try to make language diversity an evil thing. I have worked in international schools in different parts of the world for many years, and the main reason that I stay in this arena is the multiculturalism that embraces me every day. I am encouraged to learn more languages than my own native English, and it actually embarrasses me that I do not speak more than one other language well. Especially when 5, 6 and 7 year olds around me readily and easily switch back and forth between 3 or 4 languages.

  • Agi Bodis

    I’m not sure, Penelope, that wanting to live in Britain necessarily means ‘wanting to be English’ – whatever ‘being English’ means.
    I also think that the meaning of ”speaking English” as used by politicians (entailing a certain level of proficiency and accent) and the one used in the census (probably more focused on competency) may not even overlap.

  • Interesting point, Agi. I think politicians are variable and in some cases v. confused about what they mean. For some it means ‘speak only English, i.e. choose it over your L1 or heritage language at all times’; for others I think it really has nothing to do with language as such at all, it’s a proxy for talking about other kinds of difference (ethnic, cultural, religious) which are seen as threatening–but language is one difference you can speak of publicly without coming across as a pure bigot, because most people think learning a language or not learning it is a choice/your own responsibility (whereas being Asian or Polish is not). Obviously this is not accurate, especially if you set the bar as high as Eric ‘speak like a native’ Pickles. Totally agree with you that wanting to live in Britain is not the same as wanting to be English. I lived in the US and never wanted to be American–in fact, being glad I wasn’t American (while still wanting to live there) was more or less a daily occurrence.

  • Agi Bodis

    Thank you, Deborah. Yes, politicians talking about language should certainly not be treated as a homogenous group, I agree. Re Pickles, I am surprised that with the phenomenon of world Englishes, the myth of the native-speaker is still so strong – I mean ignoring the fact that native speakers do have varying degrees of proficiency just like non-native speakers and some NNS’s may even achieve better results on a language test than certain NS’s. But I’m not too familiar with British political discourse, I have to admit, nor with Eric Pickles.

    This was a very informative piece indeed: I used the “multiculturalism has failed” speeches by Angela Merkel and David Cameron in one of my classes last year to talk about (language) ideologies but this writing provides the bigger context.

  • Interesting discussion! I think the whole debate has precious little to do with actual language competence (and in that sense pointing out that 99.5% of UK residents speak English is probably not actually going to convince anyone …). If it’s possible to ignore that many of those exhorted to “speak English” are actually “native speakers” of English (such as the Yorkshire-accented suicide bombers), then that’s obviously a strong indicator that this debate is not about linguistic competence but about belonging and about the political desire for a homogeneous national space.
    Deborah actually has a pithy quote for the ways in which ‘language’ has come to stand for ‘race’ (or other forms of otherness) elsewhere: “Linguistic bigotry is among the last publicly expressible prejudices left to members of the Western intelligentsia.”
    @Kerry & @Ingrid: In my view, the view of language as property (as in “my mother tongue”) is actually a part of the problem because it makes it so much more difficult to analytically distinguish between language competence (the red herring in this debate) and belonging (the political imagining of the nation as a homogeneous space).
    @Agi: I’ve written about the political work that the English-language news reporting about Merkel’s speech was doing in the English-language contexts into which it was inserted without attention to the German national context here.

  • When I wrote this post I hadn’t seen this discussion (in the Economist, of all things) of the equally fact-free ‘why don’t these immigrants learn English’ discourse you get from US politicians and media. But now I have seen it, I thought I’d share the link: it’s at

  • Khan

    Thanks Professor Cameron for a very insightful post. Two things come to my mind: A) the politics of census data for languages and literacies- a very old and established scientific tool manipulated by people in power to achieve their unstated/hidden agenda. I really wonder the validity of such tools when it claims to have gauged people’s complex linguistic repertoires in multilingual contexts B) the assumption that promoting a particular language achieve social cohesion- the history of post-colonial countries tell us a very different story. In case of Karachi Pakistan where I live, while Urdu has emerged as the lingua franca, the state of social cohesion can be assessed by the fact that almost everyday fifteen to fifty citizens are killed. According to government estimated (underreporting) some 35,000 civilians have been killed over the last couple of years. My lived experiences in this poverty-ridden city of 20 million, tell me that the social cohesion largely depends on the distribution of economic resources.

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