Languages in the UK

In the 2011 census UK, 7.7 per cent (4.2 million) reported a main language other than English, a very low rate of bilingualism relative to many other countries. Welsh continued to be the second most widely spoken language in England and Wales, closely followed by Polish, which was ranked the second most spoken language in England.

Contrary to common media coverage, it is incorrect to infer that having a main language other than English means an inability to speak English. This is based on a monolingual fallacy that people can only speak one language well.

In fact, 80 per cent of the group reporting a non-English main language report that they speak English well. Only 0.2 per cent (130,000) of census respondents say they do not speak English. Bearing in mind that the census includes children aged 3+ and recently arrived immigrants – both of whom may not yet have acquired much English if they have a different home language – the reported rate of limited English ability is extremely low.

By contrast, the census shows clear evidence of loss of heritage languages. 7.9 million people were born outside the UK, but only 4.2 million report a main language other than English. In other words, nearly half of those born outside the UK now use English as their main language.

In later generations, all communities show loss of heritage language ability. English is heavily supported by language policy, as the UK no longer requires the learning of a second language at GCSE level, unlike most European countries. (This is a policy regularly critiqued by the British Chambers of Commerce, who cite a need for bilinguals in business.)

So, contrary to panics about declining English use, the census actually points to very fragile language diversity in the UK, with high English ability in bilinguals and gradual loss of heritage language ability.