Census language question(s)

One of the currently hottest topics among people interested in British minority languages is, unsurprisingly, this year’s census. The questions about people’s abilities in Gaelic, Scots and Welsh are discussed in individual blogs, on Internet forums (often in more threads than one), commented on on ‘newswebsites and there are even sites dedicated entirely to this issue.

Personally I consider the way the questions are set too prone to different interpretations. In Scotland, people are asked whether they can understand, speak, read and write Gaelic, Scots and English – twelve boxes to tick (or not) altogether, plus one for “none of these”. Given how many Gaelic learners (in relation to the number of native speakers) there are, and with no yardstick to measure by, the number of enthusiastic beginners whose ‘yes’ will be more a wishful thinking than a fact, and on the other hand, the number of ‘nos’ from those much better, but also much more self-conscious, will be anybody’s guess. Not to mention that even the latest census can give you very different results depending on which data you use.

As regards the Scots language, as a great many people don’t think such a thing exists at all, others distinguish between Scots language and Scottish dialect of English and yet others don’t, the result will be probably even more obscure than the ‘Gaelic’ one.

In spite of which they will no doubt be often cited whenever they would come in handy to prove that this or that project should or should not be financed. That said, in my opinion they are still better than the question in Czech census, in which you are only asked about your ‘mother tongue’ (presumably they mean L1), with the option of giving two, no matter what language you actually know and use these days. And I’m told that although there are schools teaching through the medium of minority languages financed by the state in Germany as well, their census doesn’t have a question about languages at all.

(By the way, I regret a little bit that I wouldn’t be in Scotland to answer the questions myself. My claim that I cannot understand Gaelic, although I can speak it, read it and write in it, might lead to an interesting conversation with the officer collecting the forms.)



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