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Words do not have neat one-to-one mappings between languages. You do not need to be a very advanced language learner to be aware of that phenomenon, so it’s surprising how often this seems to trip up the unwitting translator. Read More
In January, this blog examined language data emerging from the 2021 census in England and Wales showing an ongoing increase in the proportion of residents who do not regard English as their main language. Shortly after this, a suggestion emerged that this population of non-native speakers could be the cause of some rather unexpected data collected in response to the new census question on gender identity.
Writing in The Times back in April, sociologist Michael Biggs highlighted what appears to be a surprising finding: “adults whose main language is not English made up 10 per cent of the overall population but, according to the census, they contributed 29 per cent of the transgender numbers.” In fact, his statistical analysis of the available data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows “the strongest predictor of the transgender population across 331 local authorities, as measured by the census, is the proportion of people whose main language is not English.” An example of this trend can be found in the London boroughs of Newham and Brent, which have high numbers of residents with English as a second language and recorded the highest proportion of transgender people in the UK.
The interesting question for linguists (and anyone concerned with the accuracy of the census data) is why non-native speakers might have been more likely to respond to the gender identity question in the affirmative. The suggestion provided by Biggs is that the ‘convoluted’ formulation of the question might have been confusing to non-native speakers (as well as anyone not familiar with the concept of gender identity). Rather than asking “Are you transgender”, the ONS followed the preferred wording of lobby groups such as Stonewall in asking respondents “Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?”. Overall, 93.5% answered ‘yes’, 0.5% said ‘no’ (and the remaining 6% chose not to respond to this optional question).
In response to concerns over the validity of the data, the ONS announced it would be engaging with the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) to conduct a review. In August, the ONS issued a statement emphasising the “rigorous development and testing process” for the gender identity question, including with people who did not have English as their main language. More recently, an October statement from ONS acknowledged the difficulty of designing a question involving “a concept that may not be familiar to all”.
In November, the ONS concluded its investigation into this question and, while claiming “confidence in our gender identity estimates at a national level” they admit “there are some patterns in the data that are consistent with, but do not conclusively demonstrate, some respondents not interpreting the question as intended”.
In terms of the OSR’s recommendation that there must be transparency “about the potential quality issues” with the data, the ONS suggest “users of the data have told us that they understand the relatively high levels of uncertainty in the estimates for this topic”. This statement is rather at odds with confident pronouncements, for example, by the local authority Southwark which published census data announcing that the “Burgess Park area had the highest trans/non-binary prevalence in England – 8.1% (1 in 12)”. The Southwark report goes on to note “almost all these residents used no specific gender identity term”, but there is no mention of the fact that Burgess Park is also in the top one percent of areas where respondents said they speak little or no English.
The future formulation of the gender identity question will likely be in the spotlight as the ONS draws up plans for the next census. Having said that, doubt as to whether there will be a census at all in 2031 may mean this is a moot point.
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