Language proficiency and the UK census data

November 10, 2023 by Alison Tunley

Get a Free Quote

Our Accreditations

  • ATA Logo
  • ATC Logo
  • BSI 9001 Logo
  • BSI 9001 Logo
  • DIN EN 15038 Logo

Recent Updates

Buckets and spoons: an etymological tour of death metaphors

The need to translate English into English is more common than you might imagine, where phrases of English are deployed in a foreign language and have taken on an alternative meaning that isn’t appropriate in actual English text. 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.

Language proficiency and the UK census data

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.



Share This Post


Add Comment

Andreea Mohan

Taylor Wessing LLP

We are very pleased with the services provided by Rosetta Translations. They always send very prompt responses, transparent prices and deliver their work product at the highest standards.

More Testimonials

Jackie Brook, Sr Product Manager

American Express

Thank you very much for your prompt and efficient service.

More Testimonials

Conor McLarnon

Maximus Crushing and Screening

I have translated multiple projects with Rosetta now and I cannot emphasise how great the service they provide is; quality, turnaround time and pricing is the best I have found yet. The qualities of translations we receive are of the highest standard and communication from the start of a project to the end is consistent.

For a company looking into translations, I would highly recommend Rosetta as first pick, as the support and service they provide is first class.

More Testimonials

Get a Free Quote

© 2024 All Rights Reserved
Rosetta Translation, 133 Whitechapel High St, London E1 7QA · 0207 248 2905