It’s census time again!

Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash

21 March 2021 was Census Day in England and Wales. By that date every English and Welsh household had received a unique code and we were asked to go to the census site, enter the code, and answer some questions. It wasn’t an invitation as such – we are legally obliged to do that.

From, retrieved 6 April 2021

I’ve always enjoyed participating in censuses. The same way I often resort to previous census data in my writing, in my thinking – trying to make sense of our world, trying to produce language learning materials with reliable statistics and food for thought, I believe that those who live in the future will benefit from the information we provide in censuses.

But this is a blog about language teaching and learning, so let’s zoom in on our main topic: what do we know about language in England and Wales from census data? Surprise, surprise: the 2011 census was the first ever in England and Wales to ask a question about language. To gather the information, the questionnaire included the question “What is your main language?” followed by two given options (“English or Welsh”) and a third, open, write-in option (“Other, write in (including British Sign Language)”). In 2021 we find the same question. I haven’t been able to double check how “main language” was defined in the 2011 census, but in the 2021 one we can see via a hyperlink that “[Main language] is the language you use most naturally. For example, it could be the language you use at home.”

Questions about language are not always straightforward. In a thought-provoking paper entitled ‘Awkward questions: language issues in the 2011 census in England‘, Mark Sebba discusses some of the challenges that arise when we ask people about the language(s) they use, how often, where or how comfortably. In my current domestic arrangements, for example, I use Portuguese more often than English at home so it was easy to answer about my ‘main language’ in this year’s census. Phew. But my linguistic landscape may differ depending on the people living in our household at a certain point in time. I may find myself using more English than Portuguese. I may find myself translanguaging more than being restricted to one linguistic system. I’m no exception in multilingual families: a pattern of ‘main languages’ may be the norm rather than a more restricted monolingual behaviour around the world. (Let us not forget that more than half of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual).

In any case, in spite of the difficulties embedded in asking, answering and analysing data about language use, it’s important I think to have an idea of the linguistic scenario in any country. So going back to the question I mentioned earlier, ‘what do we know about language in England and Wales from census data?’, here are some facts according to a report from the Office for National Statistics: in 2011 92.3% of the census respondents said that English or Welsh was their main language – this proportion was much lower in London though. Also in 2011, Polish was the most reported main language other than English/Welsh (about 546,000 people, 1% of the population). Polish was followed by Panjabi (0.5%) and Urdu (0.5%). Out of the top 10 main ‘Other’ languages in England and Wales in 2011,  Portuguese, my native language, came in 9th place (about 133,000 people). Spanish, surprisingly (at least to me) came next, with about 120,000 people reporting it as their main language.

I’m looking forward to reading about the results of the 2021 census. With Brexit and other recent events, including the Covid-19 pandemic, migration patterns in England and Wales have changed, and I wonder whether Polish will be so much prominent (in comparison with ‘other main languages’ in England and Wales). I’m also curious about whether Portuguese will remain in the top 10 main ‘Other’ languages.

For now, I’d like to share some English language teaching ideas (B1/B2 levels) based on a flyer that has been distributed to all households in England and Wales anticipating the 2021 Census.

The flyer

What can you teach with this flyer?

Well, the right answer is a vague ‘a lot of things’. I’ll write about 3 areas here for the sake of practicality (This is a blog post after all!):  grammar (with a focus on will and present progressive to talk about the future) , vocabulary (with a focus on phrasal verbs with look) and connections (with a focus on talking about censuses).

Grammar: will and present progressive
1 Read excerpts A and B from the flyer and notice the underlined parts. Then tick the correct option (a-d).

A The census is coming
B It will show you how to complete your census.

a. [   ] A and B refer to the present.
b. [   ] A and B refer to the present.
c. [   ] A refers to the present but B refers to the future.
d. [   ] A refers to the future but B refers to the present.
2 Think: How do you know the answer in activity 1?
3 Circle one of the options in italics to complete the sentences.
a. In “The census is coming” there is an idea of certainty / uncertainty.
b. In “It will show you how to complete your census” will is used to indicate an order / what is expected to happen.
4 Tick the option (a-b) that shows the same idea as in activity 3a.
a. [   ] Look! The baby is smiling.
b. [   ] What are you doing tonight?
5 Tick the option (a-b) that shows the same idea as in activity 3b.
a. [   ] My son will be fifteen years old next month.
b. [   ] You will not leave your bedroom without my permission.
6 Your turn!
a. Use the present progressive (to be + verb ending in ing) to talk about an important fact or event about the future.
b. Use will to describe what happens after people complete the census.
Example: We will be able to know…. / We will understand…
Vocabulary: phrasal verbs with look
1 Read this excerpt from the flyer. Notice the underlined part and tick its meaning (a-d).

Look out for your invitation pack in the post.

a. [   ] take care of
b. [   ] look around carefully in order to find
c. [   ] be careful
d. [   ] search for
2 Think: How do you know the answer in activity 1?
3 Match the examples (1-4) with the meanings (a-d) in activity 1.
1 [ ] I look after three children all day, every day. I’m exhausted.
2 [ ] I can’t find my phone. Can you help me look for it?
3 [ ] When you arrive at the zoo look out for the bird’s area.
4 [ ] Look out! There’s woman crossing the road!
4 Complete the sentences using look out, look out for, look after or look for.
a. I’ll be away this weekend and I need to find someone to ____________________ my dog.
b. If you need to ____________________________ information about him, check his social media.
c. When you go shopping do you ________________________ offers?
d. The student asked, ‘When do we use “__________________”? Her friend answered, ‘When we think there may be an accident’.
5 Your turn!
Write a funny story using look out, look out for, look after and look for. Share your story with your friends.
1 Tick the right answer for you: Is there a census in your country?
a. [   ] yes (go to activity 2, then 4)    
b. [   ] no (go to activity 3, then 4)
2 Discuss the questions in pairs.
a. How ofen is there a census in your country?
b. When was the last census?
c. What type of information do censuses in your country collect?
d. Can you mention any important piece of information from the last census in your country? Give details
3 Discuss the questions in pairs.
a. Are there any questionnaires / polls in your country to gather information about it?
b. Can you state any interesting statistics about your country? Think about the economy, the population,  geography or history.
4 Share your answers in 2 or 3 with the class. Then discuss.
a. What are the advantages of having censuses?
b. What are some of the difficulties associated with censuses (for those who prepare them, or answer them, or analyse them)?
c. If you could create a question to include in a census in your country, what would you ask and why?

If you have any further ideas on how to use the flyer in a language class, or if you try one of the ideas suggested in this post with your own students, do leave your comments below!

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