Reform Scotland


Reform Scotland says proposed question is worse, not better, ahead of Census Bill debate at Holyrood

Reform Scotland, the independent think tank, and a leading language sciences academic, have called on the Scottish Government to change the proposed census question on languages to recognise the benefits of multilingualism to Scotland.

Following its recent report Breaking the Languages Barrier, Reform Scotland wrote to the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee’s inquiry into the Bill, and subsequently that Committee called on the Government to consider changing the question.

The think tank has today restated its suggested solution. The question in the 2011 Scottish census was:

“Do you use a language other than English at home?”

The currently proposed question, taken from the 2011 English census, is:

“What is your main language?”

Reform Scotland has suggested a better question would be:

“What languages do you regularly use?”

Commenting, Reform Scotland Research Director Alison Payne said:

“By asking whether a respondent uses a language other than English at home, the respondent is led into the answer ‘no’, because to answer ‘yes’ implies that they do not speak English. Furthermore, if they do answer ‘yes’, they are only able to enter one other language.

“The currently proposed question, taken from the English census, is even worse, as it does not allow for the option of speaking different languages at work and at home, which is a common situation in many multilingual families. As such, it is unclear and bound to provide unreliable data.

“We are putting barriers in the way of people expressing their multilingualism, and the way the question is phrased creates an underlying assumption that speaking other languages is somehow a problem.

“This is at odds with Scottish Government policy, which sets the goal of all children learning two additional languages by the end of primary school.

“There is an easy fix here, to change the question along the lines we suggest. We can embrace our multiculturalism and our multilingualism, and treat language learning as an opportunity for Scotland in the world.

“We cannot do that just now, because we do not have sufficient data, and we do not have sufficient data because the census question is inadequate.

“This is a minor, non-controversial, non-political change. It should be embraced today.”

Dr Thomas Bak, Reader at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences added:

“The national census is the most important source of information about languages spoken in Scotland. It is the only source which includes all households in the country rather than just a small selection. As such, it determines our knowledge about which languages are spoken in Scotland and by how many people. It provides the basis for language policy, from education to the provision of health services and from childhood to later life.

“The census is also a major influence on the public attitudes to the knowledge of languages: is it something valuable, to be cherished and supported or a dismissed simply as a burden on public services.

“Ironically, the census allows the participants to name multiple ethnic and national identities, but only one and single language.

“A change in the question would provide us with high quality relevant data and raise theappreciation of knowledge and learning of languages.”



  1. Reform Scotland’s recent report Breaking the Languages Barrier, can be read below.
    2. Reform Scotland is an independent, non-party think tank that aims to set out a better way to deliver increased economic prosperity and more effective public services based on the traditional Scottish principles of limited government, diversity and personal responsibility. Further information is available at
    3. Media: Message Matters (Andy Maciver,, 07855 261 244)