‘Home language’, ‘Main Language’ or no language: questions and answers about British Sign Language in the 2011 British censuses (Mark Sebba and Graham Turner)

This fascinating paper is in press in the journal Lingua here (the link is valid until August 7th).


The 2011 census in the UK was the first to ask questions about the use of languages other than the indigenous Celtic languages, Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic. The resulting broadened inquiry included asking about the use of British Sign Language (BSL), the acknowledged language of the Deaf signing community in Britain. Official and public attitudes surrounding signing – its relationship with spoken/written language; its linguistic ‘validity’; its territoriality or universality; its association with ideologies of disability – are rarely placed on display as they are via the census process. The formulation of questions, their linguistic expression, and the responses elicited may all be seen as indexical of societal positioning.

In the UK, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each conduct their own census, so the question about sign language was differently phrased in each jurisdiction, and placed alongside a different set of questions about other languages. Thus in each questionnaire the sign language question was contextualized differently, and was open to comparison by respondents with the questions about other, more prominent languages including English. Unsurprisingly, this led to different responses to questions which were ostensibly asking about the same thing.

In this paper we describe how the census questionnaire in each jurisdiction asked about respondents’ principal language, and how British Sign Language was positioned in each. A significant difference in the wording of the question – about ‘home language’ in Scotland and ‘main language’ elsewhere – led to a far larger proportion of respondents mentioning BSL in Scotland. We conclude that while the ‘home language’ question produces a more realistic picture of the extent of BSL use, neither question is sufficient to reveal the complexity of the repertoire of many bi- and multilinguals. More generally, the wording of questions about principal language may crucially affect the responses of users of minority languages.