Languages of the UK

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Which languages are spoken in the UK?

Which languages are spoken in the UK? This is a question asked by many of our clients. Unfortunately there are no official figures on the subject which makes the question a difficult one to answer, and in turn, raises the additional question of which languages to support when producing a campaign.

So, we have compiled the following research over a number of years to help various campaigns and public communication initiatives.

The research that we have done in this field has looked at the following areas to help us to answer the question of, which languages should I be translating for the UK home market?

  • The information gathered by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in the Census 2001,
  • Which languages are supported when the Government translate for the home market, and,
  • The current social-economic situation.

This page is a consolidation of the research that we have found on the subject and shows an insight into which languages are spoken in the UK. If you have any comments about this research please use the contact page on this website.

Census 2001

In an ideal world we would be able to get this information directly from the results of the Census in 2001, but the question ‘which language do you speak/understand best’ wasn’t included in the Census.

Perhaps this question wasn’t included because it is irrelevant if asked in a language that is not understood “ it is no use asking a Chinese speaker what language they speak in English. To pre-empt this, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) carried out their own research into what languages are spoken in the UK, this was done in partnership with Local Authorities in England and Wales.

After this data had been analysed the ONS provided linguistic support in the following languages for Census 2001.

  • Albanian/Kosovan, Arabic, Bengali, Chinese (Cantonese), Croatian, Farsi /Persian, French, German, Greek, Gujerati, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Serbian, Somali, Spanish, Swahili, Turkish, Urdu and Vietnamese.

Additional Languages for 2008

Given the recent increase in economic migration from countries in Central Europe, we would also add the following to the list.

  • Bulgarian, Czech, Estonian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Romanian, Slovak and Slovenian.

Consideration must also be made for the native languages of the UK such as Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Scots, Cornish, Irish and (of course) English.

And then cross-referencing this against what languages are supported by the Central Office of Information (COI), we can conclude that the list of languages below will cover the vast majority of the current UK population.

  • Albanian/Kosovan, Arabic, Bengali, Bulgarian, Chinese, Cornish, Croatian, Czech, English, Estonian, Farsi /Persian, French, German, Greek, Gujerati, Hindi, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Somali, Spanish, Swahili, Tamil, Turkish, Urdu, Vietnamese and Welsh.

While this information is very useful if a UK wide campaign is planned (or if budgets are not an issue), most projects will be specific to a particular region and therefore we need to know which communities are concentrated in which areas.

This information can be gained from looking at local populations and their country of birth. In other words what percentage of a local population is born abroad.

Born abroad

As the global economy accelerates, the flow of information, investment and industry across international borders means that people with different languages and cultures follow the opportunities this creates.

The UK is one of the strongest economies in Europe and has had years of low inflation, low unemployment, relatively low-interest rates and the City of London is now one of the world’s major financial centres “ this all leads to an attractive proposition when attracting migrants.

This has lead to an increasingly culturally (and linguistically) diverse UK.

To illustrate this point the graph below shows the growth in the number of people that were not born in the United Kingdom that are now currently residing here. The figures were part of a survey done by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPRR) entitled the New Immigrant Communities Study. It shows that there are 4.3 million people living in the UK (and consuming public services and products) that were not born here.

Given that this figure has grown at 38% between the years of 1991-2001 we have assumed that this growth will continue (safe assumption given the new entrants in the EU). This played forward gives a figure of approx 6 million people living but not born in the UK in 2011, 10% of the UK population.

What languages where?

Looking at research provided by the BBC, the Institute for Public Policy Research and Sheffield University Social and Spatial Inequalities Research Group, we are able to give an overview of which groups of people live in which area and therefore an indication of the languages spoken in each region.

For instance, looking at the London region the data shows that (in 2001) 1.7m people living in London in 2001 were born outside of Britain. The following 10 countries and regions were the most common birthplaces of these 1.7m people, accounting for ~50% (the languages spoken there are provided in brackets).

  • India (Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, Gujerati and Tamil (Although there are many others))
  • Caribbean (English, French, Spanish and Dutch)
  • South and East Africa (Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Amharic, Chichewa, Oromo and English)
  • Bangladesh (Bengali)
  • Nigeria (English is the official language but others include Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa)
  • Pakistan (Urdu, English and Pashto)
  • Kenya (Swahili and English)
  • Central and West Africa (Swahili, Kirundi, Yoruba and Hausa)
  • The Far East (Arabic, Farsi, Kurdish, Pashto and Sorani)
  • Sri Lanka (Tamil)

In total 25% of the city’s population was born abroad, this was 18% in 1991, an increase of 38%. This is not uniform all over the city with the largest percentage of born abroad residents residing in Wembley where 52% of people were born abroad (the most common places of birth being India, Caribbean and Sri Lanka). While the lowest was Upminster at 4% of the population (the most common places of birth being India, Africa and the Caribbean).

So, armed with this information you will be able to make better choices about what to translate and what languages to provide support for in your projects. When purchasing language services make sure that you use one of the UK government Frameworks, as these offers considerable savings and improved flexibility over previous agreements.

If you have any comments about the research please do contact us, we welcome all feedback.