Census Studies and Language Policy

Handout for LING 540, Language Policy

H. Schiffman, Instructor

Censuses are faced with all of the policy problems that plague anything that deals with language. It may be instructive to think about censuses and surveys in terms of who?, what?, why?, when?, where? and how?

  1. What? Censuses are concerned with enumeration, and must be able to work with data that can be processed according to pre-existing definitions of the categories asked about. Census takers (who?) must therefore decide in advance what is a language and what is not, and ask questions about language that can be easily enumerated.

  2. Who? The actors in a census are

    1. The census takers, representing a jurisdiction of some sort: a state, nation, school district, territory, whatever.

    2. The subjects, i.e. the people being enumerated, questioned, surveyed; in this case they are "speakers" of (a) language (s) and are asked questions about their ability in, knowledge of, proficiency in, loyalty to, literacy in (...) one or more languages.

    3. The languages in question; this immediately raises problems with the age-old lack of clarity about what is a language and what is not, and what other categories or subgroupings might be used.

    4. Most polities ask questions that fulfill pre-existing expectations, and will not ask questions that result in difficulties of enumeration, or challenge pre-existing notions of what is language, what is the national/official language, etc.

  3. When? Surveys are undertaken periodically, perhaps decennially (US, India, etc.) perhaps only occasionally, or when confronted with some sort of "problem". Some polities will attempt a linguistic census as a precursor to some policy decision; India in the 1910's and 20's (Grierson) attempted to classify languages so as to better deal with census issues. Other polities (see below) are looking for some kind of change in linguistic behavior, or perceive existence/persistence of some language/variety as a threat to national security, etc.

    1. Therefore most polities ask questions about the approved languages of the polity, the national or official (however defined) language, the mother tongue and are not interested in variances from these categories.

    2. Most polities assume people speak the languages their parents speak, and are not interested in variance from tradition, i.e. they are not interested in language shift unless shift is an overt or convert goal of the polity (get rid of those pesky X speakers).

    3. Most polities want either/or (yes/no) answers about language, and are not interested in bilingualism or multilingualism, or answers that complicate simple either/or questions.

  4. Where? Polities tend to prefer that if there are linguistic minorities, that their distribution be territorial , and therefore will not ask questions about the distribution of languages outside traditional territories, for fear that the very question of portability of language (personal right) might induce somebody to demand that right. Polities prefer that linguistic territoriality be confined to marginal or peripheral areas of the polity, i.e. not in the center of cities or centers of power.

  5. How? What is the methodology and procedure of a language survey, and is it ever done without ulterior motives (covert policy assumptions) or without predetermined goals in mind?

    1. Why do some multilingual polities not ask questions about language? Polities that do not consider themselves multilingual, or do not have multilingualism as a goal do not usually ask questions about language: best example: France. This does not preclude France from occasionally doing statistical surveys (performed by the I.N.S.E.E.) in a particular region, such as the survey in the Alsace/Mosel region in the late 50's, when it was finally determined that only very aged people were bilingual, and all younger people spoke French.

    2. The US has not often asked linguistic questions in its decennial census, but in 1916 and in 1940, the Census Bureau did surveys (off-year censuses in the case of 1916) on the "mother-tongue of the white population." Could these special census have had anything to do with the fact that in the following year (1917 and 1941) the US entered wars? The US Census began asking questions again in a sporadic manner in the late 20th century; the 2000 census also paid some attention to these issues, as Crawford's article here points out.

    3. Avowedly multilingual polities (e.g. Switzerland, Belgium, (former) USSR, India, etc.) may ask questions about language, but almost always in expectation of fulfillment of previously defined expectations. Strict territoriality, or an attempt to determine actual linguistic boundaries (conceived of as either/or) are the underlying assumption in polities with territorial principles. (Exception: in early Soviet period, surveys were performed in vacuo, in an attempt to elicit information for the formulation of language policy; subsequently, new questions not asked.)

    4. Malaysia is interested in only one linguistic answer: what progress are non-Malays making in learning Malay? No other answers (e.g. Tamil speakers (non-Malays) have ceased to be speakers of their former mother tongue (Tamil) and have become English speakers) are of interest.

    5. Wars, immigration, and other kinds of disruption or conflict may result in changes in census policy ; after World War II, Germans in Soviet Union were de-categorized, removed from their Autonomous Regions, shipped to Central Asia (as were some other suspect nationalities, such as Balkarians etc.) Treatment of Jews also changed; Karelians were downgraded from Republic status.

    6. Laws of unintended consequences: India redrew state borders in the mid-50's, based on the census of 1951, but this led to exacerbated demands for more autonomy and even secession, rather than calm and order. The 1961 census accepted any declaration whatsoever of language that anyone wished to make, but resulted in many "spurious" declarations that had then to be discarded or changed. In the cases of supposed Hindi dialects, "spurious" dialects were merged with Hindi data; but other minor languages were not merged with other languages. in the 1971 census this latitude was not allowed, and declarations by small groups were simply ignored.

  6. School and Educational Surveys.

    • Here are some reports of educational surveys chosen at random from ERIC/CD-ROM reports. Note what the "subject major" and "subject minor" of the report is concerned with: not just "who speaks what to whom, where, what and when," but also limited English proficiency and other issues.

  7. Linguistic Censuses. These are censuses of an official or semi-official nature, or done by demographers and/or geographers.

    • Grierson's Linguistic Census of India

    • Census of India, 1961, Vol. 1, Part II-c(ii) Language Tables

    • Here is a page from the 1990 Singapore Census, showing predominant household language of various linguistic groups.

    • This page is a form used in the Soviet Census of 1989 (the very last Soviet census), with the original sheet (2nd page) preceded by a sheet with translated notes for various questions.

    • See also the Census of India website.

    • Breton's Atlas Geographique des Langues et des Ethnies de l'Inde et du suncontinent

  8. Sociolinguistic Surveys

    These are surveys conducted independently of "official" studies by census bureaus or official governmental organs; they focus more on sophisticated kinds of sociolinguistic competence not usually enumerated in censuses.

    • The 1790 survey that resulted from the Cahier des Doléances during the French Revolution, which led the Abbé Grégoire to propose language legislation that would ensure the francisation of regions where French was not spoken.

    • Rubin's work on Paraguay (in XPAC)

    • Real Academia Galega's Lingua Inicial et Competencia linguistica en Galicia and Usos Linguisticos en Galicia

    • Results of a survey of other Romance languages including Sardinian, Corsican, Friulian, Catalan, and Ladin

  9. Studies that employ census data for other purposes, e.g. to study topics such as language shift and language maintenance: