ONS data reveals just 0.27% of people can't speak English

Scaremongering put in its place.

The ONS has released another batch of data from the 2011 census, with a particular focus on how we live and the languages we speak.

The headline statistic is that 92 per cent of "usual residents of England and Wales aged three years and over" spoke English as their main language (English or Welsh in Wales), and that just 137,511 in the two nations don't speak English at all. That's less than half a per cent, and a far cry from the million households which Jackie Ashley in December claimed spoke no English (that claim was later retracted).

The top five languages other than English and Welsh which were spoken as a main language are Polish, Panjabi, Urdu, Bengali, and Gujarati, between them spoken by just over 1.5 million people.

In Wales, the census asks if "English or Welsh" is the respondent's main language: as a result, it does not record how many people in Wales speak Welsh as their main language as opposed to English. It does, however, record that 562,000 people in Wales can speak Welsh; and it also records that 8,248 people in England speak Welsh as their main language. Given those figures, it seems likely that the second most frequent "main language" in England and Wales is Polish. For it to be otherwise, nearly every person in Wales who speaks Welsh would have to speak it as their first language.

The proportion of people speaking languages other than English (and Welsh) varies greatly across regions. In London, over a fifth of people gave something other than English as their main language, but in the North East, it was just 2.8 per cent. Of the people who don't speak English as their main language, however, the proportion who don't speak English at all remains relatively stable. Around 3 per cent of people who have a main language other than English don't speak English at all.

Redcar and Cleveland, in North Yorkshire, is the place with the highest proportion of people with English as a first language (99.3 per cent of people), but the Isles of Scilly are the place where you are least likely to meet anyone who can't speak English, because, according to the census, every single resident speaks it at least a bit.

Not every language is spoken, though. 22,000 people in the UK give a sign language as their main language, 15,000 of whom speak British Sign Language, BSL. The census specifies spoken English, so a deaf person who is able to read and write English perfectly but cannot speak it would be included in the 137,511 figure. The Census data does not break down how many of the 22,000 people with sign language as their main language fall into that category, but for obvious reasons, it is likely to be higher than the 3 per cent which is normal for spoken languages.

As an additional present to data addicts, the ONS has opened its Neighbourhood Statistics page, which lets you search for your postcode and see data down to ward level. I was intrigued to find that my ward of 1,700 people has a population density of 144 per hectare, and is almost exactly half and half terraced and flats. What will you find?

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.