English language skills
The main facts and figures show that:
- more than 9 out of 10 people in England and Wales (49.8 million people) reported English as their main language
- 1.3% of the population of England and Wales (726,000 people) could speak English but not well, and 0.3% of the population (138,000 people) reported that they could not speak English at all
- Polish was the most commonly spoken language after English
- after White British people, people from a Black Caribbean background were the ethnic group most likely to speak English as their main language
- people from a Bangladeshi ethnic background were the group most likely to not speak English well, or at all
- people from an Other White ethnic background were the group least likely to speak English as their main language
- 3 in 5 of those who couldn’t speak English well were female (Pakistani and Bangladeshi women were 5 times more likely than their male counterparts to speak no English at all)
- there were regional differences in the percentage of people who couldn’t speak English for most ethnic groups
Things you need to know
When asked in the 2011 Census what their main language was, residents of Wales were given the choice of ‘English or Welsh’ or ‘Other’ (rather than just ‘English’ or ‘Other’). Only respondents selecting ‘Other’ were then asked about their command of the English language, so for the purposes of this analysis Welsh speakers are grouped with English speakers.
When comparing estimates for English language skills between ethnic groups, bear in mind that it’s important to understand the historical contexts in which different ethnic groups settled in Britain.
What the data measures
This data measures the percentage of people in each ethnic group who speak English as their main language. It also measures the English language skills of those who have another language as their main language. It estimates the percentage of people from different ethnicities who in 2011 could:
- speak English very well or well
- speak English but not well
- not speak English at all
The data also includes the numbers of speakers of other languages. These figures come from the 2011 Census, carried out by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in England and Wales.
The data includes all usual residents of England and Wales aged 3 and over.
The ethnic categories used in this data
Data was collected using the 18 categories for ethnicity in the 2011 Census.
The data is broken down at the regional level by ethnicity, sex and age.
The ethnic groupings used are:
- White and Mixed combined
- Asian Indian
- Asian Pakistani
- Asian Bangladeshi
- Asian Chinese/Other
- Black African
- Black Caribbean
- Black Other
- All ethnic groups
English language skills by ethnicity
Percentage of people in each level of English language skills by ethnicity
|Ethnicity||Main language is English/Welsh||Other main language: could speak English very well or well||Other main language: could not speak English well||Other main language: could not speak English|
|Mixed White/Black Caribbean||98.2||1.5||0.3||0.1|
|Mixed White/Black African||83.0||14.2||2.3||0.4|
This data shows that:
98.5% of people from both Black Caribbean and White Irish backgrounds spoke English as their main language – a higher percentage than any other group after White British (99.7%), and considerably higher than the 92.3% average for England and Wales
more than 6 in 10 people from an Indian or Pakistani background spoke English as their main language, and a further 3 in 10 didn't speak English as their main language but spoke it very well
less than half (47.9%) of people from a Bangladeshi background spoke English as their main language, 13.2% spoke English but not well, and 3.0% didn’t speak English at all
people from Other White backgrounds were the least likely to speak English as their main language (35.9% did so) and around 1 in 8 (12.2%) couldn’t speak English well, or at all
English language skills by ethnicity and sex
Percentage of people who couldn't speak English, or had poor English, by gender
|Ethnicity||Could not speak English||Could not speak English well||Could not speak English||Could not speak English well|
|Mixed White/Black Caribbean||0.1||0.3||0.1||0.3|
|Mixed White/Black African||0.3||1.9||0.5||2.8|
This data shows that:
- while just 1.6% of the population (863,000 people) couldn’t speak English well or at all, around 6 in 10 of these were girls or women (510,000 people)
- the Chinese ethnic group had the highest percentage of boys and men with poor English language skills, at 15.5%
- the Bangladeshi ethnic group had the highest percentage of girls and women with poor English language skills, at 21.9%
- the biggest gender differences in English language skills were in the Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic groups: 16.0% of Pakistani girls and women couldn’t speak English well or at all, compared with 6.5% of boys and men, while 21.9% of Bangladeshi girls and women couldn’t speak English well or at all, compared with 10.8% of boys and men
English language skills by ethnicity and region
Percentage of people who couldn't speak English, by ethnicity and region
|Ethnicity||North East||North West||Yorkshire and The Humber||East Midlands||West Midlands||East of England||London||South East||South West||Wales|
|Mixed White/Black Caribbean||0.1||0.0||0.1||0.1||0.1||0.1||0.2||0.1||0.1||0.1|
|Mixed White/Black African||0.2||0.2||0.6||0.2||0.4||0.3||0.6||0.2||0.2||0.2|
This data shows that:
overall, the Bangladeshi ethnic group had the highest percentage of people unable to speak English, with the highest percentages found in the West Midlands (3.5%), the North West (3.5%), Yorkshire and the Humber (3.5%) and London (3.1%)
in general, across all ethnic groups, the lowest percentages of people unable to speak English were found in the East of England, South East and South West regions
English language skills by ethnicity, sex and age
Percentage of people who couldn't speak English, by ethnicity, sex and age
|3 to 9 years||10 to 24 years||25 to 44 years||45 to 64 years||65 years and over|
|Mixed White/Black African||0.5||0.4||0.1||0.2||0.2||0.3||0.2||0.9||2.0||5.6|
|Mixed White/Black Caribbean||0.1||0.1||0.1||0.0||0.2||0.1||0.1||0.2||0.1||0.2|
This data shows that:
across most ethnic groups, women were more likely than men to be unable to speak English – and the likelihood increased with age
44.9% of Bangladeshi women aged 65 and over (3,500 people) couldn’t speak English, making them the single group of people most likely to be unable to do so
by comparison, only 5.5% of Bangladeshi males aged 65 and over, and 0.8% of female Bangladeshi children aged under 25, couldn’t speak English
people in the Black Caribbean and Mixed White and Black Caribbean ethnic groups had similar (and very small) proportions of people who could not speak English, regardless of sex or age
Languages spoken other than English
Number of speakers (1,000s) of main languages
|English (English or Welsh in Wales)||49,808|
|Bengali (with Sylheti and Chatgaya)||221|
|Chinese (other than Mandarin and Cantonese)||141|
This data shows that:
Polish was the most commonly spoken language after English, with 546,000 people (1% of the population) reporting it as their main language
after English and Polish, the most commonly spoken languages were Panjabi and Urdu, with 273,000 and 269,000 speakers respectively
Standard statistical techniques have been used to measure how much the 2011 Census has undercounted, to adjust the results and to help more accurately assess the characteristics of individuals and households.
All census population estimates were extensively quality assured using other national and local sources of information.
The 2011 Census achieved its overall target response rate of 94% of the usually resident population of England and Wales, and over 80% in all local authorities. The population estimate for England and Wales of 56.1 million is estimated with 95% confidence to be accurate to within +/- 85,000 (0.15%).
Simultaneous but separate censuses took place in Scotland and Northern Ireland. These were run by the National Records of Scotland (NRS) and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) respectively.
Suppression rules and disclosure control
In order to protect against disclosure of personal information, records have been swapped between different geographic areas. Some counts will be affected, particularly small counts at the lowest geographical level.
Related publicationsQuality and methodology information
Further technical information
2011 Census information on The Office for National Statistics website
Type of data
Type of statistic
Office for National Statistics
Purpose of data source
Undertaken every 10 years, the census builds a complete picture of the nation. Because the same questions are asked and answers are recorded in the same way throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, it’s possible to make comparisons between different groups of people across the United Kingdom.
Census data is used by a wide range of businesses and organisations, including government departments, local government and academics. The uses of census data are wide ranging and include allocation of finances, monitoring initiatives, and benchmarking other estimates. The census provides information that government needs to develop policies, plan and run public services, and allocate funding.
Download the data
This file contains: Region code, Region name, Time, Gender, Age group, Ethnicity, Language proficiency, Count, Percentage