According to the state, I no longer speak French. Question 14 on census form became a surprising tearjerker for me: Do you speak any language other than English or Irish at home?
I can’t answer “French” at the time because my French-born grandfather Patrick is no longer here to speak it to me.
It doesn’t feel right to count binge watching Call my agent! on Netflix as “speaking” French, but there is no other place on the form to record usage. It seems that reading Patrick’s eulogy was my last official French language act in 2020.
It’s a tough memory. French was a big part of Patrick’s life: six decades living in Ireland could take his Nantes accent, 1940s slang or the annoying habit of calling everyone – from friends to waiters to doctors – with “parlez-vous.” français?” to greet, not erase.
In later years, French took on a new meaning. Alzheimer’s disease didn’t deprive him equally: if you sometimes asked him the same question in French, you could get an answer if he couldn’t give it in English, while French songs from the 1940s resurfaced in his brain.
Now the language is inseparable from my memory of him. I’ve spoken it to him for two decades and I’ve used it for work, education and socializing — but I don’t currently speak it at home, which is the only place the census asks for.
For many people, the language questions on the census form are not enough to capture their language situation. For example, there is no way to indicate that you speak no English at all at home, and there is no way to indicate other languages that you speak or use regularly. Irish Sign Language users are also required to register it as an ‘other’ language.
What about the many bilingual households where children have two native languages of equal importance? What about people like me who are native English (or Irish) speakers but speak their native language to family members? What about multinational couples or roommates who use a different lingua franca, people who use other languages for work, or people who speak one for religious reasons?
If you say yes, you speak another language at home, your next question is “How well do you speak English?”, obviously assuming you are not a native English speaker. Only people who write in another language ask themselves this question – but not everyone who only speaks English “at home” speaks fluently, especially in shared flats.
Other federal states have also dealt with this question. The US and Australia use formulations similar to ours, while in the UK the question ‘What is your main language?’ has become confused. Is your primary language the one you speak at home, the one you speak all day at work, or the one you consider your first language?
New Zealand asks you what languages you can have an everyday conversation in, which might get closer to collecting the kind of data we need for language planning.
By focusing only on the home, the census provides an incomplete linguistic snapshot of the nation. There is no counting how many languages are spoken in Ireland or how many people need interpreters with English for access Services. They do not take a complete census of Irish Sign Language users or measure how many languages the average Irish resident or worker can speak.
Language can be a deeply personal matter, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to what and how we speak. Perhaps it’s just a quirk of the system that a language I’ve spoken for two decades now has no place on my census form.
But overall we don’t come close to giving a complete picture of the Irish languages.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/my-grandads-death-means-i-officially-no-longer-speak-french-how-the-census-gets-languages-wrong-41505433.html My Grandfather’s Death Means I ‘Officially’ No Longer Speak French: How the Census Gets Languages Wrong