Mnemonic: main_language
Applicability: Person
Type: Standard variable


A person's first or preferred language.

This breaks down the responses given in the write-in option "Other, write in (including British Sign Language)".


Total number of categories: 23

Code Name
1 English (English or Welsh in Wales)
2 Welsh/Cymraeg (in England only)
3 Any other UK languages
4 French
5 Portuguese
6 Spanish
7 Other European languages (EU and non-EU): Serbian, Croatian or Bosnian
8 Any other European languages (EU)
9 Any other European languages (Non-EU)
10 Romani, Romany or Yiddish
11 Russian
12 Turkish
13 Arabic
14 West or Central Asian languages
15 South Asian languages
16 East Asian languages
17 Oceanic or Australian languages
18 North or South American languages
19 Caribbean Creole languages
20 African languages
21 Sign and supported languages
22 Any other languages
-8 Does not apply*

*Students and schoolchildren living away during term-time, and children aged 2 years and under.

View all main language classifications.

Question asked

What is your main language?

  • English
  • Other, write in (including British Sign Language)

The question and options that people could choose from were the same in Census 2021 and the 2011 Census.


Read about how we developed and tested the questions for Census 2021.

Why we ask the question

The answer helps communities by showing local service providers where there's a need for language services. These services are for people in their area whose main language is not English or Welsh. For example:

  • the NHS may need to provide translation and interpretation services
  • a local authority might need to improve the availability of English language lessons
  • all public bodies need to decide how they make information accessible to a wide range of users in their area

Information about the number of British Sign Language (BSL) users helps local authorities. It helps them plan services and develop policies to meet the needs of people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

The census first asked this question in 2011.

Comparability with the 2011 Census

Broadly comparable

We have added and removed some categories from this variable, for example some African languages and British Sign Language have not been combined in the 2021 variable. Some languages have also been removed in the coding.

What does broadly comparable mean?

A variable that is broadly comparable means that it can be generally compared with the same variable used in the 2011 Census. However, changes may have been made to the question or options that people could choose from or how write-in answers are classified.

England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland comparisons

Broadly comparable

The main languages included in the variable for England and Wales differ from those included in variables produced by Scotland and Northern Ireland.

What does broadly comparable mean?

A variable that is broadly comparable means that outputs from Census 2021 in England and Wales can generally be compared with Scotland and Northern Ireland. Differences in how the data were collected or presented may reduce the ability to fully harmonise on outputs, but some harmonisation is still expected.

Find out more about variables produced for Census 2021 in Northern Ireland and Census 2022 in Scotland.

Census 2021 data that uses this variable

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