Data analysis: The relationship between English language proficiency and economic performance

Looking on the ONS website today, I found a plethora of data – drawn from the 2011 Census – on the relationship between proficiency with the English language and various aspects of economic performance.

I chose, using Tableizer, to focus on the data that looked at the difference between linguistic ability and economic activity. The headline figure is unsurprising: those with a poor level of English are, in general, less likely to be economically active (only 47% of those in this category were economically active, compared with the overall figure of 63%*).

Linguistic ability Total Economically active %
All 45,496,780 28,818,355 63%
Native 41,820,374 26,455,028 63%
Good English 2,891,769 1,996,782 69%
Poor English 784,637 366,545 47%

Jargon buster: It is important to point out that ‘economically active’ does not mean simply ‘in employment’; it means either ‘in work’ or ‘looking for work’ – so it excludes, for example, stay-at-home parents and pensioners.

So, why could this be? (It couldn’t be because most poor English speakers are children, because this data set is for residents of England and Wales over the age of 16.)

Thankfully, the ONS provides a breakdown of the data, so we can look at what is making those with poor English ability economically inactive.

Ability Total Retired Student Looking after family Sick / disabled
All 45,496,780 9,713,808 2,397,348 1,796,520 1,783,292
Native 41,820,374 9,422,213 2,021,824 1,462,558 1,658,503
Good English 2,891,769 165,346 342,153 210,531 63,323
Poor English 784,637 126,249 33,371 123,431 61,466

Translated into percentages:

Ability Total Retired Student Looking after family Sick / disabled
All 45,496,780 21% 5% 4% 4%
Native 41,820,374 23% 5% 3% 4%
Good English 2,891,769 6% 12% 7% 2%
Poor English 784,637 16% 4% 16% 8%

(This isn’t quite the full total of economically inactive people – there was also a column for ‘Other’, but it’s quite difficult to analyse such a vague grouping.)

The table shows that the main differences between those with poor English ability and the average is that, proportionally, many more of them – four times the average (16% versus 4%) – are engaged in looking after family, and twice the average (8% versus 4%) are sick / disabled.

There are many potential reasons for this, such as that those with poor English ability might come from more traditional or religious backgrounds, in which it is rare for both parents to work. So it is instructive to note that, although far fewer people with poor English ability are economically active than the average, there might be good reasons for this – and we ought not to be distracted by the headline figure.

There are other points of interest in this data set – such as why those with good English ability are more economically active than native speakers (69% versus 63%) – but I’ll save those for another time.

*Note: The terms in the tables are not official ONS terms; I translated them to cut through the jargon.

The data used here refer to residents of England and Wales over the age of 16, and can be found here.

2 responses to “Data analysis: The relationship between English language proficiency and economic performance

  1. interesting!
    keep them coming… otherwise I’ll perform what would be a very boring data analysis on your number of posts since the blog’s inception.

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