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How many of us are there?


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census

A postman delivering a census form. The forms have been sent to every household in the country.

Let’s start today’s podcast by looking at the title – “How many of us are there?” The title is asking a question – “How many people are there in Britain?” But instead of talking about “people in Britain”, I have used a pronoun – “us”. And when we use a pronoun after “how many” or “how much”, we have to use the little word “of” as well. So “How many of us are there?” – not “how many us are there?”

Here are some more examples. Suppose that you and a group of friends go to the cinema. You go to the ticket desk to buy the tickets, but you are not sure how many tickets you need to buy. So, you shout to your friends, who are busy buying popcorn, “How many of us are there?” One of your friends counts, and shouts “Six”. So you buy six tickets.

Imagine a class of children at school. They are doing a project about how they travel to school each day. The teacher asks “How many of you come to school on the bus? How many of you walk to school?”

And finally, two small boys are collecting cards with pictures of famous footballers on them. The cards are free inside packets of sweets. There are 50 different cards, with 50 different footballers, altogether. “I have got 20 different players”, says one boy. “How many of them have you got?”

Once every 10 years since 1801, our government has carried out a census of people in Britain, so that it can count how many of us there are. The first British census wanted only very simple information, such as how many people there were altogether, and whether the population was increasing or not. It counted how many young men there were, because young men could be made to become soldiers or sailors in a time of war. Government officials went to every part of the country, to count how many houses there were, and how many people lived in each house, how old they were and what occupations they had. They counted the number of baptisms, marriages and deaths in church records. They concluded that there were 8.87 million of us; plus further number of perhaps half a million soldiers. sailors and convicts whom the census had been unable to count.

Our latest census has just started. It will count the number of people in the country on 27 March 2011. Instead of government officials visiting each house, the government have sent a form to each household. The form is 32 pages long. It asks how many people stayed in the house overnight on 27 March, and how many of them lived there permanently, and how many were visitors. It asks about family relationships, dates of birth and what jobs people do. It asks where we were born, what nationality we are, and what educational qualifications we have. The government also wants to know how we travel to work, whether we speak English as our first language, and if not how good our English is. There are questions, too, about our house – what sort of house is it? how many bedrooms does it have? who owns it? and what sort of central heating is there?

Some of the questions in the census are controversial. One asks “How would you describe your national identity?" We can choose whether we would describe ourselves as British, or English, or Scots, or Welsh or something else. The form has a space where we can write in our own description of our national identity if we wish. If I write “Martian” (a Martian is someone from the planet Mars), will that be OK, or will I get a visit from the police?

There is a question, too, about religious identity. Religious identity is controversial in Britain for two reasons – first, there is, I am afraid, a lot of hostility to Muslims, at least in some parts of Britain. And second, some people claim that our government gives faith groups such as the Christian churches too much influence, particularly in education. A pressure group is urging people to tick the “no religion” box on the census form, to prove that most people don’t want religious groups to have a lot of influence.

In the last census, in 2001, many people resented the question about religion and wrote “Jedi Knight” in the “other religion” box – you probably know that the Jedi were characters in the Star Wars films. According to the 2001 census results, “Jedi Knight” was the fourth largest religious group in Britain. Will it be the same this time?

The 2011 census will cost our government 482m GBP. Some people, including some ministers in the government, say that it is a waste of money. They say that the information in the census will quickly be out of date, and that the government could find better ways of counting how many people live in Britain. And the census may not even be accurate. Filling in a census form is compulsory, but nonetheless some people will avoid doing it. The last census for example failed to count about 900,000 men under the age of 40. The census may therefore understate the number of people in the country, particularly in poor urban areas.

The Post Office has now delivered the census forms to every house in the country. In homes all over Britain, it is lying uncompleted on the kitchen table. Over the next few weeks we will lose it, find it again, spill coffee on it, write telephone numbers and shopping lists on it, and finally fill it in and send it back. It may be our last ever national census. So let’s enjoy it!

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