Almost nine out of ten EU citizens believe that the ability to speak foreign languages is very useful and 98% say that mastering languages will be good for the future of their children, according to a new Eurobarometer opinion poll on EU citizens' attitudes towards multilingualism and foreign language learning.
However, a separate European Commission study, the first European Survey on Language Competences, highlights that there is a gap between aspirations and reality when it comes to foreign language skills in practice: tests carried out among teenage pupils in 14 European countries show that only 42% are competent in their first foreign language and just 25% in their second. A significant number, 14% in the case of the first foreign language and 20% in the second, do not achieve even the level of 'basic user'.
Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, said: "This Eurobarometer shows that multilingualism and language learning matter a great deal to people and that is something we should rejoice in. But we must also do more to improve the teaching and learning of languages. Being able to communicate in a foreign language broadens your horizons and opens doors; it makes you more employable and, in the case of businesses, it can open up more opportunities in the Single Market."
Ten years on from the 2002 Barcelona declaration by Heads of State and Government, who called for at least two foreign languages to be taught from a very early age, Europeans are widely aware of the benefits of multilingualism. Almost three quarters (72%) agree with this objective and 77% believe it should be a political priority. More than half of Europeans (53%) use languages at work and 45% think they got a better job in their own country thanks to their foreign language skills.
Nevertheless, the number of Europeans who say they can communicate in a foreign language has fallen slightly, from 56% to 54% . This is in part due to the fact that Russian and German are no longer compulsory in school curricula in Central and Eastern countries.
The proportion of pupils who are competent in their first foreign language ranges from 82% in Malta and Sweden (where English is the first foreign language) to only 14% in France (learning English) and 9% in England (learning French). One of the most striking changes since 2005 is that the internet has encouraged people to broaden their 'passive' reading and listening skills in foreign languages. The number of Europeans who regularly use foreign languages on the internet, through social media for example, has increased by 10 percentage points, from 26% to 36%.
The European Commission wants to step up support for language learning through the new 'Erasmus for All'programme (IP/11/1398). Language learning is one of its six specific objectives and the Commission plans to boost funding for language courses for people wishing to study, train or volunteer abroad. The Commission will propose a European benchmark on language competences by the end of 2012 which will measure Member States' progress in improving language teaching and learning.
The results of the Eurobarometer on 'Europeans and their Languages' and the European Survey on Language Competences will be discussed at an international conference in Limassol (Cyprus) which will coincide with the next European Day of Languages (26 September).