Children are starting to learn foreign languages at an increasingly early age in Europe, with most pupils beginning when they are 6-9 years old, according to a report published by the European Commission.
A majority of countries or regions have lowered the starting age for compulsory language learning in the past 15 years and some even offer it in pre-school - the German speaking community in Belgium, for instance, provides foreign language learning for children as young as 3. The Key Data on Teaching Languages at School in Europe 2012 report confirms that English is by far the most taught foreign language in nearly all European countries, with French, Spanish, German and Russian following far behind.
"Linguistic and cultural diversity is one of the European Union's major assets," says Androulla Vassiliou, Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth. "Language learning facilitates communication between peoples and countries, as well as encouraging cross-border mobility and the integration of migrants. I am happy to see that even our youngest citizens are being exposed to the joys of discovering foreign languages. I also encourage people to look beyond the most widely-used languages so they can appreciate Europe's incredible linguistic diversity."
The report highlights that an increasing number of pupils now learn two languages for at least one year during compulsory education. On average, in 2009/10, 60.8% of lower secondary education students were learning two or more foreign languages - an increase of 14.1% compared to 2004/05. During the same period, the proportion of primary education pupils not learning a foreign language fell from 32.5% to 21.8%.
English is the most taught foreign language in nearly all of the 32 countries covered in the survey (27 Member States, Croatia, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Turkey) – a trend that has significantly increased since 2004/05. In lower secondary and general upper secondary education, the percentage of students learning English exceeds 90%.Only a very small percentage of pupils (0-5 %, according to the country) learn languages other than English, French, Spanish, German and Russian.
The report also confirms a rather surprising finding - few countries require their trainee language teachers to spend an immersion period abroad. Indeed, only 53.8 % of foreign language teachers who took part in the recently published European Survey on Language Competences stated they have spent more than a month studying in a country where the language they teach is spoken. But this average masks a wide variation of approaches: 79.7% of Spanish teachers have spent more than one month studying their chosen language in a country where it is spoken, while this applies to only 11% of Estonian teachers . These findings raise the question of whether exposing future teachers to on-the-ground experience of using the language should be considered as a quality criterion in teacher training.