Foreign language learning statistics

Data extracted in January 2016. Most recent data: Further Eurostat information, Main tables and Database. Planned article update: January 2017.

Currently there are 24 official languages recognised within the European Union (EU), in addition to which there are regional, minority languages, and languages spoken by migrant populations.

In 1958, legislation specified German, French, Italian and Dutch as the official and working languages of the European Union’s (EU) predecessor, the European Communities. There have always been fewer official languages than EU Member States, as some share common languages, for example in Belgium where the official languages are Dutch, French and German, while in Cyprus the majority of the population speaks Greek. Since Croatia’s accession there are 24 official languages recognised within the EU. In addition there are indigenous regional, minority languages (such as Catalan, Galician and Basque in Spain, or Welsh and Scottish Gaelic in the United Kingdom), and languages that have been brought into the EU by migrant populations, notably Arabic, Turkish, Urdu, Hindi and Chinese. Some regional languages, such as Catalan and Welsh, have gained a status as co-official languages of the EU and the official use of such languages can be authorised on the basis of an administrative arrangement concluded between the Council and the requesting EU Member State.

School and other educational institutions provide the main opportunity for the vast majority of people to learn languages, while linguistic diversity is actively encouraged within many further education establishments and workplaces. This article presents statistics on language learning in primary and secondary schools of the EU Member States, EFTA and candidate countries.

Figure 1: Proportion of pupils in primary education learning foreign languages, by language, 2014 (1)
(%)
Source: Eurostat (educ_ilang) and (educ_uoe_lang01), UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), OECD
Table 1: Foreign languages learnt per pupil in upper secondary education
(general), 2009 and 2014 (1)
(%)
Source: Eurostat (educ_ilang) and (educ_uoe_lang01), Unesco Institute for Statistics (UIS), OECD
Infographic 1: Foreign language learning in upper secondary education (general), 2014
(%)
Source: Eurostat (educ_ilang), (educ_uoe_lang01) and (educ_uoe_lang02), Unesco Institute for Statistics (UIS), OECD
Figure 2: Proportion of students learning two or more languages in upper secondary education
(general), 2009 and 2014 (1)
(%)
Source: Eurostat (educ_thfrlan) and (educ_uoe_lang02), Unesco Institute for Statistics (UIS), OECD

Main statistical findings

Primary education

Within primary education, a clear majority of pupils (choose to) learn English in the vast majority of EU Member States. Indeed, learning English is mandatory in several countries within secondary education institutions, and so a number of EU Member States have close to 100 % of pupils learning this language already in primary education, as shown in Figure 1. All or nearly all (99–100 %) primary school pupils in Malta, Cyprus, Austria, Spain and Italy learnt English in 2014, as was also the case in Liechtenstein, Norway and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. More than nine out of every ten primary school children learnt English in Poland, France and Croatia. The relative importance of English as a foreign language may be further magnified because pupils tend to receive more instruction in their first foreign language than they do for any subsequent languages they (choose to) study.

Many of the eastern and northern European Member States that joined the EU in 2004 or 2007 were characterised by the fact that learning Russian was compulsory in the past. This situation has changed rapidly and in most of these countries there has been a marked increase in the proportion of pupils learning English — by 2014 it often exceeded 50 % of all pupils. In Romania, Estonia, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Slovakia this share was between 69 % and 82 % in 2014, rising to more than 90 % in Poland (as noted above).

Luxembourg is also of particular interest, insofar as there are three official languages, with most pupils receiving instruction in Luxembourgish, German and French in primary education; English is only introduced at secondary school. A similar situation is observed in Belgium, with the focus in primary schools on learning French or Dutch (depending on the community and/or region), rather than English.

Apart from Luxembourg, the only other EU Member State where more than one quarter of primary school children learnt French as a foreign language was in the United Kingdom, where this share exceeded two thirds (70.2 %) in 2012. German is the main foreign language taught to all primary school children in Luxembourg, while around one fifth of primary school children were taught German in 2014 in Hungary and Croatia.

Secondary education

Turning to language learning in upper secondary general education (ISCED level 3 (general) ; as shown in Table 1), some 94.1 % of all EU-28 students at this level were studying English as a foreign language in 2014, compared with less than one quarter (23.0 %) studying French, while less than one fifth were studying Spanish (19.1 %) or German (18.9 %).

Between 2009 and 2014, the proportion of students at ISCED level 3 (general) in the EU-28 studying English was stable (down 0.1 percentage points), while the proportions studying French and German fell 3.0 and 4.2 percentage points respectively.

Just over half (51.2 %) of upper secondary general education students (at ISCED level 3 general) in the EU-28 studied two or more languages in 2014, down from 51.4 % in 2009. Luxembourg stood out as the EU Member State with the highest proportion (100 %) of upper secondary general education students learning two or more languages, although shares of 98.6 % or higher were recorded in Finland, Romania, Slovakia and France; note this indicator includes all foreign languages, not just German, English and French. By far the lowest shares of secondary education students learning two or more languages, all below 10 %, were recorded in Portugal, Ireland, the United Kingdom and Greece.

Between 2009 and 2014, France observed a large increase in the proportion of upper secondary general education students learning two or more languages, up from 90.6 % to 98.6 %. Only five other EU Member States reported an increase between 2009 and 2014. The largest decreases during the same period were reported for Denmark, Malta (2010–14) and Sweden, down by more than 10 percentage points. Norway reported an even larger fall, down to 35.1 % in 2014 from 100.0 % in 2009.

Data sources and availability

Data on the number of pupils studying foreign languages are related to the corresponding numbers of students enrolled; mentally handicapped students enrolled in special schools are excluded.

The average number of foreign languages learned per pupil is collected for different ISCED levels. The data refer to all pupils, even if teaching languages does not start in the first years of instruction for the particular ISCED level considered. This indicator is defined as the sum of language students divided by the total number of students enrolled in the educational level considered. Each student studying a foreign language is counted once for each language he or she is studying, in other words students studying more than one language are counted as many times as the number of languages studied. The educational curriculum drawn up in each country defines the languages considered as foreign languages in that country and this definition is applied during data collection. Regional languages are included, if they are considered as alternatives to foreign languages by the curriculum. Only foreign languages studied as compulsory subjects or as compulsory curriculum options are included. The study of languages when the subject is offered in addition to the minimum curriculum is not included. Non-nationals studying their native language in special classes or those studying the language(s) of the host country are excluded.

Context

Foreign languages are essential to ensure that European citizens can move, work, and learn freely throughout Europe. Learning a foreign language is also essential to ensure that language is not a barrier to participation in society.

For several decades it has been mandatory for most European children to learn at least one foreign language during their compulsory education. In 2002, the Barcelona European Council recommended that at least two foreign languages should be taught to all pupils from a very early age. This recommendation has been implemented to varying degrees, usually for compulsory secondary education, either by making it mandatory to teach a second language, or ensuring that pupils have the possibility to study a second foreign language as part of their curriculum.

In September 2008, the European Commission adopted a Communication titled ‘Multilingualism: an asset for Europe and a shared commitment’ (COM(2008) 566 final), which was followed in November 2008 by a Council Resolution on a European strategy for multilingualism (2008/C 320/01). These addressed languages in the wider context of social cohesion and prosperity and focused on actions to encourage and assist citizens in acquiring language skills. The Resolution invited the EU Member States and the European Commission to:

  • promote multilingualism with a view to strengthening social cohesion, intercultural dialogue and European construction;
  • strengthen lifelong language learning;
  • promote (better) multilingualism as a factor in the European economy’s competitiveness and people’s mobility and employability;
  • promote linguistic diversity and intercultural dialogue by increasing assistance for translation, in order to encourage the circulation of works and the dissemination of ideas and knowledge in Europe and across the world;
  • promote EU languages across the world.

The European Commission works with UNESCO and the OECD to collect and analyse data on language teaching across Europe. On this basis, sound language competence indicators and standards are developed for Europe as a whole.

See also

Further Eurostat information

Publications

News releases

Statistical books

Main tables

Database

Dedicated section

Methodology / Metadata

Source data for tables and figures (MS Excel)

External links