Statistics Explained

Foreign language learning statistics


Data extracted in June 2022.

Planned article update: July 2023.

Highlights

All or nearly all (99–100 %) primary school pupils in Cyprus, Malta, Spain, Austria and Poland were learning English as a foreign language in 2020.

In 2020, 88 % of pupils in upper secondary education in the EU were learning English as a foreign language: this share was 96 % in general programmes and 79 % in vocational programmes.

Nearly half (49 %) of pupils in upper secondary education were learning two or more foreign languages in 2020.

Proportion of pupils in lower secondary education learning two or more foreign languages, 2013 and 2020
(%)
Source: Eurostat (educ_uoe_lang02)

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 other education establishments and workplaces. This article presents statistics on language learning in primary and secondary schools of the European Union (EU) Member States as well as EFTA and enlargement countries. It forms part of an online publication on education and training in the EU.

Currently there are 24 official languages recognised within the EU which has been the situation since the accession of Croatia.

There have always been fewer official languages than EU Member States, as some EU Member States 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. There are also a number of indigenous regional and minority languages found within the EU, as well as many other languages that have been brought into the EU by migrant populations, notably Arabic, Turkish and Chinese. Some regional languages, such as Basque, Catalan and Galician, have gained a status as co-official languages of the EU.

Full article

Primary education

Figure 1: Proportion of pupils in primary education learning selected foreign languages, 2020
(%)
Source: Eurostat (educ_uoe_lang01)

Within primary education, 84.1 % of pupils were learning English in 2020. Learning English is mandatory within primary education institutions in several EU Member States, and so a number of them have all or nearly all pupils learning this language already in primary education, as shown in Figure 1. Note that 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 study.

  • All or nearly all (99.0–100.0 %) primary school pupils in Cyprus, Malta, Spain and Austria were learning English as a foreign language, as was also the case in Liechtenstein, Norway and North Macedonia. Between 90.0 % and 99.0 % of primary school pupils were learning English in Poland, Greece, Latvia, France, Italy, Sweden and Croatia.
  • In all but two of the Member States, at least two fifths of primary school pupils were learning English.
    • In Belgium, 13.3 % of primary school pupils were learning English, reflecting a focus on learning other official state languages (Dutch, French and German, depending on the community and/or region).
    • In Luxembourg, English was not taught in primary school, reflecting a focus on instruction in several official languages (French, German and Luxembourgish).

Within primary education, 5.5 % of pupils in the EU were learning French in 2020 and 3.4 % German. For both of these languages, Luxembourg reported the highest shares (83.2 % and 100.0 % respectively), as these are counted as foreign languages, despite being official languages.

  • In Greece and Spain, close to one fifth (19.2 % and 19.1 % respectively) of primary school pupils were learning French, while this share was around one tenth (10.7 %) in Romania; elsewhere the share was 3.0 % or less.
  • In Croatia (20.4 %), Hungary (18.9 %) and Greece (16.7 %), close to one fifth of primary school pupils were learning German; elsewhere the share was 5.0 % or less.
Figure 2: Proportion of pupils in primary education learning two or more foreign languages, 2013 and 2020
(%)
Source: Eurostat (educ_uoe_lang02)

In 2020, 7.2 % of primary school pupils in the EU were learning two or more foreign languages – see Figure 2. Note that this indicator includes all foreign modern languages, not just the selected languages shown in Figure 1.

  • Luxembourg was the only EU Member State where a majority of primary school pupils were learning two or more foreign languages; the share was 83.2 %, reflecting the exhaustive use of German and the extensive use of French as languages of instruction.
  • Relatively high shares of primary school pupils learning two or more foreign languages were observed in Greece (35.9 %), Estonia (33.4 %), Denmark (30.2 %) and Finland (26.8 %); the share was around one fifth in Spain, Croatia and Latvia.
  • In 17 Member States, 5.1 % or fewer of primary school pupils were leaning two or more foreign languages, with the lowest shares in Belgium and Slovenia (both 0.0 %) as well as in Ireland where no foreign languages are taught at primary level.

Between 2013 and 2020, the share of primary school pupils in the EU learning at least two foreign languages increased from 1.3 % to 7.2 %. In percentage point terms, the biggest gains were recorded in Spain and Finland where the share increased by 14.4 and 13.7 percentage points respectively. This large increase in Spain, with the third largest number of primary school pupils in the EU (12.9 % of the EU total), contributed strongly to the increase observed for the EU as a whole. In Greece, the share of primary school pupils learning at least two foreign languages increased by 10.0 percentage points. Elsewhere, increases were more modest, not exceeding 4.2 percentage points. In seven Member States, the share of primary school pupils learning at least two foreign languages decreased, down less than 1.0 percentage points in all except Poland where it fell 7.3 percentage points.

Lower secondary education

Table 1: Proportion of pupils in lower secondary education learning selected foreign languages, 2020
Source: Eurostat (educ_uoe_lang01)

Within lower secondary education, 98.3 % of pupils were learning English in 2020 – see Table 1.

  • All (100.0 %) lower secondary pupils in Denmark, Germany, Italy, Cyprus, Malta, Romania and Sweden were learning English as a foreign language, as was also the case in Liechtenstein, North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  • In all but three of the Member States, at least 90.0 % of lower secondary school pupils were learning English.
  • In Hungary, the share of lower secondary school pupils learning English was 74.6 %, in Belgium it was 58.5 % and in Luxembourg it was 54.3 %. Note the comments in the section on primary education about learning of other languages in Belgium and Luxembourg.

Within lower secondary education, 30.6 % of pupils in the EU were learning French in 2020, 21.4 % German and 17.7 % Spanish.

  • Luxembourg reported that all lower secondary pupils were learning French. In Cyprus, Romania , Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium, more than half of lower secondary pupils were learning French.
  • In 13 Member States, fewer than 10.0 % of lower secondary pupils were learning French.
  • Luxembourg also reported that all lower secondary pupils were learning German. Denmark was the only other Member State where a majority (76.5 %) of lower secondary pupils were learning German, although in the Netherlands, Czechia, Greece, Croatia and Poland between 40.6 % and 49.4 % were learning German.
  • In eight Member States, fewer than 10.0 % of lower secondary pupils were learning German.
  • France was the only Member State where a majority (54.6 %) of lower secondary pupils were learning Spanish, while Sweden (45.9 %) was the only other Member State where this share exceeded a quarter.
  • In 20 Member States, fewer than 10.0 % of lower secondary pupils were learning Spanish.

The share of lower secondary school pupils in the EU who were learning English was already high in 2013 but was 1.7 percentage higher in 2020. Larger increases were observed for French (up 4.1 percentage points) and German(up 7.9 percentage points). The increase for Spanish was smaller, up 0.8 percentage points. Among the EU Member States, the largest changes between 2013 and 2020 in the share of lower secondary pupils learning specific languages were:

  • an increase of 12.4 percentage points learning English in Belgium,
  • a decrease of 12.4 percentage points learning French in Ireland,
  • an increase of 15.2 percentage points learning German in Czechia,
  • decreases of 28.4 and 25.4 percentage points learning German in Poland and Slovakia,
  • an increase of 17.6 percentage points learning Spanish in France.
Figure 3: Proportion of pupils in lower secondary education learning two or more foreign languages, 2013 and 2020
(%)
Source: Eurostat (educ_uoe_lang02)

In 2020, 59.2 % of lower secondary pupils in the EU were learning two or more foreign languages – see Figure 3. Note that this indicator includes all foreign modern languages, not just the selected languages shown in Table 1.

  • In Luxembourg, all lower secondary pupils were learning two or more foreign languages, reflecting the use of French and German as languages for instruction (as well as learning of another language).
  • Relatively high shares of lower secondary pupils – in the range from 92.7 % to 98.7 % – were learning two or more foreign languages in Finland, Italy, Greece, Estonia, Malta, Romania and Portugal.
  • In nine Member States, less than half of lower secondary pupils were leaning two or more foreign languages. Among these, the lowest shares were observed in Austria (7.9 %), Ireland (7.8 %) and Hungary (7.4 %).

Between 2013 and 2020, the share of lower secondary pupils in the EU learning at least two foreign languages increased from 43.7 % to 59.2 %.

  • In percentage point terms, the biggest increases were recorded in Czechia (up 22.4 percentage points) and France (up 21.5 percentage points).
  • In Belgium, the share of lower secondary pupils learning at least two foreign languages increased by 10.0 percentage points. Elsewhere, increases were more modest, below 6.0 percentage points.
  • In 14 Member States, the share of lower secondary pupils learning at least two foreign languages decreased. In most of these Member States, the decreases were less than 8.0 percentage points.
  • Much larger decreases were observed in Slovakia (down 27.2 percentage points), Slovenia (down 28.3 percentage points) and Poland (down 46.9 percentage points).

Upper secondary education

Table 2: Proportion of pupils in upper secondary education learning selected foreign languages, 2020
(%)
Source: Eurostat (educ_uoe_lang01)

Table 2 presents information on learning of four selected foreign languages in upper secondary education (ISCED levels 3, 34 (general) and 35 (vocational)).

Approximately 9 in 10 (88.1 %) upper secondary students in the EU were studying English as a foreign language in 2020.

  • All (100 %) upper secondary pupils in Malta and Sweden were learning English as a foreign language, as was also the case in Liechtenstein. Shares of at least 99.0 % were also reported in Cyprus, Italy, Romania, Austria and France, as well as in North Macedonia.
  • Denmark (54.1 %) was the only Member State where less than two thirds of upper secondary pupils were learning English.

Among upper secondary pupils in the EU following a general programme, the share learning English was 95.7 %; among those following a vocational programme, the share was 79.2 %. In most EU Member States, the share of upper secondary students studying English as a foreign language was higher within general programmes than within vocational programmes.

  • In five Member States, the share learning English within general programmes was more than 40.0 percentage points higher than the share within vocational programmes. This difference was 52.0 percentage points in Spain, 58.2 percentage points in Germany and 62.6 percentage points in Denmark.
  • In Malta, the shares learning English were the same for general and vocational programmes.
  • In Romania, Italy, Greece and Portugal, the shares learning English were higher for vocational programmes than for general ones.

Around one fifth of upper secondary students in the EU were learning German (20.0 %), French (18.9 %) or Spanish (18.0 %) as a foreign language in 2020. Note that the analysis for the EU Member States below excludes Ireland, for which data on learning German, French and Spanish are not available; it also partially excludes the Netherlands for which data on learning French and Spanish are not available.

  • A majority of upper secondary pupils in Luxembourg (86.3 %) and Poland (62.9 %) were learning German as a foreign language. In eight Member States, fewer than 10.0 % were learning German.
  • A majority of upper secondary pupils in Luxembourg (85.4 %), Romania (85.0 %) and Belgium (52.5 %) were learning French as a foreign language. In 14 Member States, fewer than 10.0 % were learning French.
  • A majority of upper secondary pupils in France (59.3 %) were learning Spanish as a foreign language. In 18 Member States, fewer than 10.0 % were learning Spanish.

The share of upper secondary pupils in the EU following a general programme that were learning German was 21.4 %, compared with 18.2 % for those following a vocational programme. In most EU Member States, the share of upper secondary students learning German as a foreign language was higher within general programmes than within vocational programmes. Only in Cyprus and Poland were the shares higher within vocational programmes than within general ones.

Among upper secondary pupils in the EU, the share learning French was 21.8 % within general programmes and 16.8 % within vocational programmes. In Spain, 24.8 % of upper secondary pupils in general programmes were learning French whereas just 0.1 % were doing so within vocational programmes. Differences of at least 20.0 percentage points, with higher shares within general programmes, were also observed in Cyprus, Luxembourg, Austria and Germany. By contrast, in Portugal, Belgium, Romania and Italy, the share of upper secondary pupils learning French was higher within vocational programmes than within general ones.

The difference between general and vocational programmes was most notable for Spanish. Across the EU, 26.8 % of pupils within general programmes were learning Spanish, compared with 7.1 % within vocational programmes. A higher share of pupils learning Spanish within general programmes was observed in all EU Member States for which data are available except for Greece, where almost no pupils were learning Spanish in either type of programme. France (28.3 %) and Italy (14.0 %) were the only Member States where more than 6.4 % of pupils in upper secondary vocational programmes were learning Spanish.

Figure 4: Change in the proportion of pupils in upper secondary education learning selected foreign languages, 2013–2020
(percentage points)
Source: Eurostat (educ_uoe_lang01)

Among the EU Member States, the largest increase between 2013 and 2020 in the share of pupils in upper secondary education who were studying English was recorded in Luxembourg (up overall by 11.4 percentage points). Increases of at least 5.0 percentage points were observed in Hungary (note that there is a break in series), Belgium, Cyprus, Poland, the Netherlands, Germany and Czechia.

The picture was more mixed in relation to the share of upper secondary education pupils studying German. This share increased in 10 out of the 24 EU Member States for which data are available (Germany and Austria, not applicable; Ireland, not available), was unchanged in Sweden, and fell in 13 Member States. The biggest increases were recorded in Poland, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, all up by at least 5.0 percentage points.

Between 2013 and 2020, the share of pupils in upper secondary education learning French as a foreign language fell in all but five of the 24 EU Member States for which data are available (France, not applicable; Ireland and the Netherlands, not available). The only exceptions were Poland, Belgium, Latvia and Croatia where the share of upper secondary pupils studying French increased, as well as Hungary where there was no change.

The situation for Spanish was almost the opposite of that for French. The share of upper secondary education pupils learning Spanish increased in 17 of the 24 EU Member States for which data are available (Spain, not applicable; Ireland and the Netherlands, not available).

Figure 5: Proportion of pupils in upper secondary education learning two or more foreign languages, 2013 and 2020
(%)
Source: Eurostat (educ_uoe_lang02)

In 2020, almost a half (49.0 %) of upper secondary pupils in the EU were learning two or more foreign languages – see Figure 5.

  • In Romania, nearly all (98.1 %) upper secondary pupils were learning two or more foreign languages. The only other share over 90.0 % was in Finland (93.5 %).
  • In total, there were 13 Member States where at least half of all upper secondary pupils were learning two or more foreign languages.
  • In Spain, less than one fifth (19.9 %) of upper secondary pupils were leaning two or more foreign languages and this share was below one tenth in Portugal (7.2 %) and Greece (1.5 %).

Between 2013 and 2020, the biggest decreases (in percentage point terms) in the share of upper secondary pupils learning at least two foreign languages were recorded in Cyprus (down 37.6 percentage points), Slovakia (down 23.3 percentage points), Estonia (down 14.8 percentage points) and Malta (down 11.1 percentage points). Smaller decreases (at most down 5.4 percentage points) were observed in six other Member States. Elsewhere, increases between 2013 and 2020 were less than 5.0 percentage points in most cases, with four exceptions. Increases of 5.8 percentage points were observed in Luxembourg and Hungary, while the increase in Croatia was 8.1 percentage points and that in Poland was 11.9 percentage points.

The share of upper secondary pupils studying two or more foreign languages confirms a more widespread learning of foreign languages within general programmes than within vocational ones. In 2020, 60.0 % of upper secondary pupils following general programmes in the EU were learning two or more foreign languages, compared with 35.1 % for pupils following vocational programmes.

  • All upper secondary pupils following general programmes in Luxembourg were studying two or more foreign languages. Shares of at least 99.0 % were also observed in France, Romania and Finland. A further nine Member States had shares that were in excess of 80.0 %.
  • In eight Member States, fewer than half of upper secondary pupils following general programmes were learning at least two foreign languages. Among these, two had shares below 10.0 %: Portugal (7.1 %) and Greece (0.9 %).
  • The share of upper secondary pupils following vocational programmes in Romania who were learning two or more foreign languages was 97.4 %. Only four other Member States – Finland, Luxembourg, Poland and Latvia – reported that a majority of their upper secondary pupils following these programmes were learning at least two foreign languages.
  • In nine Member States, fewer than 10.0 % of upper secondary pupils following vocational programmes were learning at least two foreign languages. Among these, the lowest share was in Spain, 0.2 %.

Between 2013 and 2020, the share of upper secondary pupils following general programmes who were learning at least two foreign languages increased most in Hungary (up 28.8 percentage points) and Poland (up 12.2 percentage points). The largest decrease was observed for Cyprus, down 45.0 percentage points.

Poland also recorded a large increase in the share of upper secondary pupils following vocational programmes who were learning two or more foreign languages, up 11.9 percentage points between 2013 and 2020. Relatively large percentage point increases were also observed in Cyprus, Luxembourg and Latvia. The largest decreases, by far, were recorded in Slovakia (down 35.0 percentage points) and Estonia (down 39.7 percentage points).

Data sources

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

The data refer to all pupils in primary and secondary education, even if teaching languages does not start in the first years of instruction for the particular ISCED level considered. The data refer to all modern spoken living languages that are taught as foreign languages. Each student studying a foreign language is counted once for each language they are 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

Learning a foreign language is considered as an important factor for participation in society: foreign languages can unite people, render other countries and their cultures accessible, and strengthen intercultural understanding. Poor or low levels of foreign language skills can cause businesses to lose international contracts, while also potentially hindering the mobility of skills and talent.

For several decades, it has been mandatory for most children in the EU 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.

Language skills are at the heart of the ambitious vision to create a European Education Area.

A Council Recommendation on a comprehensive approach to the teaching and learning of languages was adopted in May 2019, while a European Commission staff working document (SWD(2018) 174 final) provides some scientific and factual background to the Recommendation.

Among the recommendations are the following.

  • Explore ways to help all young people to acquire competence in at least one other European language and to encourage the acquisition of an additional (third) language.
  • Apply comprehensive approaches to improve teaching and learning of languages.
  • Ensure that all sectors of primary and secondary education are addressed, starting as early as possible, including initial vocational education and training.
  • Support the development of language awareness in schools and vocational education and training institutions. Support teachers, trainers, inspectors and school leaders in the development of language awareness.
  • Encourage research in and use of innovative, inclusive and multilingual pedagogies.

Direct access to

Other articles
Tables
Database
Dedicated section
Publications
Methodology
Visualisations




Languages (educ_lang)
Language learning (educ_uoe_lang)