Statistics Explained

Foreign language learning statistics



Data extracted in September 2021.

Planned article update: September 2022.

Highlights

All or nearly all (99-100 %) primary school pupils in Cyprus, Malta, Spain and Austria learnt English as a foreign language in 2019.

In 2019, 96 % of pupils in upper secondary general education in the EU were learning English as a foreign language.

In a majority of EU Member States, more than three fifths of students in general upper secondary education pupils were learning two or more foreign languages in 2019; by contrast, this share reached only 12.1 % in Ireland, 6.3 % in Portugal and 0.7 % in Greece.

Infographic 1: What share of students learn two or more languages, 2019?
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 further education establishments and workplaces. This article presents statistics on language learning in primary and secondary schools of the European Union’s (EU) Member States as well as EFTA and candidate countries.

Currently there are 24 official languages recognised within the EU which has been the situation since the accession of Croatia. In 1958, legislation specified German, French, Italian and Dutch as the official and working languages of the EU’s predecessor, the European Communities.

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 (such as Catalan, Galician and Basque in Spain) 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 Catalan, 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 Member State.

Full article

Primary education

Within primary education, a very high share of pupils learn English in a majority of EU Member States. Learning English is mandatory within secondary education institutions in several Member States, and so a number of them 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 Cyprus, Malta, Spain, and Austria learnt English as a foreign language in 2019, as was also the case in Liechtenstein, Norway and North Macedonia. In addition, at least 9 out of every 10 primary school children learnt English in Greece, France, Latvia, Poland, Italy, Sweden, and Croatia. 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.

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 2019 this share often exceeded 70 % of all primary school pupils. In Lithuania, Estonia, Bulgaria, Czechia, Slovenia, Slovakia and Romania it was between 71 % and 88 %, rising to more than 90 % in Poland and Latvia (as noted above), as it also did in Croatia which joined the EU in 2013.

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 used to be observed in Belgium, with the focus in primary schools often on learning French or Dutch (depending on the community and/or region).

Apart from Luxembourg (84 %), the next highest shares of primary school children learning French as a foreign language in 2019 were recorded in Spain, Greece, Belgium and Romania (no data available for Ireland); they were the only EU Member States to record double-digit shares. In 2019, German was the principal foreign language taught to all primary school children in Luxembourg (100 %), while around one fifth of primary school children were taught German in Croatia and Hungary.

Figure 1: Proportion of pupils in primary education learning selected foreign languages, 2019
(%)
Source: Eurostat (educ_uoe_lang01)

Upper secondary education

Turning to language learning in upper secondary general education (ISCED level 34); as shown in Infographic 2, almost all — 96.4 % across the EU — students at this level were studying English as a foreign language in 2019, compared with 26.4 % studying Spanish, and slightly more than one fifth studying French (21.8 %) or German (20.3 %).

Infographic 2: Which are the foreign languages studied most commonly?
(% of pupils in upper secondary general education, 2019)
Source: Eurostat (educ_uoe_lang01)

Between 2014 and 2019, the proportion of students at ISCED level 3 (general) in the EU studying English by almost 4 p.p. and remained at a very high level. The proportion of upper secondary (general) students studying Spanish, German and French also increased.

Among the EU Member States, the fastest increases between 2014 and 2019 in the share of pupils in upper secondary general education who were studying English were recorded in Germany, Cyprus and Luxembourg (up overall by at least 8.0 %). By contrast, there were eight Member States where the share of pupils learning English as a foreign language fell between 2014 and 2019, with the most marked reduction in Greece (down 10.0 %).

Between 2014 and 2019, the share of pupils in upper secondary general education learning French as a foreign language fell in all but seven of the 26 EU Member States for which data are available (France, not applicable). The only exceptions were Hungary, Croatia, Poland, Belgium, and Spain where the share of pupils studying French increased, as well as Luxembourg and Portugal where there was no change (with all pupils studying French in both of the periods under consideration in the first country and almost 3.0 % of pupils learning French in the second).

The picture was more mixed in relation to the share of upper secondary general education pupils studying German, as this proportion increased in 14 out of the 25 EU Member States for which data are available (Germany and Austria, not applicable); the biggest increases were recorded in Malta, Greece, and Spain (note that in each case this was from a relatively low starting point). The share of pupils learning German was unchanged in Bulgaria.

The final part of Table 1 provides a similar set of information in relation to the share of upper secondary general education pupils studying Spanish. Among the 24 EU Member States for which data are available (Spain, not applicable and Greece, not available), the share of pupils learning Spanish increased in 21 and fell in four. The share of pupils studying Spanish more than doubled between 2014 and 2019 in Poland and Latvia (again, all from relatively low starting points).

Table 1: Proportion of pupils in upper secondary general education learning selected foreign languages, 2014 and 2019
(%)
Source: Eurostat (educ_uoe_lang01)

In 2019, Luxembourg was the only EU Member State where every pupil in upper secondary general education was learning two or more foreign languages; however, very high shares (98.2-99.6 %) were also recorded in France, Estonia, Romania, Czechia, Finland, and Slovakia; note this indicator includes all foreign languages, not just the selected languages shown in Table 1. Ireland (12.1 %), Portugal (6.3 %) and Greece (0.7 %) recorded by far the lowest shares of students in upper secondary general education learning two or more foreign languages (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Proportion of pupils in upper secondary general education learning two or more languages, 2014 and 2019
(%)
Source: Eurostat (educ_uoe_lang02)

There were 12 EU Member States where the share of pupils learning at least two foreign languages increased between 2014 and 2019. In relative terms, the biggest gains were recorded in Ireland (where the share more than doubled from a low starting point) and Hungary, where overall increase during the period under consideration was greater than 40.0 %. The share of upper secondary general education pupils learning two or more languages more than halved in Cyprus (down from 80.0 % in 2014 to 38.3 % in 2019), while there was also a large fall in Greece (where very few pupils were studying two or more languages).

Generally, there was less focus on teaching foreign languages in vocational compared with general upper secondary education. This pattern existed in 21 of the 25 EU Member States for which data are available. The average number of foreign languages learnt by pupils in secondary education by level of education can be found in the Statistics Explained article on culture statistics - culture-related education.

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 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.

Tables in this article use the following notation:
: not available, confidential or unreliable value;
not applicable.

Context

Foreign languages are essential for people who would like to move, work, and study across the EU (and beyond). Learning a foreign language is also considered as an important factor for participation in society as languages can unite people, render other countries and their cultures accessible, and strengthen intercultural understanding. Poor or low levels of language skills can cause businesses to lose international contracts, while 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. 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).

In May 2014, the Council adopted a number of conclusions on multilingualism and the development of language competences, with EU Member States committing to enhancing cooperation in the field of multilingualism and improving the effectiveness of language teaching in schools.

Language skills are at the heart of the ambitious vision to create a European Education Area. The European Commission made a set of proposals for a comprehensive approach to the teaching and learning of languages, aiming to:

  • boost language learning by focusing on achieving specific competence levels, based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR);
  • introduce the concept of language awareness;
  • ensure that more language teachers have the opportunity to learn and study abroad;
  • identify and promote innovative, inclusive and multilingual teaching methods.

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

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