Society

10 European Countries Trailing Behind In Language Learning

The European Union’s motto “unity in diversity” emphasizes the role of linguistic diversity and language learning in promoting cohesion within the Union. Language unites people, strengthens cultural understanding, and allows access to other countries and cultures.

The European Union’s motto “unity in diversity” emphasizes the role of linguistic diversity and language learning in promoting cohesion within the Union. Language unites people, strengthens cultural understanding, and allows access to other countries and cultures. Foreign language plays an important role in enhancing mobility and employability within Europe as well as improving the competitiveness of economies. Poor or underdeveloped language skills cause individuals and companies to lose job opportunities and contracts as well as undermine the mobility of talent and skills. The European Union Council continues to emphasize on the need for citizens to learn at least two foreign languages at an early age. As of 2020, the European Union recognized 24 official languages.  On paper, about 50% of citizens claim to speak at least two foreign languages, but surveys show that only 20% can do so, while 10% can speak at least three foreign languages. English is the most preferred foreign language because its use stretches beyond Europe. Countries such as Luxembourg, France, the Czech Republic, Romania, Finland, and Slovakia lead Europe in multilingualism. In contrast, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Italy, and Spain are the least multilingual.

European Countries Trailing Behind In Language Learning

Greece

Greek is the official language of Greece.  Minority languages are Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish, Romani, and Russian, while English, German, French, and Italian are foreign languages. Greek students are not fascinated by foreign languages and make no effort to learn other languages besides Greek and English.  The education system does not make it mandatory for students to learn foreign languages. While students show interest in lower primary school, about 1% study at least two foreign languages in their secondary education. 

United Kingdom

UK citizens have shown little interest in learning foreign languages, unlike their French neighbors.  A recent survey revealed that 62% of the population in the United Kingdom only speaks English. About 38% speak at least one foreign language, while 18% speak two languages.  The situation is even worse in the education system, where students have continued to show no interest in learning more than two foreign languages. Primary school students must learn a foreign language but voluntary for high school students.  Less than 5% of students in secondary schools learn two or more languages. 

Portugal

The official language of Portugal is Portuguese, while Spanish, French, and English are foreign languages.  It is not surprising to hear Portuguese people speak a foreign language, especially English, French, or German, but most of these are learned in private classes. Foreign language is not mandatory in primary education, but secondary school students between 10th and 11th grade learn at least one foreign language. Only 6% of Portuguese students in secondary schools learn two or more foreign languages. 

Ireland

English and Irish are the official languages of Ireland. Just like their UK counterparts, students in Ireland show very little interest in foreign languages. Ireland is one of the few countries in Europe where a foreign language is not compulsory in preschool or primary school education. Foreign languages are usually introduced in secondary schools, where it is harder for students to acquire a new language. In 2019, Irish schools were grappling with a shortage of foreign language teachers, and many schools withdrew the lessons from the curriculum. About 14% of students learn two or more foreign languages. 

Italy

Italian is the sole official language of Italy.  English, French, Spanish, and German are foreign languages. Italy is a popular tourist destination, and most people are expected to speak at least a foreign language.   About 98% of students study at least two other languages, but few can write or confidently express themselves in both. It is mandatory for students to learn English from the age of six while a second language is added for those over 11 years. Unfortunately, most students show little interest in a second foreign language, and only 23% pursue both languages. 

Spain

Spanish is the official language of Spain, but several regional and foreign languages are also spoken. Spanish education varies depending on the region, but it is mandatory for all schools to teach Spanish, in addition to the region’s official language, such as Catalan in primary education. Most schools teach English as a foreign language. Students have an option to pursue a second foreign language in secondary school, preferably German, French, or Portuguese. However, only 27% of students pursue two foreign languages.

Lithuania

Lithuanian is the official language of Lithuania. Over 70% of the population also speak Russian.  English is spoken by thirty percent of the population but by 80% of the youths. Students begin learning the first foreign language in primary school and a second in secondary school.  Most students choose to pursue English in addition to Lithuanian and Russian since it presents more opportunities for the younger generation. About 41% of students in the country learn two or more foreign languages.

Hungary

The official language of Hungary is Hungarian.  It is spoken by 99.6% of the population, of whom 99% use it as a first language. Minority languages are German, Slovak, Serbian, Croatian, and Romanian.  English is a foreign language in Hungary. The number of foreign language classes in Hungary is one of the highest in Europe and twice as many as Finland, Denmark and Austria.  However, foreign language teaching is not effective enough in public education and are, therefore, not mastered by students. Few people in the country speak foreign languages and those who do, don’t speak it well. About 50% of students learn two or more foreign languages.

Denmark

Danish is the sole official language of Denmark.  About 86% of the population speak English as a second language because it is compulsory from the first grade.  A third language, usually French or German, is introduced in the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd grade depending on the school. Most students settle for German as the third foreign language, as 47% of the population speaks conversational German.  About 13% of Danes speak Swedish though it is not popular among students. 

Germany

The official language of Germany is German. Over 95% of the population speak standard German or any of its dialects.  English is the most spoken foreign language. All students must learn at least a foreign language in secondary school, and most students opt for English. The number of foreign languages depends on the school with some offering up to four. Despite efforts by the government to promote multilingualism in the country, only 59% of students choose to pursue two or more foreign languages.

10 European Countries Trailing Behind In Language Learning

RankCountry% Share of students learning two or more foreign languages in 2015
1Greece1
2United Kingdom5
3Portugal6
4Ireland14
5Italy 23
6Spain27
7Lithuania41
8Hungary49
9Denmark50
10Germany59

About the Author

Victor Kiprop is a writer from Kenya. When he's not writing he spends time watching soccer and documentaries, visiting friends, or working in the farm. 

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