39 Facts About Multilingualism in the European Union
Within the European Union there are many languages spoken.
There are 23 officially recognised languages , more than 60 indigenous regional and minority languages, and many non-indigenous languages spoken by migrant communities.
The EU, although it has limited influence because educational and language policies are the responsibility of individual Member States, is committed to safeguarding this linguistic diversity and promoting knowledge of languages, for reasons of cultural identity and social integration and cohesion, and because multilingual citizens are better placed to take advantage of the economic, educational and professional opportunities created by an integrated Europe.
A mobile workforce is key to the competitiveness of the EU economy.
§ In accordance with the EU population, the most widely spoken mother tongue is German (16%), followed by Italian and English (13% each), French (12%), then Spanish and Polish (8% each).
§ For the majority of Europeans their mother tongue is one of the official languages of the country in which they reside.
§ Just over half of Europeans (54%) are able to hold a conversation in at least one additional language, a quarter (25%) are able to speak at least two additional languages and one in ten (10%) are conversant in at least three.
§ Almost all respondents in Luxembourg (98%), Latvia (95%), the Netherlands (94%), Malta (93%), Slovenia and Lithuania (92% each), and Sweden (91%) say that they are able to speak at least one language in addition to their mother tongue.
§ Countries showing the most notable increases in the proportion of respondents saying that they are able to speak at least one foreign language well enough to hold a conversation, compared to data from the previous edition of the Eurobarometer survey, are Austria (+16 percentage points to 78%), Finland (+6 points to 75%), and Ireland (+6 points to 40%).
§ In contrast the proportion able to speak at least one foreign language has decreased notably in Slovakia (-17 percentage points to 80%), the Czech Republic (-12 points to 49%), Bulgaria (-11 points to 48%), Poland (-7 points to 50%), and Hungary (-7 points to 35%). In these countries there has been a downward shift since 2005 in the proportions able to speak foreign languages such as Russian and German.
§ Few countries show a noticeable increase in the proportion of respondents able to speak at least two foreign languages, with the most marked being in Italy (+6 percentage points to 22%) and Ireland (+5 points to 18%). However nine Member States show a significant drop of more than 5 percentage points: Belgium (-16 percentage points to 50%), Hungary (-14 points to 13%), Bulgaria (-12 points to 19%), Poland (-10 points to 22%), Portugal (-10 points to 13%), Malta (-9 points to 59%), Luxembourg (-8 points to 84%), Denmark (-8 points to 58%), and Estonia (-6 points to 52%).
§ Countries where respondents are least likely to be able to speak any foreign language are Hungary (65%), Italy (62%), the UK and Portugal (61% in each), and Ireland (60%).
§ The five most widely spoken foreign languages remain English (38%), French (12%), German (11%), Spanish (7%) and Russian (5%).
§ At a national level English is the most widely spoken foreign language in 19 of the 25 Member States where it is not an official language (i.e. excluding the UK and Ireland).
§ The majority of Europeans who speak English, German, Spanish and Russian as a foreign language believe that they have better than basic skills. Ratings of skill level are broadly similar to those seen in the 2005 survey.
§ Just over two fifths (44%) of Europeans say that they are able to understand at least one foreign language well enough to be able to follow the news on radio or television. English is the most widely understood, with a quarter (25%) of Europeans able to follow radio or television news in the language. French and German are mentioned by 7% of respondents each, while Spanish (5%), Russian (3%) and Italian (2%).
§ Europeans are just as likely to be able to read a newspaper or magazine article in a foreign language with just over two-fifths (44%) of Europeans saying they can. Again English is the most widespread foreign language, with a similar proportion of Europeans (25%) able to read a newspaper or magazine article in the language. French is mentioned by 7% and German by 6% of Europeans. Spanish comes next, with 4% of answers, followed by Russian and Italian (2%).
§ Europeans are slightly less likely to say that they understand any foreign language well enough to be able to use it to communicate online (e.g. using email, Twitter, Facebook etc.), with two fifths (39%) saying that they can use at least one foreign language in this way. Again, the most widely cited language is English, with a similar proportion of Europeans (26%) able to communicate online in the language. French and German are mentioned by 5% of Europeans each, followed by Spanish (3%) and Russian and Italian (1%).
§ There is a clear relationship between the order in which a language is mentioned (i.e. perceived fluency) and the frequency with which that language is used. A quarter (24%) of respondents use their first foreign language every day or almost every day, a similar proportion (23%) use it often and the remainder (50%) use it on an occasional basis. Around one in ten respondents use their second language every day or nearly every day (8%), with respondents much more likely to use it on an occasional basis only (65%). Similarly, only 6% of respondents who speak a third foreign language use it on an ‘everyday’ basis, around one in eight (13%) use it often but not daily, and around seven in ten (69%) use it occasionally.
§ Europeans say they regularly use foreign languages when watching films/television or listening to the radio (37%), using the internet (36%) and communicating with friends (35%). 27% of respondents report using foreign languages regularly for conversations at work and 50% during holidays abroad.
§ The most notable changes since 2005 are an increase in the proportion of Europeans who regularly use foreign languages on the internet (+10 percentage points) and when watching films/television or listening to the radio (+8 points). The proportion of Europeans who do not use a foreign language regularly in any situation has fallen from 13% in 2005 to 9% in 2012.
§ The majority of Europeans do not describe themselves as active learners of languages. Around a quarter (23%) of Europeans have never learnt a language, while just over two-fifths (44%) have not learnt a language recently and do not intend to start.
§ Only a minority (14%) have continued learning a language in the last two years; less than one in ten (7%) have started learning a new language in the last two years; and a similar proportion (8%) have not learnt a language recently, but intend to start in the coming year.
§ Europeans are most likely to identify working in another country as a key advantage of learning a new language, with three-fifths of Europeans (61%) holding this view. Just over half of Europeans (53%) perceive as such using the language at work (including travelling abroad). A slightly smaller proportion (46%) evoke here ability to studying abroad and possibility of using it on holidays abroad (47%).
§ 88% of Europeans think that knowing languages other than their mother tongue is very useful.
§ Two thirds of Europeans (67%) consider English as one of the two most useful languages for themselves.
§ Languages perceived as the most useful that come up right after are the following: German (17%), French (16%), Spanish (14%) and Chinese (6%).
§ There has been a decrease in the proportion thinking that French is important (-9 percentage points), and in those thinking German is an important language for personal development (-5 points). Europeans are more likely now than they were in 2005 to think that Chinese is an important language (+ 4 points).
§ 98% of Europeans consider mastering other foreign languages as useful for the future of their children.
§ Among languages perceived as such, French and German are mentioned by 20% of Europeans each, Spanish by 16% and Chinese by 14%. Around four in five Europeans (79%) consider English as one of the most useful languages for the future of the children.
§ There has been a decrease (-13 percentage points) since 2005 in the proportion of Europeans thinking that French is important for children to learn for their future and a (-8 points) in the proportion thinking German important for children to learn.
§ Whilst the perception that Chinese is a useful language for personal development is slightly more widespread now than in 2005 (+4 percentage points), the perception of its value as an important language for children to learn is significantly more widespread than in 2005 (+12 points).
§ Europeans are most likely to say that free lessons would make them significantly more likely to learn or improve skills in a language, mentioned by around three in ten (29%). Around a fifth of Europeans say they would be significantly more likely to learn or improve language skills if they were paid to learn (19%), if they were able to learn it in a country in which it is spoken (18%), and if it improved career prospects (18%).
§ The most widely mentioned barrier to learning another language is lack of motivation, with a third (34%) of Europeans saying this discourages them. Around a quarter of Europeans cite lack of time to study properly (28%) and that it is too expensive (25%). A fifth (19%) of Europeans say that not being good at languages discourages them.
§ The most widespread method used to learn a foreign language is through lessons at school. Just over two thirds of Europeans (68%) have learnt a foreign language in this way. Much smaller proportions of Europeans have learnt a foreign language by talking informally to a native speaker (16%), with a teacher outside school in group language lessons (15%), and by going on frequent or long trips to the country in which the language is spoken (15%). Europeans are most likely to think that school language lessons are the most effective way they have learnt a foreign language.
§ There is a broad consensus among Europeans that everyone in the EU should be able to speak at least one foreign language, with more than four in five (84%) agreeing with this view.
§ Europeans, for the most part, support the EU’s vision that EU citizens should be able to speak at least two foreign languages; more than seven in ten (72%) agree that people in the EU should be able to speak more than one language in addition to their mother tongue.
§ The majority of Europeans (81%) agree that all languages spoken within the EU should be treated equally. Even if around seven in ten (69%) think that Europeans should be able to speak a common language this view does not extend to believing that any one language should have priority over others.
§ Slightly more than half of respondents (53%) agree that EU institutions should adopt a single language when communicating with citizens, whilst more than two in five disapprove of this idea.
§ More than three-quarters (77%) of respondents think that improving language skills should be a policy priority.
§ More than two in five respondents (44%) agree that that they prefer subtitles to dubbing when watching foreign films or TV programmes, but a slightly larger proportion (52%) disagree that they prefer subtitles.
§ Europeans recognise that translation has an important role to play in a wide range of areas across society, most notably in education and learning (76%) and in health and safety (71%). European perceive translation as important while looking for a job (68%), getting news about events in the rest of the world (67%), participating in or getting information about EU activities (60%), accessing public services (59%) or enjoying leisure activities such as TV, films and reading (57%).
§ Just over two in five Europeans (43%) say that translation has an important role to play in their everyday lives, and just under one in six (16%) consider this role to be very important. Three in ten Europeans (30%) say that translation plays no role at all in their everyday lives.