As today’s young people have probably become the most international generation ever in Europe, YO! Mag takes a look at foreign languages taught across the continent. In most countries, European languages remain dominant with English as the unrivalled number one.
According to a 2012 report from Eurostat, 93% of children learn English at lower secondary level in the European Union. At upper secondary level, English is taught even more widely.
This makes English the most studied foreign language across almost all European countries and all education levels. Even in primary school, a total of 73% of primary school students in Europe were learning English in 2009-10, the most recent years with available data.
French and German remain popular
French comes as the second most popular language and is taught at lower secondary level in all EU countries except Slovenia. A total of 33% of European Union pupils learn French at this level. At upper secondary level the figure drops slightly to 28%.
Also German is taught in nearly all EU countries. A total of 13% of pupils in the European Union learn German in lower secondary education, and 20% at upper secondary level.
This means that German or French are the second most widely taught foreign languages in most EU countries. German is particularly popular in Central and Eastern European countries while French is studied particularly in Southern Europe.
Spanish is the third or fourth most widely taught foreign language especially at upper secondary level, with Italian and Russian also offered in some regions of the continent.
The number of students learning any other languages was below 5% in most EU countries.
Studying at least two foreign languages
Most European countries have a long tradition of teaching foreign languages. Already by 1974, at least one foreign language was compulsory in all but two member states of the European Union: Ireland and the United Kingdom (apart from Scotland).
By 1998, nearly all pupils in Europe studied at least one foreign language as part of their compulsory education.
Studying a second foreign language for at least one year is compulsory in more than 20 European countries, with the two exceptions of Ireland and Scotland.*
In Belgium’s Flemish community, France, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Greece, Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and Slovakia pupils in upper secondary education learn at least two foreign languages.
Increased communication in different languages
While foreign languages become steadily entrenched as compulsory subjects in the primary curriculum, the hours allocated to them do generally not exceed 10% of the total time in class.
In a dozen countries, this percentage is even lower, at less than 5%. However, Belgium (German-speaking Community) (14.3%), Luxembourg (40. %), Malta (15.2 %) and Croatia (11.1%) are exceptions to this trend.
Midhat Riđanović, a linguistics professor from Bosnia, would like all countries to follow the example of Luxembourg and dedicate at least 40% of class time to learning languages.
“Nowadays, communication between people speaking different languages is at least hundred times greater than hundred years earlier,” he told YO! Mag. “At least 80% [of language classes] should be dedicated to teaching English.”
Three to four hours of weekly language lessons
On average, a European child or teenager has lessons three to four hours a week at the start of foreign language teaching.
Also the starting age varies a lot across European countries. About half of primary school pupils in the EU learn a foreign language, while some have compulsory classes only at the start of secondary school.
In Luxembourg, Norway, Italy and Malta, students start learning a new language at the age of six, in Sweden at the age of seven and in Belgium’s Flemish community at the age of 10.
Despite the high rate of foreign language teaching, the number of adults claiming to speak a foreign language is generally lower than might be expected.
Professor Riđanović considers learning a life-long process.
“I have been studying English for close to sixty years. However, almost every day I am learning something new,” he said.
Case study: Bosnia and Herzegovina
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the region of Western Balkans, the most studied second foreign language at schools is German. However, depending on the region, city, and even the type of school, other languages are taught as well.
Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian, also taught in these countries, are similar to each other in general.
In the capital of Bosnia, Sarajevo, children start learning their first foreign language on the first grade of primary school. Four years later, a second foreign language is introduced. In high schools, pupils generally study English, Latin, and one of the other languages that are offered at that particular school.
In high schools, the languages offered are usually Spanish or French, but sometimes students can also choose Turkish, Italian, or Arabic. For example, Arabic is taught at Muslim religious schools as a second foreign language along with English.
Turkish language is gaining popularity in Bosnia due to stronger recent connections between the two governments and the rise of student exchanges.
Suzan El-Akhras, a 20-year-old Palestinian refugee now living in Bosnia and Herzegovina, chose both Turkish and German as her foreign languages.
“Arabic and Turkish language share a lot of common words, which helped me when I was learning Turkish,” she told YO! Mag.
Currently a third year student of Economics at the University of Sarajevo, Suzan fled Palestine when she was twelve years old. According to her, Bosnia gives students the possibility of learning more languages than the education system in Palestine.
“There really are not many possibilities in Gaza,” she said. “On the other hand, Bosnia does not lack these possibilities, but limits the student’s freedom of choosing the desired language.”
“I would have chosen to study Spanish and Turkish if I had the chance,” she continued.
*Irish students learn both English and Gaelic, but neither is considered a foreign language. Scottish schools are still obligated to offer at least one foreign-language option to all students ages 10-18.
Header image Muhamed Krnjić