Ninety four percent of upper secondary students learn English as a foreign language, according to new data published by Eurostat yesterday (26 September) to coincide with the European Day for Languages.
French, German and Spanish come next in the ranking but are way behind.
French is studied by 19% of pupils in primary and lower secondary education, and by 23% in upper secondary. It is followed by German (9% and 21%) and Spanish (6% and 18%).
The dominance of English begins at an early age, with 83% of pupils adopting Shakespeare's language in primary or lower secondary education, up from 73% a year ago, according to Eurostat.
English teaching in secondary education is now almost universal, reaching close to 100% in almost every country. Portugal (47%), Malta (66.5%), Hungary (78.5%) and Bulgaria (88%) are the only notable exceptions.
A similar trend appears amongst adults aged 25-64, with respondents mentioning English as their best-known foreign language in almost all 28 EU countries. Bucking this trend, in the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Russian is more widely spoken than English, as is German in Luxembourg, and Czech in Slovakia.
"Globally, English is a very widely spoken language so it's no surprise that so many schools teach it," said Dennis Abbott, spokesperson for the EU's education and multilingualism commissioner Androulla Vassiliou.
"But it's not enough to just learn English. There is a real added value in learning other languages too," Abbott told EurActiv. "In business, for instance, if you want to reach customers in Germany or France , it's much easier if you speak their language."
The predominance of English is also visible in the European Commission, where close to 80% of internal documents are now written in that language, a situation which infuriates defenders of multilingualism.
The confirmation of English as Europe’s ‘lingua franca’ comes at a time when relations between the EU and Britain have probably hit an all-time low.
Talk of Britain breaking its 40-year ties with the EU gathered pace in January when Prime Minister David Cameron said he would negotiate a new role in Europe and hold a referendum by 2017 asking voters whether they wanted to stay in or leave.
An opinion poll on 10 September found that 43% of Britons would choose to leave the EU and 39% would opt to remain in if a referendum were held now.
- News release: Two-thirds of working age adults in the EU28 in 2011 state they know a foreign language (26 Sept. 2013)