Pupils across the EU are overwhelmingly studying English as a second language, 82% of these at primary and lower-secondary level, and 95% at upper-secondary level, a Eurostat survey published yesterday (26 September) on the occasion of the tenth European Day of Languages.
English overwhelmingly outpaces German and French, which are being learned at upper-secondary level respectively by 27% and 26% of students.
This trend in education mirrors broader linguistic and cultural developments in Europe. A 2006 Eurobarometer poll found that the number of Europeans claiming to be able to have a conversation in English as a second language increased from 32% to 38% between 2001 and 2005, over twice the figure for French or German.
The predominance of English was also strikingly apparent during last May's Eurovision song contest, where 22 of the event's 25 finalists chose to perform in English.
Eurostat's figures indicate marked regional variation, with German proving especially popular at upper-secondary level in central European countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland, where it is learned by over half of pupils.
In contrast, French fares better in Western Europe. It is the leading foreign language in upper-secondary education in Great Britain (29% of pupils) and Ireland (58%), and is also popular in the Latin countries, being second to English in Italy (20%), Spain (27%) and Romania (85%).
The fourth most popular language is Spanish, which is learned by 19% of upper-secondary students across the EU, including 65% in France.
The European Union is committed to promoting multilingualism and aims to have every EU citizen speak at least two foreign languages. However, in practice many EU institutions and agencies limit themselves to one or more working languages.
The question of language-use is sometimes a contentious one. For instance, attempts to create a European Patent using only the English, French and German languages have been opposed by Italy and Spain as discriminatory.
The predominance of English has been criticised in particular by French-speaking groups such as the Francophonie and the Association for the Defence of the French Language. The latter has often granted its satirical prize to EU officials – including Romano Prodi and Jean-Claude Trichet – for 'overuse' of English.