English dominates EU language curricula, study finds


Over 90% of European schoolchildren learn English at some stage of their compulsory education and this figure is rising, according to a study presented on Friday (21 November) by the Eurydice network on behalf of the European Commission. The report also found that children across the EU are starting to learn foreign languages at an earlier age. 

English increasingly dominant 

The study, entitled ‘Key Data on Teaching Languages at School in Europe’, revealed that in 13 EU countries, English is the mandatory first foreign language. Moreover, some 90% of pupils in upper secondary education learn English whether it is compulsory to do so or not. 

French and German are the most prevalent second compulsory languages, finds the report , while 58% of European pupils learn two or more foreign languages during their secondary education. 

Together, English, French, German, Spanish and Russian represent 95% of all languages learnt by EU pupils, indicating that children tend to favour Europe’s most widely-spoken languages. 

Children learning foreign languages earlier

Early learning of a foreign language as a compulsory subject has increased, according to the study. “Compulsory learning of a foreign language now begins in primary education in almost all European countries,” reads the report, which has been endorsed by EU Commissioners Leonard Orban (Multilingualism) and Jan Figel’ (Education, Training, Youth and Culture).  

On average, European children begin to learn a foreign language from the age of 8-10, but elsewhere they begin even earlier: from the age of three in Spain’s autonomous communities and the German-speaking part of Belgium, for example. Language begins relatively late in other countries, notably Bulgaria.

Limited teaching time for languages 

Less than 10% of total teaching time is generally devoted to learning foreign languages in European primary schools, a figure which improves for secondary education. In primary schools, languages are taught by general teachers who teach most subjects in the curriculum, while specialists take over for secondary education. 

Lofty EU goals… 

Meanwhile, in adopting a resolution on the European Commission’s new multilingualism strategy on Friday, EU culture ministers emphasised the cultural dimension of multilingualism, expressing their desire for national governments to be asked – with the support of the Commission – to coordinate and reinforce their actions to promote translation and the subtitling of live performances and audiovisual works and films. 

Specifically, the conclusions of last week’s Education, Youth and Culture Council meeting in Brussels call on the EU executive to take “particular care to provide information in all official languages [of the bloc] and to promote multilingualism on [its] websites”. 

Ministers asked national governments to “endeavour to broaden the selection of languages taught at different levels of education, including recognised languages which are less widely used”. 

…but no increased funding 

However, it appears that no extra EU cash will be made available to help achieve these goals. Speaking at the launch of the Commission’s new strategy on 18 September 2008, Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban said that no additional funding would be released for EU language policy until 2013 at the earliest, with resources drawn instead from “existing European programmes and initiatives” in other fields, including education, media, research, social inclusion and competitiveness (EURACTIV 19/09/08). 

Welsh makes EU debut 

Last week’s meeting of culture ministers (20-21 November) also saw Welsh heard and interpreted at EU level for the first time. More significantly, the Welsh will now be able to write to the European Council, and receive a written response, in their native tongue. 

“Welsh might be one of the oldest languages to be used in the United Kingdom, but it remains one of the most vibrant,” said Welsh Heritage Minister Alun Ffred Jones, hailing its use in the Council as “a major landmark” and recognising its position as “a modern language through which government business may be conducted”. 

The success of the EU’s new multilingualism strategy will be evaluated in 2012. 

"Although we register progress, there is still some way to go to give students the possibility to learn two foreign languages at school," which is "the objective that the member states fixed for themselves in Barcelona in 2002, "said EU Commissioner for Education, Training, Culture and Youth Jan Figel'

"Nevertheless, [learning two foreign languages] is now considered one of the eight key competences for lifelong learning that were recommended by the Council and European Parliament in December 2006," Figel' added. 

"In the great majority of countries, pupils have the opportunity to learn two foreign languages before the end of compulsory education," said Eurydice report author Nathalie Baïdak. But "Bulgarian pupils start relatively late, there is no obligation to learn a foreign language in Ireland and the number of years that language learning is compulsory in the UK has been reduced," she lamented.

The study "is not a performance ranking, but a study of what member states are doing in the area of language teaching," explained Eurydice Director David Hughes. "It is not the product of the European Commission alone. Member states had an input and they checked the final version, so we hope it is very reliable," he remarked, continuing: "It provides comparable data to help national governments reform their education systems, from pre-primary to doctorate level." 

At present, the 132-page Eurydice report is only available in English and French. "The German translation won't be available for a few weeks or even months," said a European Commission spokesman.

The second edition of the Eurydice study, produced in conjunction with Eurostat, was presented on Friday (21 November). 

Entitled 'Key Data on Teaching Languages at School in Europe' and based on data related to the 2006-2007 school year, it sets out the current state of language teaching in European schools, from primary to secondary general education and covering both public sector and grant-maintained private schools. 

Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban unveiled the EU's new multilingualism strategy two months ago. The communication calls for "significant efforts [to] be made to promote language learning and to value the cultural aspects of linguistic diversity at all levels of education and training" (EURACTIV 15/09/08). 

  • Mid-2011: Commission to report to Council on implementation of resolution.
  • 2012: Commission to review success of its new multilingualism strategy. 

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