Languages of the EU

Nowadays, the European Union is home to more than 450 million people of different ethnic, cultural and linguistic origins.

The linguistic map of the European countries is a complex one, as it has been affected by historical and geographical factors, as well as the mobility of individual people. The EU currently has 23 recognised official languages and approx. 60 further indigenous and non-indigenous languages are spoken within its borders.

English is the most ‘widespread’ language within the EU. It is the first language for 16% of EU citizens and a further 31% know enough English to hold a conversation.

* Apart from English, the list of the most widespread languages more or less reflects the population of the member states.

* German is the first language for 24% of all EU citizens and 8% of EU citizens speak it as a foreign language.

* French is spoken by 28% of all EU citizens, for more than half of them it is their first language.

* Italian is in 4th place with the same number of native speakers as French but significantly fewer non-native speakers (2%).

* 15% of the population of the EU speaks Spanish (11% as their first language, 4% as a foreign language).

Half of Europe can already speak more than one language

* 45% of all EU citizens can converse in a language which is not their native language.

* There are large differences between the member states…

* … in Luxemburg almost everyone speaks at least one foreign language well enough to hold a conversation.

* … this is also true for more than 8 of every 10 people in the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden.

* The citizens of the UK, Ireland and Portugal are the worst at languages; less than a third of the population in these countries says they have adequate knowledge of foreign languages.

* As well as speaking their native language, three of every four people in the Netherlands, Denmark (77%) and Sweden (75%) know enough English to take part in a conversation.

* Most Luxembourgers (86%)) can speak French. In Belgium this is the case for 33% of the population. French is one of the official languages in both countries.

* In Luxembourg 7% of those whose native language is not German can speak this language well enough to take part in a conversation.

* German is also spoken by many people in the Netherlands (59%) and Denmark (49%).

* In most member states the percentage of the population able to hold a conversation in English has increased since 1990.

* The greatest increases were recorded in the Netherlands (15%), Greece (13%), Belgium, Denmark and Italy (9%).

The importance of foreign languages in the education system

* Teaching foreign languages at primary schools is becoming more and more common; in 1991/1992 only four member states (Denmark, the Netherlands, Portugal, Belgium/Flanders) taught more than 20% of all primary school pupils a foreign language.

* The latest figures show that foreign language learning at primary schools is becoming more common: in Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium/Flanders, Greece, Spain, Austria, Finland and Sweden more than 33% of all primary school pupils learn a foreign language.

* Foreign language learning during compulsory schooling has been extended: compulsory language learning in Denmark, Greece, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and the UK lasts longer than ten years ago.

* Normally only one foreign language is taught in Ireland, Italy and Greece; in other countries two or three foreign languages are taught or at least can be leant.

* Pupils between the ages of 12 and 18 spent between 6 hours per week in Portugal and 1 – 3 hours per week in Belgium (Wallonia), Greece, Ireland and Italy learning foreign languages.

Most commonly taught languages

* English is generally the first foreign language taught in school (except in countries where English is the native language), French is normally the second foreign language.

* English is learnt by 26% and French by 4% of the primary school pupils who do not already speak these languages fluently.

* English is the foreign language most commonly taught in secondary schools.

* 89% of all school pupils learn English.

* More than 90% of all secondary school pupils in Denmark, Germany, Spain, France, Austria, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands learn English.

* 32% of all pupils learn French, 18% German and 8% Spanish.