Europeans and their languages

September 10th, 2012 by

The second survey that the European Commission has released, Eurobarometer ‘Europeans and their languages’ sheds light on the extent to which Europe is becoming a genuinely multilingual area – as opposed to a conglomeration of monoglots. Across the 27 member states, 54% of adults claim to be able to speak another language besides their mother tongue – but this is a slight decline on the previous figure of 56%. The overall figure obscures some big changes in individual member states since the last survey in 2005. Austria has seen a huge leap of 16 percentage points in the number of adults with foreign language skills, whereas Slovakia, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic have all seen declines. These are related to significant falls in the number of people claiming competence in Russian and German. In the UK, as might be expected because of the predominance of English, we are towards the bottom of the table with 39% of the sample confident enough to have a conversation in a foreign language – although this represents a slight increase (+1%) on the previous figure.

But the figures show that, although English is growing as the favoured foreign language in the rest of Europe, the multilingual reality of the continent is much more complex. It is certainly not true that ‘they all speak English’ as some commentators still believe. According to the survey only 38% of Europeans speak enough English to have a conversation and, as can be seen from the chart below, in some countries the figure is much lower:

Eurobarometer chart

The figures overall show that Europe still has a long way to go before attaining the goal of all citizens being able to speak two foreign languages in addition to their mother tongue. But if we look at the profile of language competence by age, the outlook for future inter-communication looks very positive. Already 74% of young Europeans (aged 15-24) say they can hold a conversation in another language – a tribute to school systems which have prioritised language learning over the past decade or more. A similar age profile for the previous Eurobarometer survey is not available, but in comparison to the one before that, we can see an increase of about 5 percentage points in the number of 15-24 year olds claiming language skills. Unfortunately the age profile data is not available by country but it is not likely that the UK data would show the same increase in multilingualism amongst young people. English 15-24 year olds responding to the latest survey would have been/be taking their GCSEs between 2003 and 2012 – a period during which we have seen the proportion of the age group studying languages decline to 40% in England and about 25% in Wales. In contrast, those in the 25-39 age group, who took their GCSEs or equivalent between 1988 and 2002, were at school when the national curriculum made a language compulsory up to 16 for everyone. In the longer term, we can expect to see improved confidence in language skills as a result of the policy to make a foreign language compulsory in England from age 7 – and similar moves in Scotland – as long as the gains can be carried through into secondary.

The majority of respondents to the Eurobarometer survey say that most (68%) have learnt their language(s) through language lessons at school and education is clearly where policies to improve language competence need to be directed. However, there is another factor which contributes to a nation’s language capability. More than a quarter of those UK respondents who said they could speak another language said that their first language was not English. The survey shows that people whose first language is not the national language in the country where they live make an important contribution to the overall language competence of the nation. Of those questioned in the UK, only 88% gave English as their first language, with a similar proportion in Germany saying German was not their first language. In France, 93% had a first language other than French – and there is also a high level of bilingualism in countries where regional and other minority languages come strongly into play. Discussions about children with English as an Additional Language so often present the issue in terms of a deficit in English, and overlook the fact that these children have valuable skills in other languages in addition to our national language. These new figures make clear that this is a contribution to the drive for greater multilingualism in Europe, a policy which is widely supported in the interests not only of better communication between peoples but better economic performance both within the Single Market and with third countries.

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