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In this article, we present a summary of the results of a foreign language skills study published in April 2019 by Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical office.
Disparities in foreign language proficiency across EU countries
The study reveals that there is a disparity in foreign language proficiency across European Union countries.
According to the study, 64% of the working population (aged 25-64) living in the EU can speak at least one additional language. Of this group, 21% say they speak two additional languages and 8% claim to speak three or more different languages.
In terms of trends, the populations of multilinguals in Romance-speaking countries are decreasing. For example, France is 26th out of 34 European countries surveyed (EU and non-EU members), behind Italy and Greece, and just ahead of Spain, with 60% of people speaking one or more foreign languages.
Sweden is the best performer, and the Scandinavian and Baltic countries top the list, with more than 9 out of 10 people claiming to speak one or more foreign languages. In Luxembourg, Finland and Denmark, 95% of the population claim to be proficient in at least one additional language.
Looking at English-speaking countries, Ireland comes in at 28th and the UK is last in the ranking with respectively 30% and 20% of the population claiming to be proficient in one additional language.
25 to 34-year-olds speak the most additional languages
The study shows that 25 to 34-year-olds are the age group that tends to speak the most foreign languages, with 73% being able to express themselves in at least one foreign language, compared to 55% for 55 to 64-year-olds.
Lithuania is the exception to the rule: slightly more 55 to 64-year-olds know at least one foreign language than the 25 to 34-year-olds. This is perhaps a legacy of their former membership of the Soviet Union, as there are more Russian speakers among the older generation.
The close link between educational level and foreign language proficiency
The study also highlights the influence of education on foreign language learning. Unsurprisingly, more people with a higher level of education tended to speak at least one more foreign language than those with a lower level (82.5% vs. 41% respectively).
Foreign language proficiency through the lens of employment
68% of the employed population living in the EU claim to know at least one foreign language, compared to 58% for unemployed people, confirming the significant impact of foreign language skills (and education by extension) on access to employment.
In countries such as Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden and Lithuania, almost 95% of the working population say they know at least one foreign language.
The study also shows that in countries such as France or Spain, there is a slight increase in the business world of people speaking at least one foreign language. While they may not be well ranked overall, these countries appear to be experiencing a growing appreciation of the benefits of speaking another language. This is a fairly good indicator and shows, along with other metrics, that Europe as a whole remains multilingual, much more so than the Americas and Asia.
Multilingualism by occupational category
80% of managers in the EU claim to be fluent in at least one foreign language. This percentage drops to 53% for people with manual jobs.
Level of proficiency in a foreign language
The study also notes that on average, 25% of the EU working population reported being proficient in their best secondary language. Among the countries for which this percentage is the highest: are Luxembourg (66%), Sweden (60%) and Malta (51%). In contrast, in France, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic and Italy, less than a fifth of the population said they were proficient in their secondary foreign language.
Finally, the study highlights that 30% of people living in cities or towns claim to be proficient in a their best known second language. This figure drops to 22% for people living in the suburbs and 17% for people living in rural areas.
Often presented as an obstacle to European unity, the linguistic diversity of the European continent is revealed in this study to be more of an asset, in that it encourages the learning of another language, which in turn encourages more education and openness to other people and cultures.
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