Spoken English in the EU

10 interesting findings

  • Ability The majority of Europeans (54%) are able to hold a conversation in at least one additional language other than their mother tongue, a quarter (25%) are able to speak at least two additional languages and one in ten (10%) are conversant in at least three. Just under half of all Europeans (46%) are not able to speak any foreign language well enough to hold a conversation.
    A quarter (24%) of respondents use their first foreign language every day or almost every day, a similar proportion (23%) use it often and the remainder (50%) use it on an occasional basis.
  • Attitude Around nine in ten Europeans (88%) think that languages other than their mother tongue are useful for personal development.
  • Future Almost every European (98%) thinks that foreign languages are useful for children to learn for their future. Again, English is perceived to be the most useful language in this regard, with eight in ten Europeans (79%) thinking this.
  • Utility Two thirds of Europeans (67%) consider English is one of the two most useful languages, and less than one in five mention German (17%), French (16%) and Spanish (14%). Much smaller proportions mention Chinese (6%), Italian (5%) and Russian (4%).
  • Commonality Overall agreement that the European institutions should adopt a single language to communicate with European citizens is highest in Slovakia (77%), followed by Spain and Cyprus (66%), and lowest in Finland (24%) and Estonia (32%).
  • Number The majority of respondents in 26 Member States agree that everyone in the EU should be able to speak at least two languages in addition to their mother tongue, although levels of agreement range from 56% in Ireland and Denmark to 91% in Luxembourg and 94% in Spain. Finland is the only country where a minority 37%) agree with this view.
    * Countries in which a majority are already able to do this: Luxembourg (84%), the Netherlands (77%), Slovenia (67%), Malta (59%), Denmark (58%), Latvia (54%), Lithuania (52%) and Estonia (52%). Those countries where respondents are least likely to be able to do so are Portugal and Hungary (13% in each), the UK (14%) and Greece (15%).
    ** The socio-demographic groups most likely to be able to speak at least two foreign languages are younger people, in particular 15-24 year olds; those who finished their full-time education aged 20 or more; those holding management occupations; daily internet users; those who ‘almost never’ struggle to pay household bills; and those who place themselves high on the self-positioning social staircase.
  • Legislation More than three-quarters (77%) of respondents think that improving language skills should be a policy priority, with a third (33%) saying that they ‘totally agree’, reflecting the widespread support for multilingualism that other results have demonstrated.
  • Film/TV A small majority of Europeans (52%) prefer to watch foreign films and programmes dubbed, rather than with subtitles.
  • English At a national level English is the most widely spoken foreign language in all but six Member States where it is not an official language (i.e. excluding the UK and Ireland). English and Spanish show notable increases since 2005 in the proportion of respondents saying that they know them well enough to be able to hold a conversation with the biggest improvements for English in Austria (+15 percentage points to 73%), Finland (+7 points to 70%), Latvia (+7 points to 46%) and Lithuania (+6 points to 38%); and, for Spanish, in Italy (+7 points to 11%) and Spain (+6 points to 16%).
  • English English is the language most likely to be used on a more than occasional basis, with just under half (47%) of espondents who speak it saying that they do, and a fifth (19%) saying that they use it every day or almost every day.

When are we using multilingualism? How are languages used?

  • Leisure Foreign languages are most commonly used on holidays abroad (50%), when watching films/television or listening to the radio (37%), using the internet (36%) and communicating with friends (35%).
  • News Just over two fifths (44%) of Europeans say that they are able to understand at least one foreign language well enough to be able to follow the news on radio or television. English is the most widely mentioned foreign language, with a quarter (25%) of respondents saying that they can follow radio or television news in English. Only a small minority of Europeans say they understand French (7%), German (7%), Spanish (5%), Russian (3%) and Italian (2%) well enough to be able to do so.
  • Written press A similar proportion (44%) of Europeans are able to read a newspaper or magazine article in a foreign language [...] with English being the most widespread foreign language.
  • Online Europeans are slightly less likely to be able to communicate online in a foreign language (e.g. using email, Twitter, Facebook etc.) with two fifths (39%) saying that they can. English is the most widely cited language.

How are we learning languages?

  • ! Firstly, the majority of Europeans are not learning languages. Just over two fifths (44%) have not learnt a language recently and do not intend to do so in the next year. Around a quarter (23%) have never learnt a language other than their mother tongue.
  • School The most widespread method used by Europeans to learn a foreign language is through lessons at school, mentioned by just over two thirds of Europeans (68%). Other learning methods are much less widely adopted. A fifth (19%) of Europeans say they have not used any of the methods for learning a foreign language.

Why do we learn languages? What benefits do we get?

  • Work Three fifths of Europeans (61%) think that a key advantage of learning a new language is that it enables working in another country.
  • Travel Just over half (53%) cite using the language at work (including travelling abroad on business) and a slightly smaller proportion using it on holidays abroad (47%).
  • Study Over two fifths of respondents think that learning a new language would help them get a better job in their own country (45%) and study in another country (43%).
  • Cohesion Just under two fifths (38%) believe it would help with understanding people from other cultures.

Let's boost language learning! Break down barriers

  • Money Three in ten Europeans (29%) say that free lessons would make them significantly more likely to learn or improve skills in a language.
  • Motivation The most widely mentioned barrier to learning another language is lack of motivation, with a third (34%) of respondents saying this discourages them.
  • Time Around a quarter of Europeans cite lack of time to study properly (28%) and cost (25%) as barriers.
  • Ability A fifth (19%) say they are not good at languages.