How do Europeans learn languages?

A couple of weeks ago we posted about which languages Europeans speak, based on the results of a 2012 Eurobarometer survey. The survey also gives lots of interesting information about how Europeans learn languages. Although many people’s only experience of language learning is through lessons at school, there are lots of other ways to improve your language skills.

68% of Europeans said they had studied a foreign language at school. This is by far the most common way of learning a language, and no other method of language learning was used by more than 15% of Europeans. There are several reasons for this. A high proportion of Europeans (34%) said that they were not motivated to continue learning a language, while 28% said they didn’t have enough time and 25% said it cost too much. 18% of people were discouraged by “not being good at languages”.

Nevertheless, there are many different ways that Europeans improve their language skills, and the methods used vary significantly from country to country. For example, 48% of Greeks had taken group lessons outside school, 46% of Danish people learnt by talking informally to a native speaker, 33% of Dutch people used conversation lessons and 18% of Swedish and French people said they did a language course in the country where the language is spoken.

Over half of Swedes (52%) said they had taught themselves a language by watching television and films or listening to the radio, and 41% said they learned by reading books. In most other countries, these proportions were much lower. In Spain, for example, only 6% said they learned by watching TV and films or listening to the radio and 9% taught themselves through reading books. These differences are almost certainly related to whether people watch TV and films in the original language with subtitles or a dubbed version. In Scandinavia and other northern European countries, subtitles are much more common. 96% of people in Sweden, 95% in Finland and 93% in Denmark and the Netherlands said they preferred watching foreign films with subtitles. In contrast, only 24% of people in Spain preferred films with subtitles to the dubbed version. Nevertheless, with the increased availability of original language versions of programmes in Spain, this may start to change.

In 2012, only a small minority of Europeans (6%) mentioned learning languages online, although this was more popular in Denmark (20%), Finland and Latvia (both 18%). If a similar survey were done today, these numbers would probably be higher.

The results of the survey show that we’re still a long way off the EU target of everyone being able to communicate in two languages other than their mother tongue. They also help us understand why people stop learning languages when they leave school. One of the key challenges for the future will be finding ways to overcome these barriers by motivating and incentivising people to continue learning languages as adults. Meanwhile, language lessons at school remain critical to developing people’s overall language skills.

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