Today is the European Day of Languages. The European Union’s objective is for European citizens to be able to communicate in two languages in addition to their mother tongue, but which languages do Europeans actually speak?
Europeans are certainly very clear about the importance of languages: according to a 2012 Eurobarometer survey, 88% of Europeans think that speaking languages other than their mother tongue is very useful, and 98% of them think that languages are useful for the future of their children.
The Eurobarometer survey gives lots of information about the languages that Europeans speak. This varies greatly from country to country. Overall, just over half of Europeans (54%) can hold a conversation in at least one additional language, but this proportion was over 90% in Luxembourg, Latvia, the Netherlands, Malta, Slovenia, Lithuania and Sweden, and less than 50% in Hungary, Italy, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain, Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.
A quarter of Europeans met the EU’s goal of speaking at least two additional languages. This varied from 84% of people in Luxembourg to only 13% in Hungary and Portugal, 14% in the UK, 15% in Greece and 18% in Spain and Ireland.
The most commonly spoken foreign languages in Europe were English (38%), French (12%), German (11%), Spanish (7%) and Russian (5%).
In Spain, the most common additional language spoken was English, followed by Spanish (for people with another language as their mother tongue) and Catalan. 22% of people said they speak English well enough to hold a conversation, 12% said that they could follow the news in English on radio or television, 15% said they could read English newspaper or magazine articles and 17% said they could communicate online in English.
As in other countries, younger people in Spain are more likely to be able to speak an additional language, as are people with higher levels of education.
The Eurobarometer survey also has some interesting insights about how people learn languages, but we’ll talk about that in a later post.