New Europe keener to learn German than French

21.02.06 @ 15:09

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - EU enlargement is pushing German ahead of French on the European language ladder, with non-indigenous languages such as Russian and Turkish also on the rise, a new European Commission study has shown.

  • Once the diplomatic language of Europe, French is losing its appeal to European students (Photo: EUobserver.com)

The number of German speakers and English speakers jumped 6 percent each between 2001 and 2005, hitting 14 percent and 38 percent respectively, while the rate of French speakers rose just 3 points to 14 percent.

"With the enlargement of the European Union, the balance between French and German is slowly changing. Clearly more citizens in the new member states master German, while their skills in French and Spanish are scarce," the report stated.

Almost two thirds of Europeans feel English is the most important foreign language for adults and children to learn.

But support for learning French as a foreign language dived from 40 percent to 25 percent in the past five years, while support for German slipped just 1 point to 22 percent.

France is fiercely protective of its linguistic heritage, with the Paris-based Academie Francaise sending out ambassadors to eastern Europe to promote French studies and awarding prizes to foreign francophones.

The academie also enforces the so-called "loi Toubon" of 1994 against the usage of foreign terms in French public sector texts, providing French options for new words, such as "courriel" instead of "email."

"We are aware of international trends, but we want to show that French is able to express reality equally well," academie lexicographer Jean-Matthieu Pasqualini told EUobserver.

"There is a danger that the value of French could be forgotten in the language of international science and finance."

Exotic tongues on the rise

The new study also put Russian on the map as the joint-fourth most popular language in the EU, equal with Spanish on 6 percent.

The Russian jump comes mainly from the Baltic States, with about one fifth of Latvians and Estonians citing Russian as their mother tongue while half of all Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians cite Russian as the most important foreign language to learn.

Eight percent of Germans quoted non-indigenous languages, mostly Turkish, as their maternal language, with EU candidate Bulgaria also recording 8 percent Turkish mother tongue speakers.

Non-indigenous mother tongues account for 5 percent of the British population and 3 percent of the French, with Indian languages and Arabic dominant.

The report did not cover Chinese, but European Commission language policy director Jacques Delmoly predicted a "boom" in EU Chinese language learning in the next few years due to China's economic growth.

Model Europeans

The typical European speaking multiple languages is likely to be young, well-educated and working in a managerial-type position, the study says.

The model polyglot is likely to have been born outside his country of residence and to live in a small member state that has more than one official language, such as Belgium, or in a country that has strong ties with neighbours, such as Slovenia.

Anglophone and southern European countries came bottom of the class, with 66 percent of the Irish and 62 percent of Brits saying they do not speak any foreign language, while over 55 percent of Italians, Portuguese and Spaniards said the same.

The commission itself recently came under fire for shedding Spanish, Italian and French translators in order to take on staff from new member states.

With 21 official EU languages and 60 other regional and non-indigenous tongues present in Europe, Tuesday's (21 February) commission press briefing on multilingualism was conducted in English, German and French only.

The study said 55 percent of EU citizens believe all EU communication should be handled in just one language, but ducked the sensitive question of "which one?"