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30th Mar 2020

English most studied language in EU schools

English is the most studied language in schools in the European Union, but over 35 percent of adults only speak their mother tongue, especially in Hungary, where three in four grown-ups have no other language skills, fresh data released by Eurostat shows.

The data, published by the Eurostat statistics agency ahead of the European Day of Languages on Saturday (26 September), shows that English is the most studied foreign language in upper secondary education, except for Luxembourg, where English, French and German have equal status in the curriculum.

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  • English is most popular among EU school children, but adults often lack language skills. (Photo: EUobserver)

English is also the most commonly spoken foreign language among adults aged 25 to 64 years, except for Bulgaria, the Baltic States and Poland, where Russian predominates.

While English may be the de facto EU lingua franca, in Great Britain, half of the pupils are learning no foreign languages at all, while in Ireland, one in five school children are not taking classes in overseas tongues. Among the pupils who do study foreign languages in these two countries, French is the most common choice.

In contrast, all students in upper secondary education in the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Finland study two foreign languages, followed closely by Slovenia and Slovakia (98 percent) and Estonia (97 percent).

In Greece, Italy, Ireland, Spain, Malta and Hungary, teenagers have only one mandatory foreign language classes.

But teaching foreign tongues in school is no guarantee for language skills among adults. An EU-average of 36.2 percent of adults aged 25 to 64 claimed to speak no foreign language at all. Hungary scored particularly badly, with 75 percent speaking only Hungarian, followed by Portugal, where half of the adult population can speak no other languages.

Other laggards at foreign languages include Spaniards, Bulgarians and Greeks with more than 40 percent unilingual.

At the other end of the scale, over 70 percent of Slovenians say they can speak two or more foreign languages, Slovaks, Finns and Balts are the runners-up in the foreign-language league table.

Need for interpreters

In an effort to track down interpreters working in French and fill a hole expected over the next decade as current staff retire, the European Union on Wednesday launched an internet campaign on YouTube.

English interpreters are also an 'endangered species', as the commisioner for multilingualism Leonard Orban said last year.

"There is a paradoxical situation here: there are more and more people speaking English nowadays, and at the same time it's harder and harder to find people worldwide - not just in the EU - who can provide interpretation into or from English," he said.

The number of interpreters working in German, Italian, Dutch and Swedish is also expected to drop significantly due to retirement.

The EU has 23 official languages. More than 700 interpreters work on around 50 daily meetings at the European Commission and other institutions. That number is virtually double if the European Parliament is taken into account.

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