Languages in Europe: Europeans and Languages They Speak

Article in partnership with Day Translations.

When travelling around Europe, one thing that is common to all countries is that their citizens are likely to be able to talk to visitors and tourists in a different language from their own.

The European Union regularly publishes surveys on a number of topics, including languages, tracking trends over time. Language surveys are not regular so there are gaps in the collection of data. It seems the last survey on languages was completed and published in 2012.

Europeans and Languages in 2006

In a 2006 report commissioned by the Directorate General for Education and Culture, and based on a sample of almost 29,000 respondents from different countries, participants to the survey said that they could speak at least another language in addition to their mother tongue. The data collected over 2005 and 2006 showed that 56% of participants in the survey reported that they could speak at least one foreign language, 28% could speak more than two languages, and 11% could speak three languages and could hold a conversation in all of them. In contrast, 44% of the total reported being able to speak only their mother tongue.

This report paints the average European who speaks multiple languages to be highly educated and to be most likely to live in a country that is different from their country of origin. Looking at the reasons why Europeans want to learn a new language, 35% of respondents said the reason is for holidays and 32% said it’s because of work. Countries like France, Germany and the United Kingdom (still in the EU at the time) had a high percentage of immigrants speaking their native tongue followed by English.

As of 2006, 51% of respondents confirmed that they could speak English, either as a foreign language or as their mother tongue. This means that English was the most commonly spoken language by 450 million people living in the European Union. At that time, the European Union had 20 working official languages and had recognised 60 other languages including indigenous languages.

Another interesting point from the 2006 report was that language proficiency wasn’t homogeneous across all countries in the European Union, with places such as Czechia, Hungary, Portugal and Greece where people speak predominantly only their mother tongue, with percentages of 98%-100% of the total by country. Belgium has a different mix of languages, with 56% speaking Dutch as their mother tongue and 38% speaking French as their mother tongue. At the time the UK was still a member state of the European Union and 92% of respondents put English as their first language.

Europeans and Languages in 2012

The Eurobarometer survey published in 2012 with data collected during the same year showed that 79% of respondents thought speaking English is useful, particularly for work prospects.

72% of respondents believed that it is important to speak at least one additional language other than the mother tongue.

At the time of the report, the United Kingdom was still a member state of the European Union and the official languages had gone from 20 to 23.

When looking at language skills, 54% of respondents said they could speak one foreign language, then 25% could speak two foreign languages in addition to their mother tongue and 10% could speak three languages and be able to have a conversation in all of them. If we compare these results to those published in 2006 we can see that language proficiency fell slightly over the years.

The number of people who could not speak any foreign language apart from their mother tongue went up from 44% in 2006 to 46% in 2012.

There were some increases in people who could speak an additional languages in Austria, Finland and Ireland. 84% of respondents from Luxemburg could speak two languages in addition to their mother tongue.

Generally speaking, 24% of respondents said they use their learned foreign language every day and 50% use it occasionally. The main way people use foreign languages is for holidays abroad with 50% of respondent, followed by 37% for TV, films and music, and then 35% for connecting with friends. 25% can understand English being spoken in films as passive learners. 75% of respondents said they are not planning to learn a foreign language. Only 20% of respondents said they are active language learners.

The 2012 survey showed that 61% of respondents believed that learning a new language gives them an advantage when planning to work in another country.

Eurostat Figures

Eurostat published some figures on languages, reporting that in 2016 almost 25% of Europeans could speak a foreign language well and 80% of adults of working age with a good level of education could speak at least one foreign language. 35% of working adults did not speak a foreign language.

Final Thoughts

It is a shame that so far there hasn’t been a more recent study about languages in Europe, however there are positive signs that people can still see good reasons to learn another language and access a wider range of work opportunities. Languages can also be a gateway to access online content, especially audio-visual content, with younger people prefering to watch movies in the original language rather than dubbed.