Eğitim / Elt Materials 30 Mart 2024

Foreign language learning statistics – Statistics Explained – ec.europa.eu

Data extracted in July 2023.
Planned article update: September 2024.
All or nearly all (99–100 %) primary school pupils in Cyprus, Malta, Spain, Poland and Austria were learning English as a foreign language in 2021.
In 2021, 88 % of pupils in upper secondary education in the EU were learning English as a foreign language: this share was 97 % in general programmes and 79 % in vocational programmes.
Nearly half (49.5 %) of all pupils in upper secondary education were learning two or more foreign languages in 2021.
Linguistic diversity is actively encouraged within many education establishments and workplaces. Schools and other primary and secondary educational institutions provide the main opportunity for the vast majority of people to learn languages. This article presents statistics on language learning in primary and secondary schools of the European Union (EU) Member States as well as EFTA and enlargement countries. It forms part of an online publication on education and training in the EU.
Currently there are 24 official languages recognised within the EU which has been the situation since the accession of Croatia.
There have always been fewer official languages than EU Member States, as some EU Member States share common languages, for example in Belgium where the official languages are Dutch, French and German, while in Cyprus the majority of the population speaks Greek. There are also a number of indigenous regional and minority languages found within the EU, as well as many other languages that have been brought into the EU by migrant populations, notably Arabic, Turkish and Chinese. Some regional languages, such as Basque, Catalan and Galician, have gained a status as co-official languages of the EU.

Within primary education, 84.2 % of pupils in the EU were learning English in 2021. Learning English is mandatory within primary education institutions in several EU Member States, and so a number of them have all (or nearly all) pupils learning this language already in primary education, as shown in Figure 1. Note that the relative importance of English as a foreign language may be further magnified because pupils tend to receive more instruction in their first foreign language than they do for any subsequent languages they study.
Within primary education, 5.3 % of pupils in the EU were learning French in 2021, while 3.5 % were learning German. For both of these languages, Luxembourg reported the highest shares (80.0 % and 96.8 % respectively); in Luxembourg, French and German are both official national languages and taught as foreign languages.
In 2021, 7.2 % of primary school pupils in the EU were learning two or more foreign languages – see Figure 2. Note that this indicator includes all foreign modern languages, not just the selected languages shown in Figure 1.
Between 2013 and 2021, the share of primary school pupils in the EU learning at least two foreign languages increased from 4.6 % to 7.2 %. In percentage point terms, the biggest gains were recorded in Latvia, Spain, Finland and Greece where the shares increased by 15.0, 14.2, 13.9 and 10.5 percentage points, respectively. The large increase in Spain, which had the third highest number of primary school pupils in the EU (12.6 % of the EU total), contributed strongly to the increase observed for the EU as a whole. Elsewhere, increases were more modest, not exceeding 4.4 percentage points. In eight EU Member States, the share of primary school pupils learning at least two foreign languages decreased, down less than 1.5 percentage points in all except Luxembourg and Poland, where it fell 3.8 and 7.1 percentage points, respectively.
Within lower secondary education, 98.3 % of pupils in the EU were learning English in 2021 – see Table 1.
Within lower secondary education, 30.5 % of pupils in the EU were learning French in 2021, 22.4 % German and 18.2 % Spanish.
The share of lower secondary school pupils in the EU who were learning English was already high in 2013 but was 1.6 percentage higher in 2021. A larger increase was observed for the share of lower secondary pupils learning Spanish (up 5.6 percentage points). Decreases were observed for the share of lower secondary pupils learning German (down 0.2 percentage points) and French (down 3.4 points).
Among the EU Member States, the largest changes (+/- 10.0 percentage points) between 2013 and 2021 in the share of lower secondary pupils learning specific languages were:
In 2021, 60.6 % of lower secondary pupils in the EU were learning two or more foreign languages – see Figure 3. Note that this indicator includes all foreign modern languages, not just the selected languages shown in Table 1.
Between 2013 and 2021, the share of lower secondary pupils in the EU learning at least two foreign languages increased from 58.4 % to 60.6 %.
Table 2 presents information on the proportion of pupils in upper secondary education (ISCED levels 3, 34 (general) and 35 (vocational)) learning four selected foreign languages.
Approximately 9 in 10 (88.3 %) upper secondary students in the EU were studying English as a foreign language in 2021.
Among upper secondary pupils across the EU following a general programme, the share learning English was 96.8 % in 2021; among those following a vocational programme, the share was lower, at 78.6 %. In most EU Member States, the share of upper secondary students studying English as a foreign language was higher within general programmes than within vocational programmes.
Around one fifth of upper secondary pupils in the EU were learning German (20.1 %), French (19.0 %) or Spanish (17.9 %) as a foreign language in 2021. Note that the analysis for the EU Member States below excludes Ireland, for which data on learning German, French and Spanish are not available; it also partially excludes the Netherlands, for which data on learning French and Spanish are not available.
The share of upper secondary pupils in the EU following a general programme that were learning German was 21.8 %, compared with 17.9 % for those following a vocational programme. In most EU Member States, the share of upper secondary students learning German as a foreign language was higher within general programmes than within vocational programmes. The only exception was Poland, where the share of upper secondary pupils learning German as a foreign language was higher within vocational programmes than within general ones.
Among upper secondary pupils in the EU, the share learning French was 22.3 % within general programmes and 16.4 % within vocational programmes. In Greece, 32.2 % of upper secondary pupils in general programmes were learning French, whereas 1.5 % were doing so within vocational programmes. Differences of at least 20.0 percentage points, with higher shares within general programmes, were also observed in Spain, Austria, Luxembourg and Cyprus. By contrast, the share of upper secondary pupils learning French as a foreign language was higher within vocational programmes than within general ones in Portugal (5.6 percentage points difference), Belgium (7.6 percentage points difference), Romania (7.7 percentage points difference) and Italy (15.9 percentage points difference).
The difference between general and vocational programmes was most notable for upper secondary pupils learning Spanish. Across the EU, 26.8 % of pupils within general programmes were learning Spanish as a foreign language, compared with 7.0 % within vocational programmes. A higher share of pupils learning Spanish within general programmes was observed in all EU Member States for which data are available, except for Greece where almost no pupils were learning Spanish in either type of programme. France (27.8 %) and Italy (13.9 %) were the only Member States where more than 6.8 % of pupils in upper secondary vocational programmes were learning Spanish.
Among the EU Member States, the largest increase between 2013 and 2021 in the share of pupils in upper secondary education who were studying English was recorded in Hungary (up by 10.3 percentage points); note that there was a break in series. The next largest increase was observed in Luxembourg, up 9.4 percentage points. Increases of at least 5.0 percentage points were also observed in Greece, Germany, the Netherlands, Czechia, Cyprus and Poland.
For upper secondary education pupils studying German, the share increased between 2013 and 2021 in 10 out of the 24 EU Member States for which data are available/applicable (Germany and Austria, not applicable; Ireland, not available), was unchanged in Portugal and Sweden, and fell in 12 Member States. The biggest increases were recorded in Greece (up 19.1 percentage points), Poland (up 8.4 percentage points) and the Netherlands (up 6.6 percentage points).
Between 2013 and 2021, the share of pupils in upper secondary education learning French as a foreign language fell in all but five of the 24 EU Member States for which data are available/applicable (France, not applicable; Ireland and the Netherlands, not available). Increases were observed in Greece, Poland, Belgium, Croatia and Hungary.
The situation for Spanish was almost the opposite of that for French. The share of upper secondary education pupils learning Spanish increased between 2013 and 2021 in 17 of the 24 EU Member States for which data are available (Spain, not applicable; Ireland and the Netherlands, not available). The biggest increase was recorded in Poland, up 6.9 percentage points.
In 2021, almost half (49.5 %) of all upper secondary pupils in the EU were learning two or more foreign languages – see Figure 5.
Between 2013 and 2021, the biggest decreases (in percentage point terms) in the share of upper secondary pupils learning at least two foreign languages were recorded in Cyprus (down 37.9 percentage points), Slovakia (down 22.2 percentage points), Estonia (down 16.9 percentage points) and Malta (down 11.7 percentage points). Smaller decreases (at most down 5.8 percentage points) were observed in eight other EU Member States. Elsewhere, increases between 2013 and 2021 were less than 6.0 percentage points in most cases, with four exceptions. An increase of 7.0 percentage points was observed in Croatia, while the increase in Hungary was 8.1 percentage points, in Poland it was 11.2 percentage points, and in Greece it was 40.4 percentage points.
The share of upper secondary pupils studying two or more foreign languages confirms a more widespread learning of foreign languages within general programmes than within vocational ones. In 2021, 61.0 % of upper secondary pupils following general programmes in the EU were learning two or more foreign languages, compared with 34.9 % for pupils following vocational programmes.
Between 2013 and 2021, the share of upper secondary pupils following general programmes who were learning at least two foreign languages increased most in Greece (up 60.5 percentage points), Hungary (up 33.4 percentage points) and Poland (up 10.9 percentage points). The largest decrease was observed for Cyprus, down 44.8 percentage points.
Poland also recorded a large increase in the share of upper secondary pupils following vocational programmes who were learning two or more foreign languages, up 11.8 percentage points between 2013 and 2021. Relatively large percentage point increases were also observed in Latvia, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Croatia, Bulgaria and Italy. The largest decreases, by far, were recorded in Slovakia (down 33.8 percentage points) and Estonia (down 43.5 percentage points).
Data on the number of pupils studying foreign languages are related to the corresponding numbers of students enrolled; students enrolled in special schools are excluded.
The data refer to all pupils in primary and secondary education, even if teaching languages does not start in the first years of instruction for the particular ISCED level considered. These statistics concern all modern languages that are taught as foreign languages. Each student studying a foreign language is counted once for each language they are studying. In other words, students studying more than one language are counted as many times as the number of languages studied.
The educational curriculum drawn up in each country defines the languages considered as foreign languages in that country and this definition is applied during data collection. Regional languages are included if they are considered as alternatives to foreign languages by the curriculum. Only foreign languages studied as compulsory subjects or as compulsory curriculum options are included. The study of languages when the subject is offered in addition to the minimum curriculum is not included. Non-nationals studying their native language in special classes or those studying the language(s) of the host country are excluded.
Learning a foreign language is considered to be an important factor for participation in society: foreign languages can unite people, make other countries and their cultures more accessible, and strengthen intercultural understanding. Poor or low levels of foreign language skills can cause businesses to lose international contracts, while also potentially hindering the mobility of skills and talent.
For several decades, it has been mandatory for most children in the EU to learn at least one foreign language during their compulsory education. In 2002, the Barcelona European Council recommended that at least two foreign languages should be taught to all pupils from a very early age.
Language skills are at the heart of the ambitious vision to create a European Education Area.
A Council Recommendation on a comprehensive approach to the teaching and learning of languages was adopted in May 2019, while a European Commission staff working document (SWD(2018) 174 final) provides some scientific and factual background to the Recommendation.
Among the recommendations are the following.

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