In almost all European countries, English is the foreign language learnt by most pupils during primary and secondary education, according to a new official report by a European Union agency.
French is the second-most commonly learnt foreign language learnt by school pupils, according to the Eurydice report “key data on teaching languages at schools in Europe 2017”, published by the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency. This is the fourth time such a report has been published.
Bulgaria represents an exception, to some extent.
In a few European countries (Belgium, Bulgaria, Luxembourg and Hungary), the proportions of pupils learning English do not reach 90 per cent in any educational level. However, even in these countries, English is learnt by at least two-thirds of pupils in at least one education level.
In Bulgaria, it is Russian, not French, that is the second-most studied foreign language. Bulgaria has this in common with only three other European countries – the Baltic States.
English is a mandatory foreign language in nearly all education systems that stipulate a particular foreign language that all pupils must study, that is, in almost half of the European countries studied, the report said.
In 2014, at EU level, virtually all pupils (97.3 per cent) studied English during the entire period of lower secondary education.
The proportion was lower in primary education (79.4 per cent), as in some countries foreign language learning is not part of the curriculum during the first years of compulsory schooling.
At EU level, the proportion of pupils learning English in upper secondary education was 85.2 per cent. This is mostly due to a lower proportion of vocational education pupils learning foreign languages. Moreover, in upper secondary education, a greater variety of foreign languages is usually offered in schools.
The proportions of pupils learning English rose during the past decade, the Eurydice report said. The change is the most profound for the youngest – primary education – pupils.
At EU level, in 2014, 18.7 percentage points more pupils were learning English in primary education compared with 2005. This is mainly due to the lowering of the starting age for the compulsory learning of the first foreign language. This trend is observed in the education systems that do not specify a mandatory language, as well as in those where English is compulsory.
The change was less profound in secondary education, as the majority of pupils in these education levels were already learning English in 2005.
English is mandatory in most of the education systems that stipulate a particular foreign language that all pupils have to study. All pupils must learn English in 13 countries or regions within the European Union, as well as Switzerland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, the Republic of Macedonia and Norway. In most cases, English is the first language that pupils have to learn.
French is the second most learnt foreign language in European countries. At EU level, 33.7 per cent of pupils study French in lower secondary education and 23 per cent in general upper secondary education.
French is a popular choice for a second foreign language in many central and southern European countries. It is the second most studied foreign language in at least one education level in Germany, Greece, Spain, Italy, Cyprus, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria, Portugal, Romania, Liechtenstein and the Republic of Macedonia.
In contrast, French is rarely studied in eastern European countries (except Romania) or in the Nordic countries.
German is the third most learnt foreign language in lower secondary education. At EU level, 23.1 per cent of lower secondary education pupils learn German. The numbers reach 18.9 per cent in general upper secondary education. This language is widely studied in central European countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) and Balkan countries (Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia), as well as in Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
German is not very popular in southern European countries (Spain, Italy, Cyprus and Portugal), nor in Belgium (French Community) or Finland, where less than 10 per cent choose German as a foreign language.
Spanish is commonly studied in general upper secondary education.
At EU level, 19.1 per cent of general upper secondary education pupils learn Spanish. It is the second most learnt foreign language in lower and upper secondary education in France, Sweden and Norway, as well as in general upper secondary education across the United Kingdom.
Russian is the second most studied foreign language in at least one education level in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
In Estonia, due to the large Russian-speaking population, 22.7 per cent of pupils study Estonian as a foreign language in primary education, making it the second most popular foreign language. In Latvia, the numbers of Russian-speaking pupils learning Latvian is similarly high. However, when collecting statistics on foreign language learning, Latvian is not considered a ‘foreign language’, but a state language.
Where schools may choose which foreign languages to offer, French and German are the most common options.
Moreover, certain education systems make French and/or German mandatory subjects, especially in multi-lingual countries where they are one of the state languages, for example in Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland.
In 2015/16, in about half of the education systems that require all pupils to study two languages at the same time at one point during their schooling, the period of learning lasts for four years in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Austria, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey, and five years in Belgium (German-speaking and Flemish Communities), Denmark, Greece, France, Lithuania, Malta and the Netherlands).
The period of learning two languages is six years in the Czech Republic, Poland and Finland, seven years in Estonia, Latvia and Montenegro and eight years in Romania, Switzerland, Iceland, the Republic of Macedonia and Serbia. Pupils must study two languages for three years in Italy, Portugal and Liechtenstein and for one year in Norway. Luxembourg stands out as all pupils have to learn two languages for 12 years.
Compared with a decade ago, pupils in primary education are learning a foreign language from a younger age.
In 2014, at EU level, 83.8 per cent of all pupils attending primary education studied at least one foreign language. This is a substantial increase (16.5 percentage points) compared to 2005 where the percentage stood at 67.3 per cent.
This is not surprising, given the reforms to lower the starting age for compulsory foreign language learning in some countries. In the majority of countries, this obligation now starts between the ages of six and eight.
However, this European trend hides great differences between countries. In 2014, in 12 countries, nearly all pupils in primary education studied at least one foreign language (Spain, France, Croatia, Italy, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta, Austria, Poland, Liechtenstein, Macedonia and Norway).
In contrast, in Belgium (Flemish Community), Portugal and Slovenia, more than half of primary pupils were not learning any foreign languages. These differences in proportions can be largely explained by the variation in the ages at which learning a foreign language becomes compulsory.
In 2016, the share of instruction time dedicated to foreign languages compared to total instruction time for the entire primary curriculum is still modest: in the majority of countries, this percentage ranges between 5 and 10 per cent.
It is slightly higher in Belgium (German-speaking Community – 11.9 per cent), Greece (the Unified Revised Curriculum – 11.4 per cent), Spain (10.8 per cent), Croatia (11.1 per cent), Latvia (10.1 per cent), Malta (14.9 per cent), Macedonia (10.4 per cent) and much higher Luxembourg (44 per cent).
Nevertheless, between 2011 and 2016, a few countries substantially increased the instruction time for foreign language teaching in primary education: Denmark, Spain, Cyprus, and Slovakia
At EU level, 59.7 per cent of all pupils enrolled in lower secondary education were learning two foreign languages or more in 2014. This is a substantial increase compared to 2005 when it was only 46.7 per cent.
This reflects a policy change in several countries, which aimed to increase the number of pupils learning a second language as well as lower the starting age.
In Bulgaria and Austria, learning a second language only becomes compulsory in upper secondary education.
Determining the appropriate types of support is one of the first steps to be taken when newly arrived migrant pupils enter the education system, the report said.
Currently, central recommendations on testing the language of schooling for newly arrived pupils exist in about a third of European countries.
In Greece, Cyprus, Latvia, Sweden and Norway, all newly arrived pupils undergo assessment in the language of schooling (at least in some education levels).
Some other education systems (Belgium (Flemish Community), Croatia and Austria) assess the proficiency in the language of schooling of all pupils at specific stages in order to determine whether support is needed. If a newly arrived migrant student enters the education system at this particular stage, he or she will be tested as well.
In the rest of Europe, the reception of newly arrived pupils is mostly a matter for school autonomy, and institutions are free to establish their own assessment procedures.
One of the measures taken to support newly arrived pupils in the education system is the provision of separate classes where they are given intensive language teaching and, in some cases, an adapted curriculum for other subjects, with the intention of preparing them to move quickly into mainstream classes.
Preparatory classes with intensive training in the language of schooling are available for newly arrived migrants in less than half the European countries and are usually limited to one or two years.
Most European countries do not separate newly arrived migrants into preparatory classes, but integrate them into mainstream classrooms directly, into the grade corresponding to their age, the Eurydice report said.