Which European Countries Have The Biggest Focus On Language Learning?

European countries start to introduce languages at a young age.
Three university students standing in front of a library

There’s no doubt that, on the whole, most European countries are more multilingual than the United States. In an episode of Multilinguish, we looked at why that is. In short, it’s complicated, because multiple factors including geography and overall motivation affects when and why people learn a language. But one of the most important contributors to multilingualism is the educational curriculum, which has a pretty obvious effect on European language learning. We dug into some of the statistics to find out when different countries introduce languages to students.

What Percentage Of Students Are Learning Languages In European Countries?

According to the Pew Research Center, only about 20 percent of students in the United States are learning a second language. This varies state by state, as each one sets a different curriculum. The best state for language learning is New Jersey, where 51.8 percent of primary and secondary school students are learning a language. Washington, DC has the second highest at about 47 percent, and then it quickly drops off with Wisconsin at 36 percent. There are 30 states below the national average, and there is no mandate in the United States for there to be any second-language learning at all.

These numbers are especially low when compared to mainland Europe, where the median percentage is up at 92 percent. Even Belgium, which has the lowest percentage of any of the European countries included in the study — the United Kingdom and Ireland are likely lower but the data is not included —  is at 64 percent, which is more than triple that of the United States. And that number is mostly reflective of the fact that Belgian students start learning later, and 90 percent of upper secondary students learn a second language.

The average is particularly high because there are seven countries with 100 percent language learning, which are Austria, France, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway and Romania. For more detail, here’s a list of all the countries in the study, organized by percentage.

Language Learning By Country

1. Austria (100%)
1. France (100%)
1. Liechtenstein (100%)
1. Luxembourg (100%)
1. Malta (100%)
1. Norway (100%)
1. Romania (100%)
8. Croatia (99%)
8. Cyprus (99%)
10. Latvia (98%)
10. Poland (98%)
12. Spain (96%)
13. Slovakia (95%)
14. Bulgaria (93%)
15. Sweden (92%)
16. Lithuania (89%)
17. Czechia (88%)
18. Greece (87%)
19. Hungary (85%)
20. Finland (84%)
21. Denmark (82%)
21. Estonia (82%)
21. Germany (82%)
21. Italy (82%)
25. Iceland (78%)
26. Slovenia (76%)
27. Netherland (70%)
28. Portugal (69%)
29. Belgium (64%)

When Do European Students Start Learning A Foreign Language?

While the sheer number of European students learning a foreign language is an important factor, what’s also important is the age at which students start learning.

There are conflicting schools of thought in the field of education about when the best time is to start teaching foreign languages. On the one hand, younger students tend to be more excited and engaged than older ones, making it better to start younger. On the other, despite conventional wisdom that it’s always better to start teaching languages younger, children actually do better in language classes when they’re a little older. Pitting 8-year-olds against 12-year-olds, a study found the older group did better at learning in a classroom setting (immersion is a whole different phenomenon, though).

Still, countries that start children young and continue teaching through secondary school are likely to instill more language aptitude than if they were to start later. Another Pew Research Center study looked into this data to find the age at which it’s compulsory to learn a second language for students. It found the majority of European countries start children between ages 6 and 9, implying that they follow the school of thought that younger is better.

Notably, Belgium looks suspiciously low at age 3, but that’s only compulsory for the German-speaking Community of Belgium, which is relatively small. The United Kingdom is on the other side of the spectrum with compulsory language learning not happening until 11, though it can vary a lot depending on place. And Scotland and Ireland aren’t required to study a language at all, though Ireland does teach students both English and Gaelic.

European Language Teaching By Age

Age 3: Belgium (German Community)
Age 5: Cyprus, Malta
Age 6: Austria, Croatia, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Spain
Age 7: Estonia, Finland, France, Poland, Sweden
Age 8: Belgium (French Community), Bulgaria, Czechia, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia
Age 9: Denmark, Hungary, Iceland, Latvia, Slovenia, Turkey
Age 10: Belgium (Flemish Community), Netherlands
Age 11: United Kingdom
Not Required: Scotland, Ireland

When Do European Students Start Learning A Second Non-Native Language?

It may seem incredible to countries with no compulsory language learning, but over 20 countries in Europe actually require the study of two foreign languages before graduation. For the most part, at least one of the languages being studied is English, with over 90 percent of secondary students learning the language. Other major languages include French, German, Spanish and Russian.

Second Foreign Language Learning By Age

Age 7: Luxembourg
Age 10: Estonia, Greece, Iceland, Romania
Age 11: Italy, Malta, Slovakia
Age 12: Belgium (Flemish Community), Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal, Slovenia
Age 13: Belgium (German Community), Finland, France, Poland
Age 14: Hungary
Age 15: Austria, Bulgaria, Czechia, Liechtenstein
Age 16: Norway
Not Required: Belgium (French Community), Croatia, Germany, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, United Kingdom

European Countries And Self-Study

While we’ve pointed out the countries that have a focus on teaching languages, that is only one piece of the learning puzzle. There are also people across the continent who learn on their own or with an app. When Babbel looked at app-based learners around the world, we found that the most motivated learners aren’t necessarily the ones who were taught from the earliest age. In fact Italy, which only comes in at 21 on the list above, has the best language learners compared to the other countries that use Babbel.

While looking at schools can show you which countries have an interest in making their students multilingual, it’s far from the only piece of polyglot puzzle. There’s a whole range of factors that go into what languages a person speaks. So if the country you grew up in is relatively low on this list, don’t fret: there’s never been a better time to become multilingual no matter where you are in the world.

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