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A continent of polyglots

Melanie Butler takes a closer look at the latest Eurydice data, which gives a detailed picture of school-based language learning in Europe

Primary languages boom


Figure 1: Starting ages at which the first and second foreign languages are compulsory subjects for all students, 2015/16

In Europe, language learning is seen as a basic skill, like reading or maths. Only two countries, Scotland and Ireland, do not make foreign languages compulsory in schools.

Since 2002, the EU has urged members to teach ‘at least two foreign languages from a very early age’ and the latest statistics show most countries are responding.

In the last decade the number of primary school pupils learning a language has risen by almost a quarter to 84 per cent. Increasing numbers of school systems, including that of England, now start languages in primary. The most common starting age is now between six and eight.

There remain, however, significant differences between member states. In eight EU countries, nearly all students in primary education studied at least one foreign language.

However in Belgium (Flemish Community), Portugal and Slovenia, less than half of children in this age group do so. The latest Eurydice report on language learning warns that while starting ages have dropped, the total time dedicated to languages at primary schools has only seen a modest increase.

Most countries devote between 5 and 10 per cent of classroom time to languages and only the two trilingual countries, Malta and Luxembourg, exceed 12 per cent, with Malta coming in at just under 15 per cent and Luxembourg at 44 per cent.

Yet recent research from Germany, reported on page 10, emphasizes that with very young children the amount of exposure is key to success. In lower secondary, numbers of students in the EU learning two languages have grown significantly, with 60 per cent now learning two foreign languages. But it is not all good news. In the French community of Belgium, there is no provision for a second foreign language at this education level. In Bulgaria and Austria, learning a second language only becomes compulsory in upper secondary while in Hungary it is not compulsory at all.

AT Austria /BE Belgium /BE fr Belgium – French Speaking /BE de Belgium – German-Speaking /BE nl Belgium – Flemish Speaking /BG Bulgaria /CY Cyprus / CZ Czech Republic/ DE Germany / DK Denmark / EE Estonia /EL Greece /ES Spain /FR France /FL Finland /HR Croatia / HU Hungary / IT Italy/ IE Ireland / LT Lithuania / LU Luxembourg / LV Latvia / MT Malta / NL Netherlands / PL Poland / PT Portugal/ RO Romania / SE Sweden/ SI Slovenia / SK Slovakia / UK United Kingdom /UK-ENG England /UK-WLS Wales /UK-NIR Northern Ireland
UK-SCT Scotland / FR France
EFTA/EEA and candidate countries
BA Bosnia and Herzegovina/ CH Switzerland / IS Iceland / LI Liechtenstein / ME Montenegro / MK* Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia / NO Norway / RS Serbia / TR Turkey
*Numbers after country initial indicate different curriculum programmes.

No clear link between ‘time on task’ and success

Time on task, to use the educationalist term for time learning in class, is generally one of the strongest predictors for learning outcomes. Language learning is unlikely to be an exception. So which European countries spend the most time learning their first foreign language and when do they learn it?

The Eurydice report finds that although more countries are starting a foreign language in primary, more time is dedicated to it in secondary. Research from Germany (see page here) suggests this might be counterproductive: children starting in year 1, who were reliant on learning implicitly by immersion, were overtaken in lower secondary school by children who started two years later. The authors argue that this, in part, is because children with the early start did not get enough exposure. Their teachers’ language level might also be a factor.

In schooling overall, the countries with the highest numbers of hours devoted to language teaching in school – Malta, Luxembourg and German-speaking Belgium, are those where the first foreign language is a medium of instruction at secondary school. These hours do not include any Clil and in fact no Clil hours in any country are recorded in the Eurydice figures. This means the total number of hours of language learning reported for countries such as Austria, where Clil is used in the first two years in primary, are significantly lower than the total hours of exposure to the language.

As the Eurydice data in Figure 2 shows clearly, there are two ways of counting time – the total amount of years and the total amount of full hours – and the two are not always the same. So, for example, Montenegro and Romania do a similar number of hours, around 500. But whereas Romania spreads it out over 11 years, Montenegro squeezes it into just six.

So do longer hours result in better outcomes? It is difficult to tell as schools don’t report standards in terms of CEFR levels. What we do know is that research has shown British teenagers to be the worst across 17 European countries. They were followed by the French, the Poles and the Spanish. Sweden, the Netherlands and Estonia were at the top. Looking at the Eurydice instruction time table, the most we can say is that there doesn’t appear to be a clear correlation between time on task and learning outcomes.


Figure 2: Relationship between the minimum instruction time recommended for the first compulsory foreign language and the number of years over which this provision is spread during full-time compulsory general education, 2015/16. (Includes only countries with compulsory minimum)

English still top dog

English still dominates language learning in Europe. In 2014, 97 per cent of students in lower secondary school studied it. This number drops to 85 per cent at upper secondary mostly because fewer students in vocational and educational training are required to learn foreign languages.

The number of students learning English has risen during the last decade, mostly due to a 19 per cent increase in those studying the language at primary school – which has grown 19 per cent since 2005.

French, German and Spanish are the popular choices for a second foreign language. French was studied by 34 per cent of students in lower secondary education and 23 per cent in upper secondary.The figures for Germany are 23 per cent dropping to 19 in the last years of school. For Spanish, the pattern is reversed with 19 per cent learning it in the last years of school, against only 13 per cent among younger age groups. Numbers for Spanish are growing, while enrolments for German are holding steady and French is showing a slight fall.


Figure 3: Foreign languages learnt by most students, primary and secondary education (ISCED 1-3).