Foreign language learning statistics

From Statistics Explained

Data from October 2013. Most recent data: Further Eurostat information, Main tables and Database. Planned article update: November 2014.
Figure 1: Proportion of pupils in primary education learning foreign languages, by language, 2011 (1)
(%) - Source: Eurostat (educ_ilang), UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), OECD
Table 1: Foreign languages learnt per pupil in secondary education, 2006 and 2011 (1)
(%) - Source: Eurostat (educ_thfrlan) and (educ_ilang), Unesco Institute for Statistics (UIS), OECD

Currently there are 24 official languages recognised within the European Union (EU), in addition to which there are regional, minority languages, and languages spoken by migrant populations.

In 1958, legislation specified German, French, Italian and Dutch as the official and working languages of the European Union’s (EU) predecessor, the European Communities. There have always been fewer official languages than EU Member States, as some 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. Since Croatia’s accession there are 24 official languages recognised within the EU. In addition there are indigenous regional, minority languages (such as Catalan, Galician and Basque in Spain, or Welsh and Scottish Gaelic in the United Kingdom), and languages that have been brought into the EU by migrant populations, notably Arabic, Turkish, Urdu, Hindi and Chinese.

School and other educational institutions provide the main opportunity for the vast majority of people to learn languages and linguistic diversity is actively encouraged within many further educational establishments and workplaces. This article presents statistics on language learning at primary and secondary schools in the EU Member States, EFTA and candidate countries.

Main statistical findings

Primary education

Within primary education, a clear majority of pupils (choose to) study English. Indeed, learning English is mandatory in several countries within secondary education institutions, and so a number of EU Member States have close to 100 % of pupils learning this language already in primary education, as shown in Figure 1. The highest shares of primary education pupils studying English in 2011 were recorded in Malta, Spain, Austria, Italy, Greece, Croatia and Poland, with more than nine out of every ten children studying English; this was also the case in Liechtenstein, Norway and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. 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 (choose to) study.

Many of the central and eastern European Member States that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 were characterised by the fact that learning Russian was compulsory in the past. This situation has changed rapidly and these days most pupils have more choice concerning the language(s) they wish to study. In most of these countries there has been a marked increase in the proportion of pupils learning English, often above 50 % of all students, and in Bulgaria and Lithuania over 70 % in 2011, with the peak over 90 % in Poland (as already noted above).

Luxembourg is also of particular interest, insofar as there are three official languages, with most pupils receiving instruction in Luxembourgish, German and French at primary level; English is only introduced at secondary school. A similar situation is observed in Belgium, with the focus in primary schools on learning French or Dutch (depending on the community and/or region), rather than English.

Apart from Luxembourg, the only other EU Member State where more than one quarter of primary school children learnt French as a foreign language was in the United Kingdom, where this share exceeded two thirds (69.6 %). German is the main foreign language taught to all primary school children in Luxembourg, while more than one fifth of primary children were taught German in 2011 in Greece, Croatia and Hungary.

Secondary education

Turning to language learning in upper secondary education (as shown in Table 1), some 93.8 % of all EU-28 students at ISCED level 3 were studying English as a foreign language in 2011, compared with slightly less than one quarter (23.0 %) studying French and slightly more than one fifth (21.1 %) studying German. Between 2006 and 2011, the proportion of students at ISCED level 3 in the EU-27 studying English increased slightly (up 0.7 percentage points), while the proportions studying French and German fell 7.7 and 13.8 percentage points respectively.

Luxembourg and the Czech Republic stood out as the countries with the highest proportion (100 %) of secondary education students (at ISCED level 3) learning two or more languages in 2011, while there were also shares above 90 % recorded in Finland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania, Estonia (2008 data), Sweden and France; note this indicator includes all foreign languages, not just German, English and French.

Data sources and availability

Data on the number of pupils studying foreign languages are related to the corresponding numbers of students enrolled; mentally handicapped students enrolled in special schools are excluded.

The average number of foreign languages learned per pupil is collected for different ISCED levels. The data refer to all pupils, even if teaching languages does not start in the first years of instruction for the particular ISCED level considered. This indicator is defined as the sum of language students divided by the total number of students enrolled in the educational level considered. Each student studying a foreign language is counted once for each language he or she is 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, which are to be 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 of the host country are excluded.


For several decades it has been mandatory for most European children to learn at least one foreign language during their compulsory education, with the time devoted to foreign language instruction generally increasing in recent years. In 2002, the Barcelona European Council recommended that at least two foreign languages should be taught to all pupils from a very early age. This recommendation has been implemented to varying degrees, usually for compulsory secondary education, either by making it mandatory to teach a second language, or ensuring that pupils have the possibility to study a second foreign language as part of their curriculum. In September 2008, the European Commission adopted a Communication titled ‘Multilingualism: an asset for Europe and a shared commitment’ (COM(2008) 566 final), which was followed in November 2008 by a Council Resolution on a European strategy for multilingualism (2008/C 320/01). The Communication addressed languages in the wider context of social cohesion and prosperity and focused on actions to encourage and assist citizens in acquiring language skills. It explored issues such as:

  • the role languages play in developing mutual understanding in a multicultural society;
  • how language skills improve employability and ensure a competitive edge for European businesses;
  • what to do to encourage European citizens to speak two languages in addition to their mother tongue;
  • how the media and new technologies can serve as a bridge between speakers of different languages.

See also

Further Eurostat information


Main tables

Education (t_educ)
Education indicators - non-finance (t_educ_indic)
Foreign languages learnt per pupil (tps00056)
Pupils learning English (tps00057)
Pupils learning French (tps00058)
Pupils learning German (tps00059)


Education (educ)
Education indicators - non-finance (educ_indic)
Language learning (educ_ilang)

Dedicated section

Methodology / Metadata

  • Education (ESMS metadata file — educ_esms)

Source data for tables and figures (MS Excel)

Other information

External links