October 8, 2015

More than any other foreign language, European youths learn English

The European Union is awash with languages. There are 24 official languages in the EU and more than 60 indigenous regional or minority languages. Despite this linguistic diversity, European students study one foreign language far more than any other: English.

Roughly three-quarters (77%) of primary school students in the EU learn English as a foreign language, according to data from Eurostat. This includes all or nearly all young students in Austria, Malta, Italy, Spain and Cyprus.

Majority of Primary Students in the European Union Study English

By comparison, German and French, the next most popular foreign languages, were studied by only 3.2% and 3% of EU primary school students, respectively.

Luxembourg and Belgium, each with three official languages, have the lowest share of primary school pupils studying English as a foreign language. In both countries, students frequently study one of the official languages, typically French or German, instead of English.

English Learning on the Rise Among Primary SchoolersLearning English has been growing more popular in EU nations, with the share of young students studying English as a foreign language more than doubling from just 35% in 2000. Meanwhile, the share of young students studying French and German has remained below 15%. Governments (and parents) may have their eye on preparing students for a global economy in which English is seen as the dominant language.

In the U.S., by contrast, only 25% of elementary schools even offered foreign languages as of 2008, the latest data available.

While most European students are introduced to English in primary school, learning English is even more popular among those in upper secondary school (roughly equivalent to U.S. high school). More than nine-in-ten upper-secondary students (94%) in the EU learn English, compared with fewer than a quarter who learn French (24%), German (20%) or Spanish (18%).

In addition, the average European student studies more than one foreign language in school, unlike their U.S. counterparts. In fact, studying a second foreign language for at least one year is compulsory in more than 20 European nations. The U.S. has no similar national requirement.

English Language Learning Up Among Students in New EU Member NationsNew EU members have seen an increase in their share of English language learners. Seven of 12 nations that joined the EU in the past 11 years saw a significant increase between 2004 and 2013 in the percentage of upper-secondary students learning English (data are unavailable for a 13th country, Croatia).

But English language learning has not completely replaced Russian language learning in the former Soviet bloc nations of the EU. In fact, there have been significant increases in the share of upper-secondary students learning Russian in Latvia, Slovakia and Estonia. In 2004, 44% of Latvian high schoolers were taking Russian. That number jumped 13 percentage points to 57% of high school students in 2013. Slovakia and Estonia saw increases of 12 points and 9 points, respectively, over the same time period.

Topics: Education, Europe, Language

  1. Photo of Bridget Parker

    is a research assistant focusing on global attitudes at Pew Research Center.


  1. Lee Cadaver2 years ago

    I have noticed a decline in Mandarin, which was so popular just a couple of years ago…not only is it nearly impossible to master unless you start young and then reinforce it with a stint in China, but the world dynamic is backing off from Mandarin and sticking with English for business, entertainment, art and diplomacy as China’s once meteoric rise has leveled…everyone speaks English, its importance is clear…the USA schools not offering a foreign language is embarrassing

  2. James Bolger2 years ago

    The most important challenge is not to end up like Ireland, where English has
    suffocated Gaelic.

    Norway, which has not had this problem, is not populous but seems to have
    retained language and cultural identity.

  3. Jerym2 years ago

    To be honest they are learning English because it happens to be the language of the United States that originated in England.

  4. TTK2 years ago

    We see the birth of the Common Language of our civilization both in Old and New World. It could be the greatest achievement of the XXI century!

  5. Todd Hjermstad2 years ago

    …is it perhaps English simply emerged as most useful 2nd social language? Years ago in EU hostels you’d encounter Italians conversing with Scandinavians and a perhaps a German joins in…English was frequently the universal 2nd language understood by all.

    1. E G stafford2 years ago

      English has become the world’s second language, even supplanting Latin as the lingua franca of Catholic Church leaders and laity.

  6. Maleku Bribri2 years ago


  7. Michael Armstrong2 years ago

    I consider my Kansas elementary and secondary education to have been excellent. However, it did have a major failing — no meaningful foreign language study. I view this as a significant disadvantage in my dealings in the global economy.