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Rate of foreign language speakers still not high enough in EU

Findings of a Eurobarometer survey conducted by TNS Opinion & Social for the European Commission (EC) reveal that across Europe, 56% of citizens are fluent in two languages – an increase of nine percentage points since 2001 – and 28% speak three languages.

However, the UK is lagging far behind its European counterparts in encouraging the learning of a second language: only 38% of UK citizens speak a foreign language well enough to have a conversation.

As for Hungary, 71% of people across Hungary only speak their mother tongue, whereas 18% are bilingual, and further 9% can speak a second foreign language (well enough to enter into a conversation). This proportion is much better in the 15-29 age group (45% do not speak languages, 34% are fluent in one, and 21% speak two foreign languages), and among those living in the capital (47% speak just their mother tongue, 27% speak one foreign language, and 21% speak two). Not surprisingly, these figures are much higher within with the older generation (those over 40).

The survey, which questions nearly 30,000 people across the 25 member states of the EU and in the four acceding and candidate countries, shows that the majority of Europeans think that learning a second and even a third language is crucial to professional and personal success. 73% of EU citizens mention better job opportunities as the main reason for today’s young people to learn a foreign language, whilst 83% believe that speaking a foreign language can be useful for them for private reasons.

English remains the most widely spoken language throughout Europe with some 51% of EU citizens speaking it either as their mother tongue or as a foreign language. This may explain the UK’s lack of motivation to learn other languages. 

English and German are the most widely spoken foreign languages in Hungary, with 16% and 17% of the whole population having a command of them, with just 2% and 1% being fluent in Russian and French, respectively. Naturally, a greater percentage of young people are skilled in languages (English: 39%, German: 33% in the 15-29 age group).

The three factors preventing people across Europe from learning a foreign language are lack of time (34%), motivation (30%), and expense of language classes (22%). Hungary’s figures are very similar, in terms of both main reasons and percentages. Expense of language classes (32%), lack of motivation (26%) and shortage of time (25%) are the main factors preventing Hungarians from learning foreign languages.

84% of Hungarian respondents agree that every citizen of the EU should be able to speak at least one foreign language, with 68% adding that a second foreign language should be learnt, too. It is descriptive of Hungary’s foreign language learning that 73% say Hungary is not good at speaking foreign languages, 84% definitely prefer dubbed films and programmes instead of subtitled ones. 66% believe that each language spoken in the EU (including Hungarian) should be equally treated. 55% agreed that language learning should be a political priority.

English (85%) and German (74%) became the unquestionable winners as the two languages selected as the foreign languages children should learn in addition to their mother languages. In comparison with other EU countries, just the second position of German is striking, but cultural, historical and geographical factors explain that. English is even more important for the 15-29 age group (93% selected it as one of the two languages that should be learnt).