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Development of foreign language skills in the European Union: Towards an English-only or multilingual Europe?

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The article reviews language skills of the citizens of the European Union on the basis of Eurobarometer surveys. In recent years English has spread especially among young Europeans and among elite groups. In the new member states its spread has been even more rapid than in the fifteen older member states. The knowledge of all languages (except Russian) is increasing and there is therefore no clear evidence that English would replace knowledge of other foreign languages. English as the only foreign language is gaining mainly among those who do not know any other foreign language, and it is also increasingly becoming an essential part of language skills of those who already know foreign languages. The number of those who know other foreign languages but not English is rapidly decreasing.

Since 1976, Eurobarometer surveys have occasionally included questions about languages and therefore it is possible to explore the historical development of foreign language skills among Europeans. As early as 1976 English was the most often spoken foreign language even if it was not far ahead of French. Since the 1970s, although knowledge of foreign languages has increased, the knowledge of English has increased more rapidly than knowledge of other languages. Every enlargement has brought into the EU more people with knowledge of English than with knowledge of French or German. Moreover in the six original member states English is spoken as often as French or German, although the number of English native speakers in these countries is negligible. English is more often spoken in younger age groups, and in the new member-states of 2004 and 2007 its knowledge is increasing even more rapidly than in old member states. On the other hand, a significant part of the population does not know foreign languages, even in the youngest age groups. In many countries English so dominates foreign language skills that there are practically no people speaking foreign languages and not speaking English. In some other countries (Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia) the knowledge of English is characteristic only of a small part of those who have command of foreign languages. Among the young, English is spoken more often as the only foreign language, but the number of those who know English and another foreign language is increasing even more rapidly. The combination of foreign language skills reveals that English and to a lesser degree Russian are languages which are often the only spoken foreign languages of a given person, while other languages, like German, Italian or Swedish and even French, are languages which are spoken in combination with knowledge of some other foreign language, in most cases English. English is more often spoken among elites, where its knowledge is often combined with knowledge of some other language. Among middle and lower strata the speaking of several languages is less frequent. It is no surprise that knowledge of English as a foreign language correlates positively with life satisfaction and with income more clearly than any other foreign language. English is seen as one of the most useful languages, while German and French are much less popular and their popularity is decreasing. French is seen as the second most useful language after English in western and southern Europe and German in eastern and northern Europe. Also those who already know these languages tend to see them as useful more often than those who do not know them. English is seen as useful even among those who do not know it.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2007

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