Linguistic diversity is part of Europe’s DNA and respect for linguistic diversity is a key principle of the Union enshrined in its fundamental law, the Treaty on European Union, which states that the Union “shall respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity and shall ensure that Europe’s cultural heritage is safeguarded and enhanced”.
Ensuring that all pupils are taught two foreign languages from an early age is an ambitious goal, first formulated in 2002 by the Heads of State and Government meeting in Barcelona and recently reaffirmed in the May 2019 Council Recommendation on a comprehensive approach to language teaching and learning.
The Council Resolution on a new strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training towards the European Education Area and beyond (2021-2030), adopted in February 2021, also identified support for language teaching and learning and multilingualism as a concrete action for European cooperation to ensure quality, equity, inclusion and success in education and training.
Finally, the Council Recommendation on pathways to educational success emphasises the specific needs of students from migrant backgrounds, particularly in terms of support for language learning.
The new Eurydice network report
The 2023 edition of Eurydice’s comparative study, Key Data on Teaching Languages at School in Europe, is the fifth edition of the report. Based on the four previous studies, this new publication aims to contribute to the monitoring of policy developments in the field of language teaching and learning at school in Europe. Foreign languages are the focus of the survey, but other languages (regional or minority languages, classical languages, etc.) are also taken into account.
The report includes 51 indicators covering a wide range of issues relevant to language policy at European and national level, such as the transnational mobility of language teachers for professional purposes, the number and variety of languages studied at school, the amount of time devoted to language teaching, the expected achievement levels for the first and second foreign language and the language learning support measures for newly arrived immigrant students.
The main source of the report’s data is the Eurydice network, which provided qualitative information on policies and measures on language teaching in schools in European education systems. The Eurydice data are supplemented by Eurostat and OECD data (taken from PISA 2018 and TALIS 2018).
The report covers 39 education systems from the 37 member countries of the Eurydice network, which, in addition to the 27 EU Member States, also includes Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Switzerland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Norway, Serbia and Turkey.
Italian situation – The report’s main findings
Compared to almost two decades ago, primary school pupils in Europe are starting to study at least one foreign language at an increasingly early age. This is also the case in Italy, where English language teaching starts already in the first year of primary school, i.e. at the age of 6.
The study of a second foreign language usually begins, in Europe as in Italy, at lower secondary education level. In Europe, in fact, 59.2% of students at this level study two or more foreign languages. In 12 education systems, including the Italian one, the percentage reaches more than 90%.
Vocational education and training students in Europe have, on average, fewer opportunities to learn two foreign languages than their peers in general education. In this regard, Italy bucks the trend: the percentage of students studying two or more foreign languages in technical and vocational courses is higher than that of high school students.
In almost all European countries, English is the most studied foreign language during primary and secondary education. In 11 countries (France, Croatia, Italy, Cyprus, Latvia, Malta, Austria, Poland, Sweden, Liechtenstein and North Macedonia), even more than 90% of pupils study English. In 2020, French and German were the most popular choices for the second foreign language.
Between 2013 and 2018, at EU level, more than one in four foreign language teachers benefited from transnational mobility funded by an EU programme (27.4%). In 10 education systems (Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland), this trend was even more pronounced, with at least twice as many teachers going abroad thanks to funding from an EU programme than from national or regional programmes.