Europe’s polyglots: why these countries speak the most foreign languages

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Why Luxembourgers and Finns know more foreign languages than other nations.

Ask a first passer-by for directions while visiting Finland and most likely you’ll get an answer in fluent English. It doesn’t matter whether you’ll talk with a high school student, a young professional or a senior.

In fact, an average Finn does not limit himself to English. Almost 45% of working-age Finns know three or more foreign languages, being the second only to Luxembourgers in the EU, according to the Eurostat data.

So how did Luxembourg and Finland become the countries of Europe’s polyglots?

Four official languages

In Luxembourg, 51.2% of the population knows at least three foreign languages, shows Eurostat data for 2016. And there is an obvious explanation for that. Having three official languages – French, German and Luxembourgish – inhabitants are left with no other choice but to learn many languages.

On top of that, in a country which became a seat of EU institutions, the English language is a must-have skill.

Actually, there are numerous countries in Europe with several official languages, and it comes as no surprise that all of them look impressive in terms of multilingualism.

In Switzerland which has 4 official languages – French, German, Italian and Romansh – 36.5% of the population knows at least 3 foreign languages. Knowledge of three and more foreign languages were also high in Belgium, where Dutch, French and German are official languages.

The most popular foreign languages in Finland

In Finland, there are two official languages – Finnish and Swedish. So what does encourage Finns to learn more languages?

Hanna Holma, a 37-year-old Finn, in addition to her mother tongue speaks three foreign languages: English, Swedish and French. She learned the basics of all three languages at school. Later, Hanna improved languages skills while living in different countries.

“I studied as an Erasmus student in Bath (UK), and as an exchange student in Lausanne (Switzerland). Also, I have been living in France for a couple of years now” explains Hanna to Business Fondue.

She thinks that her generation usually speaks two to three foreign languages.

“English is the strongest one, and television has had an essential role in that. Besides, many Finns need English language skills at work as it’s also a working language. Swedish is our second official language, and we learn it at school, while German is often the third choice of a foreign language, followed by French” assumes Hanna.

Secrets of Finland’s multilingualism

Hanna believes that a high-quality Finnish education system contributes to Finns’ foreign language skills, including fluent English. Teachers are required to have a Master’s degree, they are qualified and committed to their work. According to various rankings, Finland’s education system is one of the best in the world.

Also, children are early exposed to foreign languages at school. In 2018, pupils in Helsinki began to learn their first foreign language in the first grade instead of the third grade.

Add the fact that TV programmes and movies are not dubbed into Finnish, and it gets clearer and clearer why Finns manage to master their English.

Finally, Finland is a small country, and it is one more reason for Finns to be motivated to learn a foreign language.

“There are only 5.5 million Finns in the world. Finnish language that belongs to the Finno-Ugric language group is very different from English. So we have had to learn foreign languages to be able to communicate with other people. And English is one of the most spoken languages in the world” says Hanna.

In fact, almost all European countries with the best foreign languages skills have one thing in common – all of them are small.

Europeans that come from small countries are driven by the desire to learn foreign languages in order to be able to study abroad, to be more competitive in a single European labor market, to start the international business, or last but not least, to feel comfortable while traveling.

Nordic and Baltic countries are among the leaders

Nordic and Baltic countries are two more groups that stand out from others when it comes to foreign languages skills.

Not only almost half of Finns but also 43.7% of Norwegians and 24.6% of Danes claim to know at least three languages. In Sweden, 19% of the population could speak several languages, however, 96.6% know at least one.

Sweden takes the first place in the EU in terms of at least one known foreign language, followed by Denmark and two Baltic countries.

95.5% of Lithuanians, 95.8% of Latvians and 91.2% of Estonians speak at least one foreign language, according to data from Eurostat.

How did the Baltic countries achieve such a high level of foreign language skills? The explanation derives from their dramatic history. All three Baltic countries spent 50 years under Soviet Union occupation, regaining their independence in 1990.

During the occupation years, the older generations of Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians were taught Russian language at school and, in many cases, were forced to speak it in the public places or at the workplace.

Nowadays, the younger generations in their 20s and 30s learn English, but some of them are still able to understand Russian. What’s more, many people in the Baltics additionally try to learn at least one more foreign language.

Slovenia (37.7% of the population) and Slovakia (28% of the population) are also on top of the countries where at least three languages are known.

Countries with low foreign languages skills

On the other side of the scale is the UK. 65.4 % of Britons reported that they don’t speak any foreign languages, followed by 64.2% of Romanians, 57.6% of Hungarians, more than a half of Bulgarians.

The data from the Eurostat also confirms that both, English-speaking and bigger European countries, usually perform worse when it comes to foreign language skills. 49.2% of Irish, 45.8% of Spaniards, almost 40% of French, 34% of Italians, almost a third of Polish people claimed that they don’t have any foreign language skills.

In the meantime, Hanna reveals that in the future she’s planning on learning one more language. However, she hasn’t decided yet whether it will be German, Italian or Spanish.

“I like learning a new language and I find it useful. A language is an essential part of a culture and getting to know different cultures is fascinating. Besides, it’s always great to be able to speak the language that is spoken in the country you are traveling in. In that way, it’s easier to get to know local people” says Hanna.

And it’s perfectly sums up why it is worth start learning a new language. After all, one of the EU goals is for every European to speak two languages in addition to their mother tongue.


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