Foreign languages and the EU

Discussion in 'Cultural Discussions' started by Sepia, Sep 18, 2008.

  1. Sepia Senior Member

    High German/Danish
    We had this theme before but it was kicked out of the forum because it seemed oben to too much personal interpretation. So this time, please stick to statistical facts and objective observations as foreseen under the forum regulations.
    The European Commission has set an ambitious target: That most (whatever that means - over 50%) people in each of the single member states should be able to communicate in two more languages on top of their native one.
    In some regions this is not at all future talk, but reality. But in other parts - especially in the states that most recently joined: What is happening? Are your education systems and deciding politicians ready for this? Are they showing any signs, that they are really heading for this target?
    I do not only mean, do they teach two or more foreign languages in grade school. I also mean, do they teach them in a way that average people have a chance of really communicating in both or more of these languages when they leave school?
  2. Nanon

    Nanon Senior Member

    Entre Paris et Lisbonne
    français (France)
    Recently, the French Minister of Education stated that he wanted "all children to be bilingual at the end of their school career". See here.

    However, "bilingual" refers only to French and English, not to other languages (spoken within the EC or not).
    Whether English will be taught in a way that will enable students to communicate better than they do now obviously requires future evaluation.

    As to other languages, little is done in France. Secondary schools (collèges, lycées) offer various choices, but most students pick up Spanish because studying another Romance language is considered the easiest option. The demand for German is declining in schools. Besides, German has always been proposed to the best students, because it is considered as "more difficult" than English or Spanish. Some schools offer Italian. The choice of languages other than English is driven by beliefs about the economic value of learning a language. It is generally considered that Spanish is spoken in a wider number of countries, hence a valuable option. Few people have a chance of really communicating in the second foreign language they learnt at school.

    No effort is done to promote languages spoken, for instance, in Eastern Europe, even for the sake of European integration.

    The EU issues reports on the importance of multilingualism for business, but there is no real policy to promote it. As to languages of emerging countries, few students have an opportunity to start learning them from school, and politicians do not mention them. For instance, there is an increasing number of business schools offering Mandarin, but what about children and teenagers? and having teachers in schools?
    The same goes for Arabic: those who are not of Arab descent or Muslims have little opportunities to learn it at school. But would it not be useful for mutual knowledge and tolerance to have Arabic taught in schools, in a multicultural society?
    Russian is taught in some schools, but it suffers from more or less the same image as German: a difficult language.
    And finally, one of my favourite topics: Portuguese. If you are lucky enough to find a secondary school where Portuguese is taught, the few students will be of Portuguese descent, learning the language of their ancestors. It seems that few French (Europeans?) are aware of the number of Portuguese-speaking countries and of the economic power of Brazil, otherwise Portuguese would have the same status as Spanish...
  3. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    In Austria only in 'higher education' (from 15/16 years onwards) most students receive education in two (or more) language though in some schools two languages already are taught at an earlier age.
    However even those learning two or more languages usually only can effectively communicate in one of those - which in most cases would be English.

    Of course there are always very talented students, or students who simply like languages, who really can communicate in their two (or probably even three) foreign languages. But this is not the norm.
    Usually only students in minority language regions really do know 2 languages in addition to their mother tongue (or speak 2 mother tongues and 1 foreign language, however you prefer to phrase it), e. g. Slovenian, German (= mother tongues) and English.

    Efforts are made to popularise languages of neighbouring countries and also other 'Eastern' languages (beside Slavic ones there's even a recent movement to promote Chinese as first foreign languages at least in a few selcted schools, which so far hasn't had much success).

    So yes, there are quite some efforts to achieve this goal.
    But no, so far most Austrians only speak one foreign language good enough to being able to communicate, and this usually is English. And some even't get that far, ever.
  4. Grux Senior Member

    In Spain, definitely not. We are still a step behind. With very few exceptions, in most schools the only foreign language studied is English, and actually when finishing school many people do not have enough conversation skills to speak it with fluency. I don't know if the reason for this is a deficient education system, the fact that we don't travel abroad very frequently, the dubbing of all films or what, but it's true.

    Of course you can learn other languages if you want to, but in general it has to be done out of school.

    In the regions with a co-official language appart from the Spanish (Castilian), children often learn these two languages and English.
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2008
  5. Sepia Senior Member

    High German/Danish
    So at least in the autonomous regions of Spain we might be pretty close - right?

    But elsewhere?

    I personally am pretty disappointed by some of the educational systems in Europe too. Denmark is one source of disappointment: Wheras lots of Danes in addition to Danish speak English very well and also get along marvelously in German it is my impression, that once you have to do with people who grew up outside of the reach of German electronic media, they often do not understand even the simplest things although they took German for several years in school. Furthermore, the English you hear spoken by most people from Scandinavia is strongly influenced by AE. Since AE is not what is normally being taught in their schools this shows me that the over-average language skills we see there are not necessarily or primarily a result of the school system.

    In Germany it is even worse (my skill in the English language was not founded in any school system either). Here it very much depends on the politics of the single federal states, and only the border regions really stand out as positive examples. In the North you actually find lots of people who speak Danish very well although they did not grow up in Danish language families, like some of us did. Many schools have both Danish and English on their curriculums.


    What about the new member states in Eastern Europe? Anybody from there present?
  6. Grux Senior Member

    In these regions most young people have knowledge of three languages, but I think very few can speak and write the three ones fluently and with some correction.
  7. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    I can't tell what percentage of Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and Slovenes do speak two foreign language good enough to being able to communicate, but in my experience many Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians do speak both English and German quite good.
    But of course it is also possible that Slovaks from Bratislava (right on the Austrian border) tell you that they only speak English and don't understand German (I saw it happen) - same as on the other side on the border, in Austria, where most people too only speak English good enough to communicate, and hardly anyone speaks Slovak at all.

    For Slovenes beside English there are three other important foreign language: Croatian/Serbian, Italian and German. I think most Slovenes speak at least two of them (I'd guess mostly English and another one) good enough to at least engage succesfully in a basic conversation.
    Probably nowadays some Slovenes speak English even better than Serbian/Croatian - I can't tell what changes happened there since the 1990ies when I was there last time. Previously of course the then so-called Serbocroatian language was first foreign language. Of all our (= Austrians) neighbouring countries I would guess that Slovenia is the most polyglot one.
    (Certainly not Italy, Switzerland neither would be my guess except probably for Ladin communities and those communities living on the Romandie border, Germany neither as in my experience - Upper Austria compared to Lower Bavaria - knowledge of foreign languages might be even worse in Germany than in Austria.)
  8. Zsanna

    Zsanna ModErrata

    Hungarian - Hungary
    I couldn't provide exact figures about Hungarians but based on simple experience, I'd say that things are really looking up in Hungary in connection with language learning. Although it has always been considered an important thing, efforts (including severe laws) have been made to improve the general picture. (E.g. you cannot have your university diploma - of any sort - unless you have a national language exam. Needless to say, there are people who stay without their diplomas because they don't manage to pass the state exam for a foreign language.)
    But nowadays it is easy to find young people who speak at least one foreign language (usu. English) quite well but I think it is also due to the improved possibilities for travelling, doing studies abroad, etc.
    It is trickier to find people with good working knowledge of two foreign languages, I'd think.
  9. federicoft Senior Member

    In Italy, the most studied foreign language after English is... Latin, which is taught from the 6th grade upwards in all schools (with the exception of technical establishments) as a compulsory subject.
    In Liceo Classico ancient Greek is a compuslory subject as well.

    Apart from that, what Grux wrote for Spain applies pretty much for Italy.
  10. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    Croatia isn't in the EU yet, but it will likely be in a couple of years, so I guess this issue has some relevance for us too. Now, my first comment on this issue would be: what exactly is meant by "communicating"? Being able to ask where you can find some street or the railway station? The ability to socialize with foreigners without an intruding language barrier? Or the ability to do professional business in that language? (Of course, different sorts of business have very different linguistic demands.)

    With the most relaxed criteria, I'd say that most Croatian people could probably do some very basic communication in at least one foreign language (usually English or German, and in some parts also Italian), and a significant minority even in two or more. However, as you set the bar higher, the number of people capable of communicating at such level falls very rapidly. If you don't count professional translators, people who lived abroad for a long time, and other exceptional categories, only a tiny minority of Croatians are capable of communicating in any foreign language at a near-native level. (Of course, here I'm not counting the ability to communicate in Serbian and the other non-Croatian variants of BCS that are nowadays officially "foreign". :D)

    As for the target-setting by the EU, it's quite illusory to expect that government policies can change anything very significant in this regard anywhere. Learning languages is hard enough that people will do it only if they have personal incentives to do so for some reason, and governments can only hope to make language learning somewhat easier and more accessible to those who are already trying to do so. Without such incentives, no amount of pushing foreign languages in education will make any significant difference. Disinterested students will do whatever they have to do to pass the exams, but they'll still end up unable to say a single sentence in the language they were supposedly learning for years. (I'm not sure if I'm transgressing the rules against personal opinions in this last paragraph, but as far as I know, these are uncontroversial facts.)
    Last edited: Sep 20, 2008
  11. Sepia Senior Member

    High German/Danish

    I don't agree with you on this one - true enough, students have to be interested, but basically I am sure that - especially in smaller countries like the size of Denmark and down to the size of Luxembourg or Croatia there are enough people who are interested.

    But in order for masses of people to learn one has to have facilities within the public education systems or at least in parallel systems that are affordable. Take a look at Ireland as compared with Great Britain (20 years after Thatcher!). Or look at France now and 20 - 30 years ago. The firste times I went to Paris in the seventies (not so long after many years of de Gaulle ...) it was almost impossible to find anyone who spoke English which definitely had to do with the ecucational system in that era. Even today the French still have - at least among Germans and Scandinavians - a reputation of always refusing to speak or understand other languages as French. But today this is far from true: Now you even hear Parisians adress tourists in German, and lots of them speak English.
  12. Nanon

    Nanon Senior Member

    Entre Paris et Lisbonne
    français (France)
    Well, Belgians may be already close to "the European goal for perfection" :D. They have to study both their native language and the other official one (Dutch or French, according to where they belong to). And they study foreign languages as well, so it makes at least three.
    Now, if you ask the Belgians, some of them will answer you that they don't really have a choice - but this is far out of the scope of this forum.
  13. Ynez Senior Member

    Spanish government/s will continue making an effort, but we will still be among the worst at English and languages in general, together with France and Italy. Television probably has a big influence on this, since we watch it in our native language.

    The states that most recently joined are already much better than us at English, even if their goverment didn't pay so much attention to language learning (I don't know if they did).

    About Spanish regions, all Spain is divided in regional governments, but not all speak a second language.
  14. Lugubert Senior Member

    I'm not up to date on curent Swedish curriculums, but when leaving high school I had had English, German and French. I prioritized scinence, but adding a year of Spanish would have been possible. I think, though, judging from some young friends of mine, that two foreign languages still are a minimum. There seems to be a trend to chose, apart from compulsory English, French rather than neighbouring German.

    Selections offered vary widely, even if not discussing the principle that children of non-Swedish ethnicities should be offered training in their first languages. The limited supply of qualified foreign first language teachers unfortunately often makes this goal fall short.

    Sometimes, though, you find schools offering quite a variety of languages. In first year university Chinese, I had two classmates who had taken Chinese in high school.

    You should also note that few will be terribly surprised if you tell them that you, a Swede, understand Danish and Norwegian.
  15. katie_here Senior Member

    I'm not sure what they are doing in England at the moment, but by the time my son left school in 2005, French was the only other language learnt that was compulsory. Students did learn Spanish and German as well, not all of them though, just some.

    I've just had a look at our National Curriculum, and found this..


    I don't think many children leave school with a good understanding or ability to speak a foreign language, and we are told that it's not necessary as most people abroad speak English. (This isn't true as I have found out!).

    English people should make a bigger effort to learn other languages, probably Spanish or Greek as it's where most of them go on holiday.
  16. We British have always been poor at learning foreign languages. One probable reason is that so many other countries speak English anyway, that we don't have to bother. Another is that we have fought many wars against our European neighbours over the centuries and a lot of our national self-identity has traditionally been based on our victories. (The defeats have tended to be overlooked unless we have managed to turn them into heroic retreats, such as at Dunkirk.) That has given us an unjustified superciliousness about other languages.

    Economically, it is so easy to look the USA as a trading partner, which eliminates the need for learning any other language. A lot of Britons have learned continental European languages for trade and tourism, but they are also learning, say, Japanese, Arabic and (now) Chinese for the same reason. European languages are not seen in a class of their own.

    We have a lot of educational problems in England and Wales (Scotland has its own system), because of the way that educational policies have so often been changed over the past six decades. There is currently a National Curriculum, which includes a stab at French and allows the teaching of other languages, but there is no vision of making our nation multilingual, or even bilingual. I sense that there is no substantially greater capacity for other languages in Britain than there was when I was studying French, German and Latin at school in the 1960's. We have a lot of people who can get by in reading one or more foreign languages at a higher than basic level, but far fewer who can converse in them competently.

    I wish it were otherwise. I really do.
  17. trance0 Senior Member

    To revive the thread so that I may add a few experiences of my own. Judging from my own language skills, I can say I speak 3 foreign languages reasonably well, at least to the point of a little over basic communication. This is partly due to the public education system in Slovenia(I studied three foreign languages during the course of my school years - Serbian/Croatian, English and German) and partly due to my own interest in languages. Although I did get basic knowledge of the mentioned three foreing languages in elementary and highschool, I must say most of my more advanced language skills originate from self-learning and watching TV, reading web pages in foreign languages and communicating with foreigners. That said, I can safely say that Slovenia`s education system IS generally good enough to provide students with at least basic proficiency in ONE foreign language and to a lesser degree TWO(excluding Serbian/Croatian). The planned changes in educational legislation should provide each student with some solid language skills in two foreign languages since both languages will be taught compulsorily(and not optionally like now) already in elementary school, so this should improve the situation in 10 years or so. Additionally, almost all Slovenes have at least passive knowledge of Serbian/Croatian, because of the similarity this language shares with Slovenian, because of common (political) history with our southern neighbours and also because of the significant popularity of the (mostly Croatian) pop music among the young population in Slovenia.

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