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August 2018

Countries with the Most Students Studying Foreign Languages

How does your country rank?

A recent study by the Pew Research Center has discovered that "Europe drastically outpaces U.S. in foreign language learning". The study primarily centers upon those studying foreign languages during primary and secondary schools (elementary, middle, and high schools for in the U.S. system).

The countries at the top

The countries ranking the highest on the list are those that have 100 per cent of primary and secondary school students learning foreign languages. The countries at the top are Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway, Austria, Romania, and France. Ranking in the upper 90 percentile are Cyprus, Croatia, Latvia, Poland, Spain, and Slovakia. The median for European countries sits at 92 per cent.

The countries at the bottom

Ranking 70 per cent and below are the Netherlands, Portugal, and Belgium. The United States falls far below European nations with only 20 per cent of elementary, middle, and high school students studying foreign languages. Anecdotally, this is hardly surprising. Americans have always been under the stereotype that few speak a second language. Within the U.S., New Jersey, the District of Columbia, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Vermont are the states with the highest percentages of students studying foreign languages. The states with the lowest percentages are Oregon, Montana, Arkansas, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Which languages are most popular?

In Europe, English is the most popular language studied by European youths at approximately 77 per cent in primary schools alone. French and German follow English as the second and third most studied languages. In the U.S., Spanish is by far the most popular second language studied.

Are the results surprising?

It’s not surprising that more Europeans learn a second language early in life when compared to Americans; European cultures are geographically close to one another and English is the de facto lingua franca. Still, the low 20 per cent for the U.S. is surprising especially given that some of the worst performing states (Arizona, New Mexico) are near the Mexico border where knowledge of Spanish would be quite useful.

Looking at the highest performing U.S. states, we see Wisconsin, which is a relatively homogenous state compared to California or New York. The lack of ultra-diverse states in the upper echelon of this study leads an observer to wonder if, because of the diversity inherent in the U.S., many citizens are raised learning a second language at home, such as those among the vast number of Hispanic and Asian populations. These children of immigrants who already speak second languages could suggest that the percentage of Americans who actually speak second languages may not be limited to 20 per cent.

Another limitation to this study is that the data for the United Kingdom and Ireland are not available. It would be interesting to see how well predominantly English-speaking European countries fare upon this list.

How does your country rank on this list? Do you agree with the findings? Let us know your thoughts on our Facebook Page, and be sure to “like” TELC English for more language learning articles!