Europe: Language

Do you understand? The logo promoting the European Day of Languages, marked on 26 September.

Over half of Europeans are now able to hold a conversation in more than one language. But as English has developed a growing international reach, should we be worried?

Businesses, schools, language academies and summer camps: the institutions across Europe looking for people who can teach English as a foreign language are numerous and expanding. As the people of Europe interact with each other more than ever before, it increasingly means business opportunities for those of us lucky enough to be native speakers of the most commonly-used language.

The USA’s position as a cultural and economic superpower has helped to spread English across the globe, and in the 20th century English emerged as the international language in a range of fields, including aviation and science. In Europe, 38% of those who do not speak English natively are now able to hold a conversation in it.

Over half of all Europeans can now hold a conversation in a foreign language, and one in ten of them can speak at least three languages, plus their native tongue. But in Britain, surveys suggest that this applies far less than it does elsewhere. More than half – and possibly as many as three-quarters – of adults are unable to speak a foreign language.

Researchers now believe that English, along with other Indo-European languages (those which initially spread to Europe and much of South Asia), originated in present-day Turkey around 9,000 years ago. Expanding empires, human movement (for example, as a result of military invasions) and adaptation of the way people speak have all led to language use diversifying across Europe in the years since.

Globalisation has sped up the change in recent times. Trade and instant communication have become possible across national borders, migration has brought new dialects, and tourism across the continent has become more convenient and affordable, increasing interaction between those who speak different languages. Within the European Union, there are now 23 recognised languages, over 60 indigenous regional and minority languages and many other dialects spoken by migrant communities.

The international language?

The writer David Thomas says we should welcome the dominance of English over other languages. If English becomes an increasingly universal language, it will make communication and business easier. It may make Brits feel lazy, but it will be convenient for us and others around the globe.

But John Worne of the British Council argues we should value other languages. Learning a range of languages allows people to explore economic and cultural opportunities and involves using parts of the brain which would otherwise go to waste. Language provides an insight into others’ heritage, traditions and idiosyncrasies; perhaps we will only appreciate their value when they are gone.

You Decide

  1. Should we be concerned by Brits’ poor linguistic skills?
  2. Should we focus on learning European languages, or others from further afield?


  1. Create an advert publicising the European Day of Languages, on 26 September.
  2. Write a letter to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, explaining how important you think foreign languages will be in the future and which languages she should particularly prioritise in the National Curriculum. Explain your views.

Some People Say...

“The sum of human wisdom is not contained in any one language.”

Ezra Pound

What do you think?

Q & A

How might speaking a language help my career?
A translator, interpreter or language teacher would obviously need an excellent grasp of languages, but languages can be advantageous in almost any field of work now. As companies interact with others across the continent, an employer may want someone who can talk to clients or colleagues on the phone, give presentations or perhaps do a placement in a foreign country.
How else might learning languages do me good?
Several studies have suggested that learning languages is beneficial for the human brain, making it more creative. Some have even suggested that it can help the brain increase in size or reduce the risk of illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Word Watch

A common language is required to avoid pilots and air traffic controllers misunderstanding each other; English is the language mandated by the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) for international flights. Pilots must develop a good standard of English before being allowed to fly.
Over half of all Europeans
The proportion is particularly high in some of the continent’s smaller countries, where local languages are not commonly spoken outside the nation’s own borders. In Luxembourg, Latvia, the Netherlands, Malta, Slovenia, Lithuania and Sweden, over 90% of people speak a foreign language.
One report in 2012 even suggested that only one in 40 British diplomats were fluent in the language of the country in which they worked.
This is an umbrella term for the process by which the world is becoming increasingly interdependent. Globalisation therefore includes processes which, for example, have made people more able to interact with one another, travel further and faster, and trade across national boundaries quickly and easily.


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