Britons at bottom of table for learning a foreign language

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The Independent Online

Almost two in three Britons are unable to speak a language other than English, in effect the worst record in Europe, a survey for the European Commission has found. Sixty-two per cent of respondents from the United Kingdom admitted they could not speak any language other than their mother tongue.

This compared with an average of 44 per cent across the EU and just 1 per cent in Luxembourg, the top-ranking country.

Only Ireland, with 66 per cent, outdid Britain, but the situation is complicated there because 11 per cent of the population count Irish as their mother tongue - and virtually all of those can also speak English.

About 700 people were interviewed in every EU country in November and December last year for the report, Europeans and their Languages.The survey monitored progress towards the EU target for all citizens to speak two languages in addition to their mother tongue. But the study found only 38 per cent of Britons spoke at least one foreign language, 18 per cent at least two, and 6 per cent at least three. This compared with an EU average of 56 per cent speaking at least one foreign language, 28 per cent at least two, and 11 per cent at least three.

The UK was one of just six EU countries - with Ireland, Italy, Hungary, Portugal and Spain - where the majority of citizens did not speak any language other than their mother tongue.

The survey also confirmed that English was the most widely-spoken foreign language throughout Europe, with 51 per cent of EU citizens able to hold a conversation in English, including 13 per cent for whom it was their mother tongue.

The report warned that there was a growing divide between multilingual and monolingual Europeans.

"A multilingual European is likely to be young, well-educated or still studying, born in a country other than the country of residence, who uses foreign languages for professional reasons and is motivated to learn," the report concluded. "Consequently, it seems that a large part of European society is not enjoying the advantages of multilingualism."

Tamzin Caffrey, of Cilt, the National Centre for Languages, said Britons could lose out because of laziness.

She said: "There is sometimes a very arrogant attitude that people from other countries will learn to speak English so we don't need to bother to learn to speak their languages. Britons are missing out on fabulous opportunities to interact with other cultures on holiday or on business because they don't speak the language."

The survey found Britons had a low opinion of their linguistic abilities, with 24 per cent stating "people in my country are good at speaking other languages", compared with an EU average of 44 per cent. Most British respondents (71 per cent) thought French was the best foreign language for UK children to study, followed by Spanish (39 per cent) and German (34 per cent).

Fifty-six per cent of Britons thought children should start learning a foreign language before five - in most countries the majority said six to 12 years.

The Government's National Languages Strategy for England aims to provide foreign language lessons for every eight to 11-year-old in primary schools by the end of the decade.

Nina Lemmens: 'In Germany, you simply have to learn'

"I am really not unusual for a German person," insists Nina Lemmens, who speaks fluent English and reasonable French and Italian, as well as her native German. "In German schools, you simply have to learn foreign languages."

Ms Lemmens, 42, who has lived in the UK for five years, continued: "When I was growing up, you had to take at least two foreign languages at school to pass the equivalent of A-levels. I started Latin as my first language aged 10, English as my second and French as my third. I learnt Italian after I left school. I also studied history of art at quite a traditional German university, where you had to pass proficiency tests in three languages.

"Learning a language really is a life-changing experience. It enables you to really experience different cultures and it opens the world up to you. I would not be able to do the job I do unless I was fluent in English.

"Learning a language enhances people's lives. It makes it much more interesting to learn a language if you can see in your everyday life that it will be useful to you."