- Languages in education and training: Final country comparative analysis1
The Commission’s Staff Working Document on Language competences for employability, mobility and growth2 highlights the contribution language skills can make to increasing economic growth. Poor language skills and a narrow range of language skills among the workforce are a serious barrier. The first European Survey of Language Competences (ESLC) found that at present only four in ten students assessed reached an independent user level at the age of 15 in the first foreign language they learn.3 English is increasingly the first foreign language being learnt, which is reducing the range and extent of competences in other foreign languages being acquired by young people.
The Thematic Working Group (TWG) on Languages in Education and Training is tasked with assisting the Commission by providing up to date information on the state of language learning in their educational systems through the completion, consolidation and validation of country-specific fiches to build on the evidence collected on languages by the Commission and other agencies with more contextual national information, in order to provide a more in-depth analysis of the position within the European Union (EU) and associate and candidate countries.
Approach and method
The country fiches have enabled in this report:
• a review of the differences and similarities in the context of language learning and the policy direction of countries to improve language learning covering 25 countries;
• a comparative study that shows the differences and similarities between 30 [End Page 181] countries in a range of characteristics of language learning in compulsory education (duration, ages, learning time, competency expected and achieved, languages learnt).4 This is set out to show differences and similarities in relation to the inputs to language learning (duration, curriculum time), ambitions (competency levels expected, qualifications), outcomes (competencies achieved, number/range of languages learnt) and the relationships between these at national level;
• an assessment of the degree to which challenges are faced by countries in improving language learning to make progress towards children achieving an independent user competence and address needs set out in the Staff Working Document on Language competences; and
• an assessment of the relationships between policies and practices and progress towards overcoming these challenges.
At this point the analysis is constrained by the fact that not all countries have been able to provide data on some of the characteristics of language learning in schools; only about half of the Member States participated in the ESLC while there is no comparable source for the language competences of young people in other countries nor any longitudinal data; and relatively few countries have provided any evaluative information of their policies’ and programmes’ impact over time in their fiches. This limits the analysis of the relationships between policies and programmes to increase language learning in the curriculum and the results achieved and of how challenges can be overcome to improve language learning competences.
Policies, programmes and initiatives
Many countries (at least 14) have recently and continue to be actively engaged in policy and programme developments to increase language learning in schools. This is mainly introducing the first foreign language in earlier stages of primary/ISCED 1 and extending the duration of learning the second foreign language. These have driven up the availability of foreign language learning and opportunities to learn foreign languages, although in some countries the extensions are pilots and voluntary initiatives which schools choose to take up. As a consequence, the proportions of students participating in language learning have increased. [End Page 182]
In at least 11 countries the focus on language learning is part of recent or ongoing wider national curriculum reforms. Considerably more countries as a consequence have linked their foreign language curriculums to levels in the Common European Reference Framework (CEFR) for language competences (at least 23 currently).
Some countries have or have recently had active programmes to support their policies to increase the availability of language learning. These have included financial assistance to schools to start language learning earlier; teacher training to increase competences; ICT aids to learning languages; and the extension of content and language integrated learning (CLIL) with one programme (in Italy) to embed it...