Language proficiency in the EU A study to inspire improvement

In 14 countries we tested a total of nearly 54,000 students for the study.
In 14 countries we tested a total of nearly 54,000 students for the study. | Photo: stockbroker © 123RF

For the first time, a language proficiency survey was carried out among students in 14 European Union countries. Dr. Michaela Perlmann-Balme of the Goethe-Institut was responsible for the study and in particular for the German-language testing portion. She gave us an overview of the findings in an interview.

Ms. Perlmann-Balme, what was the goal of this, the first European Survey on Language Competences?

The study was intended to determine how effectively the national school systems in the European Union are teaching foreign languages to their students. In 14 countries we tested a total of nearly 54,000 students between 14 and 15 years of age who were at the end of their mandatory schooling.

A language test was developed for the first four levels – of six total – in Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. There was also a questionnaire regarding the biographical background of the tested students. They were asked, for example, about the scope of the language courses they had already completed. There were questions about things like the socioeconomic status of the families, how many books they have in their households or how many languages are used at home. The questions were designed to clarify which factors play a role in successful foreign-language learning.

What languages were tested?

The first and second foreign languages taught in the countries where the study was done: English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. Germany incidentally only took part in creating the test, but not in the execution of it. The test, which we call refer to as the "Foreign Language PISA" here internally, takes about an hour and was conducted on school computers. Reading, writing and listening comprehension were the areas tested.

It was important to remember that it is not about the individual scores, but rather the competence of a representative number of students: for each country, 1,500.

What were the most revealing results of the study?

The levels reached by students in Europe were not particularly pleasing. Many, over the course of their main school years, typically only reach the basic level A1 for their first foreign language. That is astounding because according to the Eurobarometer, 98 percent of Europeans feel it is very important to be able to speak foreign languages.

Only 42 percent of the teenagers tested reach an autonomous level of language usage for their first foreign language – B1. In the second language it is only 25 percent. Fourteen percent don't even reach "elementary language skills" for their first language – A1 level. In the second language that number increases to 20 percent.

What will be done now with the results?

Well, the study was also intended to find out where foreign-language teaching is most successful. We now have concrete data for the first time on just that subject. The next steps will be to determine the following: How do we improve instruction? Where can we find good ideas and approaches? The countries have all the information about their current situation, and can now use it to come to their own conclusions. The PISA test also showed us that hard facts can give governments a well-needed kick in the pants.

Which countries have the most successful foreign-language programs?

That is not easy to answer. The results paint a complex picture. The Swedes are the best at learning English, but interestingly enough you cannot automatically assume that they are the best at learning foreign languages in general. For the second foreign language – Spanish – they aren't very good.

Did the study show which factors help make the learning process more successful?

Yes, in some ways. One important point is student motivation, of course. We were able to see that students who felt the language is useful to them reached higher levels of proficiency in the language in question. A vital role in this aspect is the whether the parents speak a foreign language.

There is also a positive relationship between successful learning and the use of the foreign language in the classroom. If teachers conduct their classes predominantly in the foreign language it has a positive effect on learning.

Does it matter when students start their foreign-language lessons?

Yes, the earlier they start the higher levels they reach in the tested language. There was also evidence that learning multiple foreign languages has a positive effect. Those who have learned two or three foreign languages most often had the best results. Disproportionately high numbers of students who learned Latin did well on the test. That means even learning an ancient language helps.

Will there be follow-up studies?

Yes, we plan to repeat the study every four years to see how language competence is developing in the European Union – and hopefully to see how it has greatly improved!