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European Education Area

Quality education and training for all

Multilingualism as a key competence

Multilingualism is one of eight key competences needed for personal fulfilment, a healthy and sustainable lifestyle, employability, active citizenship and social inclusion, as outlined by EU Member States in the Council recommendation on key competences for lifelong learning.

Yet, too many young Europeans still leave school without a working knowledge of a second language.

The 2011-12 EU survey on language skills (held in 14 Member States) showed that

  • 42% of 15 year-old pupils tested had attained ‘independent user’ level (B1/B2 in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) in their first foreign language
  • 25% had reached this level in a second foreign language
  • 14% of pupils lacked even a basic knowledge of one

For these reasons, the EU has set the objective of improving language teaching and learning at an early age as a key priority. On 22 May 2019, education ministers in the EU adopted the Council Recommendation on a comprehensive approach to the teaching and learning of languages.

The importance of early language learning is also highlighted in the Council recommendation on high-quality early childhood education and care systems.   

Enhancing language competences

The strategy at the EU level for enhancing language learning is set in the Council Recommendation on a comprehensive approach to the teaching and learning of languages. In the Recommendation, Member States agreed to work to

  • boost language learning by the end of compulsory education by helping all young people to acquire competence in at least one other European language in addition to the language(s) of their schooling
  • encourage the acquisition of an additional (third) language to a level which allows them to interact with a degree of fluency measured against the Council or Europe’s Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR)
  • encourage development of comprehensive approaches to improve the teaching and learning of languages at the national, regional, local and school level
  • introduce into education and training the concept of language awareness, which provides an inclusive framework for language learning taking into account individuals’ language skills
  • ensure that more language teachers have the opportunity to learn and study abroad
  • identify and promote innovative, inclusive and multilingual teaching methods using tools and platforms at the EU level, such as the School Education Gateway and eTwinning

The Commission Staff Working Document provides the scientific and factual background to the Recommendation.

Multilingual classrooms

Across the EU, migrant children bring a multitude of new languages and their language skills to the classroom. This is a potential asset to the individual, to schools and society.

While figures differ considerably between EU Member States – from 1% in Poland to 40% in Luxembourg – in the EU as a whole, just under 10% of all students learn in a language other than their mother tongue. 

This raises the question of how to best harness the potential contained within the EU’s linguistic diversity. There is evidence that migrant children generally perform worse in attaining basic skills than their peers. 

Schools need to adapt their teaching methods to engage with children's linguistic and cultural backgrounds in a positive manner enabling students to thrive throughout at school.

The topics of linguistic diversity in schools, multilingual classrooms and building language awareness in schools are further integrated in the new initiative Pathways to school success.


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