5 Things to Know About Languages Spoken in Europe

Europe is a place like no other, and I’m not just talking about food or the fact that they play football a little differently than Americans.

I’m talking about languages.

So if you’re asking yourself, “what language should I learn?” for your European travels, we’re going to explore some essential information for language learners, including some things you may be surprised to learn.

Before you set sail for that linguistic coast, here are five things you absolutely need to know about the languages spoken in Europe and their speakers.


1) The most common language spoken in Europe is… wait for it… English!

There are 24 official languages in the European Union. In alphabetical order, they are…

(Take a deep breath here.)

Whew, what a mouthful!

And that doesn’t even include the official languages of European countries that aren’t in the EU.

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Guess what the most widely spoken language is. That’s right, English.

In a 2012 European Commission survey, the five most widely spoken languages in the EU were shown to be English (38%), French (12%), German (11%), Spanish (7%) and Russian (5%). That last one, Russian, is not an official language, but is spoken by a sizable number of people.

English tops the other tongues because it’s the favorite second language of Europeans.

That should take away a little bit of the anxiety for travelers planning a European getaway, knowing they can most probably get by with English. I say “a little bit” because this shouldn’t stop anyone from learning the most useful phrases, polite greetings and expressions of their host country. In fact, it should encourage you.

Why? For one thing, European citizens will definitely be more warm and welcoming once they hear you talking in their language. Even if you’re mispronouncing a lot, they’ll appreciate your efforts and point you in the true direction of the nearest bathroom, going out of their way to put you out of your misery.

For example, in France, you might do better than you would expect with your bad French. Your “S’il vous plait” (Please) and “Merci beaucoup” (Thank you very much) will endear you to the locals. It will set you apart from the stereotypical clueless tourist who expects to be catered to.

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Furthermore, having the safety net of English puts you in a lower-risk situation and invites you to try harder, to be even more ambitious in your target language. So get started today!

2) More than half of Europeans are bilingual

For those language learners who think that being a true bilingual is rare, or that it’s quite difficult, well, there’s a whole continent to suggest otherwise.

A majority of Europeans (54%) are bilinguals, which means they can talk to you in another language in addition to their mother tongue. A lower but significant percentage (25%) are trilinguals, which means they can run around and greet people in three different languages. And here’s one that really takes the cake: 10% of Europeans speak four languages! How about that?

It’s a linguistic fiesta over there!

Now, what does this mean for language learners on the other side of the globe?

First, it proves that learning another language is very doable. It’s not just for the gifted or those with fat wallets. If the Europeans can do it, so can everybody else.

Second, it means that English-speaking language learners can easily find language exchange partners in Europe. No, you don’t need to actually go to Europe to engage them. There are plenty of technology tools like Skype and a host of great language exchange websites that can help you do this.

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Many Europeans are learning English and they’ll gladly exchange their two (or three or four) languages for your English. You can easily find yourself Skyping with somebody who’s learning English from you, but who’s also teaching you French and German.

Pretty good deal, don’t you think?

But you may ask, “How did they do it in the first place? How did they become so good at so many languages?”

Well, why don’t we just ask the Europeans how they did it?

(And that’s exactly our next point.)

3) Europeans are learning languages through immersion

In the same survey mentioned: “Europeans say they regularly use foreign languages when watching films/television or listening to the radio (37%), using the internet (36%) and communicating with friends (35%). 27% of respondents report using foreign languages regularly for conversations at work and 50% during holidays abroad.”

And these numbers are only climbing over the years. In fact, the proportion of Europeans who do not use a foreign language regularly in any situation fell from 13% in 2005 to 9% in 2012.

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Now what does this all mean to the observant language learner?

It means Europeans have been socialized to be bilinguals and trilinguals. Sure, there are language schools all over the place, but the best way to learn a language, as the survey found with Europeans, is in the routines of everyday life.

Would you not learn a language if over a third of the time when you’re talking with friends, you find the need to use a foreign language? If 27% of the time you speak to coworkers, you’re actually using a foreign language, wouldn’t you master it over time?

Europe, as a result of geography and of the history of migrations, has evolved into a multi-cultural and multi-language society.

Not everyone can grow up in that kind of immersive environment, though, where borrowing sugar from your next-door neighbor also functions as a language lesson. So learners from other parts of the world make do with the next best thing: online immersion.

As mentioned above, there are all kinds of ways to immerse yourself in your target language. You don’t have to travel far and wide to get the immersion going, and there are plenty of options when it comes to European languages, including TV, moviesradio and video.

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4) Many European languages look and sound similar… here’s why…

They belong to the same language groups!

It’s possible to look at European languages as belonging to two major groupings:

  • Indo-European, which includes Baltic, Celtic, Germanic, Indo-Iranian, Slavic and the Romance languages (e.g., Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian).
  • Non-Indo-European, which includes the Uralic languages (e.g., Finnic and Finno-Ugric) and Basque.

While some languages, like Basque, are language isolates (they don’t share a family with other languages) many European languages belong to the same language groups and have similar origins, so their structures and vocabularies tend to be similar.

For example, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian belong to the same branch of the Indo-European family called the Romance languages. No, it’s not because they’re romantic, seductive or anything of the sort. They’re Roman in origin and developed from the official language of the Roman Empire: Latin.

That’s why they’re so similar. If you map out the areas where the Romance languages are spoken today, they correlate pretty well to the territories held by the Western Roman Empire in its prime.

They diverged and started to follow independent linguistic evolutions with the fall of the Western Roman Empire. These territories splintered into many different independent states. The Latin in these areas became slowly differentiated. For example, they borrowed from the peoples that came to settle in the different territories after the fall.

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That’s why we have the case with French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish where they have many underlying similarities, but also have clear distinctions.

Now, what does this have to do with language learners today?

For one thing, this would certainly explain why the word for “planet” is el planeta (in Spanish), o planeta (in Portuguese), il pianeta (in Italian) and la planète (in French). They all came from the Latin planeta.

There are plenty of similarities for Romance languages (cognates) which means there’s a real possibility that one can be learning multiple languages over time without too much difficulty. One can take advantage of their similarities in structure and vocabulary. So while learning French words, you may be inadvertently making yourself recognize Italian.

But watch out, because although there are useful similarities between Romance languages, you can get easily tripped up with their differences. In the “planet” example above, the translation in French is in the feminine gender, while the Italian is masculine. Now you might say, “Well that’s not really confusing. French-feminine, Italian-masculine!” But you have to remember that it’s only just for one word. Try to memorize 30 vocabulary words and their gender in both French and Italian and you’ll readily see the potential for confusion.

My advice is, when you study multiple languages at the same time, go for those that aren’t too similar. Try French and Finnish for example. There’s not much overlap between them, as one can imagine. After some time, when your French becomes solid, only then should you begin Italian. By then your knowledge of French can be used as juxtaposition to fully take advantage of the cognates and be a jumping off point for Italian—instead of you being “soft” on both languages and learning them both at the same time.

5) There are lots of languages spoken in Europe, not just the big ones

There are 24 official languages in Europe… but there are actually more than 200 languages spoken on the continent.

Furthermore, language is an extension of identity.

Cases in point are the regional languages, like Basque, Catalan, Galician, Scottish, Gaelic and Welsh—languages that, owing to geographic, historical or social factors, have not been assimilated or subsumed by larger linguistic entities and have instead maintained their own rich presence.

What’s very interesting is that not only do people from these regions speak a different language, they also often have different traditions and beliefs, even if located just a few kilometers from a major linguistic population.

Basque (believed to be the oldest language originating in Europe), for example, is a language spoken in the Pyrenees—between Spain and France. It’s a language entirely unrelated to any existing or extinct language. And it was spoken even before Spain came under Roman rule.

Now, here’s an important point to be remembered by language learners: When you’re studying a language, you’re essentially studying not just vocabulary and grammar. You’re looking at a culture, a history of a people and the words they use to describe and structure their experience.

Even when you’re just visiting or playing tourist, recognize the fact that a difference in language signals a different way of looking at the world.

Keep this in mind when choosing languages to study and places to visit.

Because although this does not erase the fact that we’re all the same underneath the skin, the difference in languages across Europe highlight for language learners and travelers opportunities for growth, discovery and delight.


I wish you all the best in your linguistic endeavors.

You will get there.

And if you’re contemplating actually traveling across Europe… do bring me back something, will ya?

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