With a new year approaching and new resolutions in mind, learning a new language is one of those items that more often than not, appears on many personal lists and travel experts and language institutions regularly publish surveys on the best destinations to do it.
Add the simple fact that in our interconnected, ‘globalized’ world, the ability to communicate in more than one language opens new opportunities, experiences and understanding.
Then there is the scientifically-supported reality that living for a few weeks or a couple of months (or longer) in a country that speaks the tongue you’re trying to learn is among the best ways to really learn another language.
Not all destinations offer the same opportunities. Some cities are known for their friendly locals willing and even eager to speak to foreigners — a tremendous benefit for people trying to improve their speaking skills, while others are less friendly or patient with foreigners who don’t speak their language.
Europe’s many choices
The European continent, with its cornucopia of languages, usually appears at the top of most surveys of the best destinations to hone this skill. As the Express notes, “learning the language is easiest in a beautiful European country.”
On the occasion of the recently-celebrated European Day of Languages, which takes place September 26, Europe acknowledges its linguistic and cultural diversity as well as its commitment to encouraging lifelong language learning as a path to better cultural understanding.
“Currently there are 24 official languages recognized within the E.U.,” notes Eurostat, with three —English, French and German— widely used. (English is the most common) : Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish and Swedish.
Data shows that about 65% of the continent’s population speak at least one language other than their native one, compared to 20% of adults in the United States.
There are also significant variations among regions. Nordic countries are better at bilingualism than Southern Europe and some locations are so multilingual that visitors end managing very well with English alone.
Not surprisingly, countries where English is the native language appear less interested in learning a foreign one. “Only 50% of Irish people speak another language, and the U.K. holds the worst score in Europe with 34%,” writes Euronews.
Here are some other curious facts on languages in Europe published by the Brussels Times on the occasion of the Day of Languages:
- Europeans speak around 225 indigenous languages. While that sounds impressive, consider that these languages comprise just 3% of the world’s total. Africa and Asia are home to the planet’s most spoken languages.
- Although English is among the world’s most-known languages, German — as the official language of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein — has the most native speakers in Europe.
- There are three main language groups: Germanic, Romance and Slavic. The Germanic language family includes German, Norwegian and English. Romance languages include French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian. Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Polish, Czech, Russian and Serbian are among the more than 20 Slavic languages.
- Looking for more of a challenge? Hungarian is touted as the most difficult language. Finnish and Polish also are very complex.
The countries with the most languages
The language learning app Preply looked at the countries in Europe with “the best environment to learn a new language” based in 18 factors including the ones that teach and speak more languages.
The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, one of Europe’s smallest countries and nestled among Belgium, France and Germany, sits at the top thanks to its multilingual culture.
It’s followed by Sweden and Cyprus. Malta and Denmark appear in fourth and fifth places.
As for other countries: “While far more children are taught a foreign language in primary school in Italy and France compared to Germany, the level of command of the best known foreign language in Germany is far higher, along with the number of spoken languages.”
The survey also includes internet access among the factors, with “the Netherlands ranking first for the percentage of households that have internet access, with 98% coverage compared to 96% in the U.K. and 89% in Canada,” it explains. The U.S., by comparison, “has 82% internet coverage – less than both Romania and Italy.”
Countries with more than one official language
Atop the countries with the most officially-recognized languages again sits Luxembourg, followed by Belgium and Finland, according to Preply.
In Luxembourg, the official languages are Luxembourgish, French and German; in Belgium, Dutch, French and German and in Finland, Finnish and Swedish.
Romania appears in another survey with three official languages and the fewest accents and dialects. Cyprus and Malta share first place on that list.
Meanwhile, according to another poll by language learning app Memrise published by the Independent, the U.K. was voted “the worst country at learning other languages” and the Netherlands as the most multilingual country in Europe.
Growing up learning multiple languages offers many advantages in addition to the obvious —the ability to communicate with people from multiple countries— such as a boost to cognitive strategic thinking. Multilingual people also have another advantage regarding learning a new language later in life: the more languages you speak, the easier it becomes to acquire new ones.
The best destinations to learn a language
Based on factors including the degree of multilingualism, the percentage of children that learn a foreign language in school, the level of proficiency in a second language, and whether subtitles, dubbing, or voiceover is the primary form of translation used on television, Preply’s list of the 15 countries with the best environment for learning a new language are:
Germany ranks 16th in the index, ahead of France in 23rd place and Italy in 29th. The whole list is here.
For its listing of the best cities to learn a new language, a search engine for vacation rentals, Holidu, analyzed not only friendliness towards foreigners and the safety of each city but also the average cost of living for one moth and the number of language schools in the city where you can either enroll as a student to learn the native language yourself or as a teacher to improve your own language skills by interacting with locals.
- Warsaw Poland $2,500, 213 schools
- Zagreb, Croatia $1,633, 154 schools
- Wrocław Poland, $2,149, 226 schools
- Malaga Spain, $3,224, 190 schools
- Madrid Spain, $3,505, 234 schools
- Kracown Poland, $ 2,338. 227 schools
- Prague Czech Republic, $3,278, 219 schools
- Valencia, Spain, $3,371, 220 schools
- Munich, Germany, $4,287, 180 schools
- Zurich, Switzerland, $6,155 200 schools
The complete list is here.
Fun and Learnng
On its list of “top locations where you can have the best language education while enjoying a vibrant environment,” Edunation places Finland at the top, among other reasons for being hailed as the happiest country in the world for many years, an “unmatched education system” and an exceptional level of quality-of-life for everybody.
Portugal takes second place with its stunning views of modern and traditional architecture, excellent universities and respected English-speaking learning institutions, reasonable living costs and accommodating locals.
Third is France for its “outstanding universities and cities where you equally experience a vibrant culture and top-notch education.”
Spain, Germany, Italy, London, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland complete the top 10.
The entire list is here.
Given that “Spanish is the fourth most widely spoken language in the world, with nearly 500 million native speakers,” National Geographic recommends the Spanish cities of:
- Salamanca, lauded as the largest Spanish learning hub in Spain, educating more than 25,000 international students a year, and
- Granada, “blessed with a sunny southern climate and magnificent Moorish architecture…a welcoming university city” that in terms of teaching Spanish “caters to a slightly older crowd.”
Finally, specialized European “cultural immersion” tours at various destinations offer shorter experiences of a few weeks to learn the local language.