Do you speak English? How many Europeans understand English, and could they keep a conversation? English and French are the official languages of the Council of Europe. English is also the most widely understood language in the European Union, but do Europeans understand when there is a meeting in English, a short conversation or the news on TV?
All the data are based on Special Eurobarometer 386 (2012) and have been officially published. We don’t know the exact data today but still it is a crucial question.
While most of the world’s population speaks some English today, a small portion can hold a full-fledged conversation in English. This is particularly true of the European continent. One very common misconception is that Europeans are good at speaking English. This is not true, however. While some countries excel at speaking English, especially in Northern Europe, other European countries do not fare well as far as English proficiency is concerned. In fact, most people in Southern Europe cannot hold a conversation in English. This is shown in the following map, designed by Jakub Marian. Data incorporated in the map is based on the 2012 Eurobarometer report.
One important thing to note is that the value 95+ for the UK and Ireland is adjusted according to the status quo in both countries, i.e. it represents the fact that English is not the first language of a large portion of the population in both countries due to immigration. It is also equally important to note that estimating the exact number of immigrants who do not speak or who are not fluent in English is hard, especially since different people have different opinions of what fluency is. Take the 2011 census for example. 1.7% of the UK population reported that they speak poor English or no English at all. Jakub Marian observes that ” This is probably an underestimation, as the questionnaire itself was in English, so those with a poor command of English were less likely to fill it incorrectly, and it included only people with permanent residence in the UK.”
Finally, here’s the table the charts are based on. The study (Special Eurobarometer 386, 2012) only surveyed people aged 15 or older, so the “Population 15+” shows how many people there were in each country aged 15+ in 2012, “% English” shows the percentage of English speakers based on the study, and “# English” shows the number of English speakers in each country (the product of the previous to columns). This last figure is of course not as precise as it may seem from the number of valid digits (this is just to achieve consistency), as the percentage in the third column is based on a small sample of the population and is therefore subject to statistical error.