Languages in the Czech Republic

According to a report I found today in The Prague Post, less than half of Czechs speak foreign languages. A survey by the Social and Economy Analyses Institute (ISEA) found that while 27% of Czechs can communicate in at least one foreign language – the most popular languages are English and German, 54% of Czechs have no foreign language abilities. The survey also found that younger people are more likely to know a foreign language, and that 77% of university graduates speak at least one foreign language.

All my Czech friends speak English, and some of them speak other languages such as Russian, German, French and/or Welsh. They are all graduates, so this isn’t entirely surprising.

The idea that’s common in Anglophone countries that most people in continental Europe speak several languages, including English, doesn’t seem to reflect the reality everywhere.

This entry was posted in Czech, English, German, Language.

10 Responses to Languages in the Czech Republic

  1. beatrix says:

    Would you have this kind of information about Brazil?

  2. mike says:

    Well, of course your Czech friends speak English. Unless you speak Czech, it’d be pretty hard to be friends with them otherwise.

  3. LAttilaD says:

    Hungarians believe the situation in Hungary is worse than in most countries. Hungarian is an isolated language, all of its related languages are very different and spoken far away. _But_ Hungarians tend not to learn foreign languages. With some googling I found interesting results. In Hungarian, of course.
    The blogger mentions cases from his personal experience. People from abroad ask something, and Hungarians answer in Hungarian. The tourist doesn’t understand them, of course, then they repeat it LOUD-ER AND SYL-LA-BI-FI-ED, still in Hungarian. I saw this at an occasion, too.
    From the evening news of Hungarian Television, 14 months ago, statistics show the following figures. The last among then EU member states, 75% of Hungarians can speak only the mother tongue. (The second last is Portugal with 51.3% not speaking any foreign language.) One of the causes is the language isolation, thinks Tamás Légrádi, president of the Professional Union of Language Schools (ad hoc name translation by myself). Polish people can learn Russian or Dutch can learn English much easier than a Hungarian can learn any foreign language.
    According to 2001 census data, 19.1% of total population claims to be able to communicate in one foreign language at least. Figures from 1960 and 1980 censuses show 10%, so the speakers of foreign languages has been doubled. The article contains gender and age breakdowns, too. In 1960, 9.1% of the man and only 8.2% of women spoke any foreign language, but the relation had turned over since then, and in 2001, 18.9% of men and 19.5% of women spoke any. According to 1990 data, the age group with the greatest proportion of foreign language speakers were the 60 years old and older (11.4%), but in 2001, the greatest proportion were the 15 thru 39 years old (as high as 30.3%). According to an analysis of Hungarian Central Statistical Office, the change is due to, first, that one or even two foreign languages are taught in elementary schools,* second, the requirement of language tests for high school and university diplomas. 71.3% of high school and university studens speak any foreign language, but only 27% of graduates.
    (* I must add that there was an obligatory language in elementary schools before 1990, too: Russian. It’s common knowledge that nobody learnt Russian in elementary schools. They were present in the class and imitated learning, that’s all. Therefore, I’m in doubt about the success of teaching any foreign language in the elementary school. Of course, the language is now chosen by the child (or parents), and not dictated by the government. Maybe this helps a bit.)
    Nowadays, German and English are neck and neck at knowledge figures. No data here about other languages.

    Unfortunately, no statistics survey for the most important information, up to my knowledge. Among the nicely raising numbers of foreign language speakers, how many _do_ speak the language really and how many of them are listed only, without real knowledge? For example, my wife had a high school diploma and, of course, a middle-grade language test of Russian, but she didn’t speak or understand Russian. She passed the exam and forgot everything. For several years (maybe also now, I don’t know), they were accepting an Esperanto or Romani language test, too. There was a flood of Esperanto and Romani „speakers”, who’ve chosen that language because they were easy (Romani is not easier than, say, Italian, just the requirements were low), but of course, they didn’t understand a word. They didn’t want the real knowledge, just to meet the requirements.

  4. Simon says:

    beatrix – the majority of Brazilians speak only Portuguese, according to Wikipedia, though English and Spanish are studied in school. There are over 200 minority languages spoken there as well, of which 80 are indigenous languages and the rest are immigrant languages.

    mike – I do speak speak some Czech – enough to have a basic conversation at least, and am currently learning more.

  5. Aidan says:

    It’s interesting though that they do not class Slovak as a foreign language. I am pretty sure that almost all Czechs have the ability to at least understand Slovak (and indeed Polish) and most should be able to change their Czech to be more like Slovak.
    I can speak Polish well enough and so I understand Slovak quite well but Czech is much different, it is as hard to understand as Russian.
    In my experience older Czechs generally speak some German and younger Czechs are focused on English. I don’t believe this figure of 54% with ‘no foreign language ability’ unless they only mean conversational ability in one of the major languages.

  6. Andrew says:

    Well yes, but there’s quite a bit of selection bias going on there. You see the same thing in Sweden: yes, there are some people who don’t speak English, but the great majority of those are older people (50+), so if you were to say “What percentage of Swedes under 40 speak English?” (considering that, overall, about 80% of Swedes speak English) you’d be looking at numbers more like 95% I suspect. Same thing goes for the Czech Republic: what percentage of educated people under 30 speak English? Now, when you put it that way, I’ll bet it’s more like a solid majority, 65-85% or so, and if that’s the demographic that you’ll likely be interacting with, then THAT is the number that truly matters.


  7. prase says:

    “77% of university graduates speak at least one language”

    The remaining 23% are mute or suffering from aphasia.

    Now to be more serious, I don’t trust these polls too much. What they basically do is asking people whether they speak a foreign language, and there is no guarantee that people report that objectively. Often the question is not further specified, so one may answer “yes” meaning “I can order a Bratwurst in German” and another may answer “no” meaning “I have still can’t enjoy Shakespeare in the original English”.

    I tried to find the actual study to check what methodology they used in the survey, and it wasn’t available even on the ISEA website. Googling returns a lot of press releases, usually very similarly formulated and thus clearly adopted from some press release. Ironically, in the news section of the ISEA site they have articles about the survey, but these are adopted from the newspapers. This is not exactly the best way to persuade me about validity of their numbers.

    @Aidan: if you don’t mind anecdotal evidence, yesterday a Pole told me that he finds Czech to be easier than Slovak. Possibly because the Slovak speaker with whom he has interacted recently does not pay too much attention to speak clearly. But it can go both ways. And of course, claiming a foreign language ability because one happens to understand Slovak sounds ridiculous for most Czechs and so we do not report it if asked about foreign languages.

  8. prase says:

    Correction: “have” is superfluous in the 7th line of my first comment.

  9. I live in Prague, and attend the Charles university. My experience is that most people under the age of 30 or so can speak at least reasonable English, whereas most over the age of about 40 cannot. This appears to be the case even among high-ranking and well education professors at the University.

    Must of this, I presume, is attributed to the “Iron Curtain” where people were discouraged from learning “western” languages, and most were forced (often against their will) to learn Russian – and forgot much of it once the Iron Curtain fell.

    In fact, my wife reminded me that the teachers of Russian at school were told as soon as the Iron Curtain fell, “Right, you are English teachers now” – and many of them knew less English that the children they were teaching.

  10. b_jonas says:

    “77% of university graduates speak at least one foreign language.”

    Speaking a foreign language is usually a formal requirement of a university degree in Hungary, so much that there are a significant number of people for which a language exam is the only reason getting their diploma is delayed. At least it used to be like that before the Bologna system, I’m not sure if this is a requirement now for BsC degree, and, in any case, the rule is set by the university so it needn’t apply to all faculties.