English for All! Foreign Languages in Central Europe

Countries across the Three Seas region are steadily improving their proficiency in foreign languages, with Croatia and Poland placed among the top European countries when it comes to knowledge of English. But, the region is not done yet.

A teenage boy student sits in his dorm room with an English language learning book. A focused young man is learning a foreign language at home.
Photo: ABCreative / stock.adobe.com

In the very early 2000s, after graduating from the prestigious Nikola Vaptsarov High School in Shumen in northeastern Bulgaria, Viktor Yordanov was walking on air. After all, he was fluent in English, something one could brag about back then, not to mention the work possibilities awaiting those who could put high English proficiency in their resumes.

For Yordanov’s generation, the last to be born under a socialist regime with an affinity for the Russian language but growing up in the 1990s with English suddenly emerging as the “It” language, mastering English required, among other things, waiting for your turn for someone to return a beaten-up copy of “Seventeen” magazine at the school library. Today, almost a quarter of a century later, the students at Yordanov’s high school have Netflix on their phones, using the streaming platform as a way to improve their English. And it is working.

English proficiency in Central Europe

For years, countries from the Three Seas region have been climbing up the charts tracking proficiency in foreign languages, English in particular. The English Proficiency Index 2022, a global study by English First, puts Croatia and Poland in the Very High Proficiency category, respectively, at places 11 and 13. The same index brought more good news for countries across the region. The next category, High Proficiency countries, featured Slovakia (15), Romania (17), Hungary (18), Lithuania (19), Bulgaria (21), the Czech Republic (23), Latvia (25), and Estonia (26).

Looking at English proficiency globally, the same study puts Zagreb at the coveted 4th position globally, just after Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Stockholm (with the same amount of points as Zagreb). The other Three Seas capitals in the top category are Warsaw (11), Bucharest (12), Bratislava (13), and Prague (15). At 16, on top of the High Proficiency Category for cities, is Sofia, ahead of tourist magnets such as Paris and Athens.

Gone are the times when venturing out of Western Europe was a recipe for disaster the moment one needed to buy a train ticket, not only because this can be done online now. Bulgaria, with its often-criticized school curriculum, offers an interesting case. A 2021 survey conducted by Nielsen Atmosphere in Bulgaria found that 78% of Bulgarians speak at least one foreign language, mostly English. Half of those with a command of a foreign language learned it during their primary and secondary education. 

These numbers stand out when compared to a 2017 study by Bulgaria’s National Statistical Institute (NSI), which put the percentage of Bulgarians speaking at least one foreign language at 49.5%.

The same 2021 survey by Nielsen puts the share of Bulgarians speaking two foreign languages at 17. While English is most popular across the board, Bulgaria offers another peculiarity when it comes to other widely spoken foreign languages. Some 67% of respondents say they speak English at a basic level, followed by Russian at a staggering 43% but attributed mostly to middle-aged respondents and older.

English matriculation in Bulgaria

On a recent visit to his school, Viktor Yordanov didn’t find it much changed, but Ivalina Damyanova, an English teacher at the Nikola Vaptsarov High School, begs to differ. “Children in Bulgaria start learning English as early as kindergarten. Let me also remind you about the YouTube videos. Realistically, they grow up with English,” Damyanova says. “The proficiency level here is very high. Some 90% of high school graduates take the English matriculation exam. The results are excellent. I see a drive to upgrade my level of proficiency. Further on, many of our students continue their education abroad. In conversation with me, they have shared that being proficient in English has helped them a lot.”

The English Proficiency Index 2022 notes that when it comes to Europe, learning English is far from being over. “English proficiency in Europe continues to rise at an average rate of 6 points per year, making it the most improved region since 2011 despite starting from a relatively high base,” the study points out. Poland, for example, despite being in the top Very High Proficiency category, is still trending upwards, as are countries such as Bulgaria, Latvia, Slovakia, Lithuania, and Czechia.

“I remember the first time I had to speak in English in the US some 20 years ago. That bubble, me thinking I spoke English, burst right away as I discovered that American English is not exactly what we learned at school. And yet, what I already knew from school gave me the confidence to quickly improve and start speaking actual English,” Yordanov recalls.

Today, as the trends show, an increasing number of people across the Three Seas region have more than confidence. They have actual knowledge of foreign languages.

Galina Ganeva

a journalist with experience working for some of the most influential Bulgarian publications. She mostly writes about the intersection of society and culture

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