Expats and Their Language Skills
Expats are most likely to speak three languages and knowledge of even five languages is not unheard of. As for expat children, most are being raised bilingually.
The survey participants were asked various questions about how many languages they speak (including their mother tongue), how well they speak the local language, and how difficult it is to get by without being able to speak the local language. Expat parents were additionally asked how many languages their children are being raised with and how well their children speak the local language.
How Many Languages Do You Speak?
Of all survey participants, one in three can speak three languages (31%) and 26% only speak two. Nearly two in ten expats (19%) speak four languages and 8% even know five languages.
Survey participants from English-speaking countries are the most likely to be monolingual, though. The most polyglot nationalities in the survey, with respondents speaking five or more languages, are the Danish (37%), Belgians (35%), and Slovakians (32%).
Taking a look at demographics, one-third of survey participants aged 25 or younger (34%) speak four or more languages. However, two in ten expats over 50 (21%) only speak one language.
Learning the Local Language
Looking more closely at local language skills in particular: how well do expats speak the local language in their host country?
Three in ten (29%) report that they speak the local language very well. A further two in ten expats (19%) speak the local language fairly well, and the largest percentage, 31%, at least speaks it a little. Only 11% say they do not speak the local language at all. One in ten expats in the survey didn't have to worry about learning a new language when they moved abroad, as the local language in their host country is the same as their mother tongue.
It appears that the female survey respondents are more confident in their language skills, as one-third (32%) says that they can speak the local language very well (compared to one-quarter for men). Older expats (aged 51 or above) are also most likely to speak just a little of the local language (37%) and least likely to speak it very well (23%). Interestingly, however, they are also the age group least likely to move to a country with the same language as their mother tongue (9%).
Expats living in the US are most likely to speak the local language very well (70%). This is followed by four more English-speaking countries: Ireland, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada. However, since the survey was conducted in English, the results are somewhat biased in this respect. Of non-English-speaking countries, expats living in France (52%) or Italy (45%) are most likely to speak the local language very well.
Expatriates living in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are most likely not to speak the local language at all. The top country here is Hong Kong, where 42% of expats have no knowledge of the local language. Fortunately for expats living in places such as Hong Kong, Uganda, or Bahrain, all of them are in the top ten for countries where it is easy to get by without speaking the local language.
Expats from Sweden (52%), Hungary (51%), and Poland (50%) are most likely to speak the local language. On the other end of the scale, expats from South Africa (24%), India (23%), and Norway (22%) are least likely to speak the local language.
It is interesting to note, however, that Norwegians are also among the nationalities that have the most people who can speak five or more languages (31%). Norwegian expatriates are scattered all over the world, but are most likely to live in Belgium (9%), as well as in Kenya, Poland, Switzerland, Thailand, Uganda, and the USA (5% each).
In this year's survey, Kenya, Malaysia, and Singapore remain in the top three spots in the Language subcategory. These countries rank highly for the ease of learning the local language and for how easy it is to get by without speaking it. Russia, Finland, and China, however, hold the bottom three spots.
Expat Language Skills
Expat Children and Language Learning
It is also interesting to see how expat children fare when it comes to languages. Slightly more than half of all expat parents are raising their kids up bilingually (51%). Next up are those with children who are multilingual (being raised with three or more languages) at just over one-third (34%). This doesn't necessarily mean that the child speaks three or more languages at home, as they could be attending a school, kindergarten, or daycare center where they speak another language or languages. Only 15% of expat parents are raising their kids with only one language.
Expatriates from English-speaking countries (Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Canada, with up to 31% each) and Portugal (20%) top the list for nationalities that are raising their children monolingually. On the other end of the spectrum there are expats from countries such as Belgium or Switzerland (6% each), where only few expat children only speak one language. However, given that both these countries have several official languages anyway, the multilingualism of Belgian and Swiss children may not be directly related to their living abroad.
When it comes to speaking the local language, one-third of expat parents say their children (34%) speak it very well. A further 12% say they speak it fairly well, and 18% at least a little. Only 8% of expat parents have kids that do not speak the local language at all.
Expat parents living in Israel (58%) are most likely to say their kids speak the local language very well. However, the children of one-third of expat parents living in Qatar (34%) do not speak the local language at all. India (26%) and Malaysia (24%) are further countries where many expat children have no knowledge of local languages.
For expatriates (and their children) living in many English-speaking countries (up to 45%), as well as Brazil (32%), the local language is the same as their mother tongue.
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