Second and other languages are typically learnt in the educational system. As census-type surveys cover all age groups, it is necessary to here make some reference to the education system which would have existed in the childhood years of those currently in their adult years. Apart from Russian, other foreign languages were not prominent in the education system until after independence was achieved in the 1990s. Thus, it might be expected that Russian would be the most prominent second language among older age-groups, while the situation among younger age-groups would reveal a wider range of second languages.
The Census of 2001 asked a second language question in addition to the question on native language (see above). Question 25 of the 2001 census asked "What other languages do you know, i.e., that you are able to speak and/or write”. The LSD explained this question as follows: “language(s) which the person could read, write or speak. The ability to express oneself in familiar everyday communication situations, to understand a clear talk on everyday topics, to understand an overall content of a simple text and to compile short texts on everyday life was considered a sufficient level of knowledge of the language73”. However, the extent to which respondents were aware of, or took into account, these guidelines is not clear.
The main findings are shown in Table 5. Lithuanian is spoken as a second language by between 50% and 66% of minority groups. Russian is spoken as a second language by nearly two thirds of Lithuanians, and three quarters of Poles, but by under 50% of other minority groups. Polish is spoken by much smaller percentages of all groups (under 15%), with one exception. Some 30% of Belarussians speak Polish as a second language. Although the language of a neighbouring state, Belarussian is spoken as second language by less than 5% of non-Belarussian groups.
Source: Lithuanian Statistics Department. Special tabulations
Knowledge of the so-called ‘foreign languages’ is not widespread. Overall, about 17% of the population claim to have the ability to speak English. Most minority ethnic groups are close to, but slightly lower than this average. Poles and Belarussians are the exceptions – only 7-8% claim the ability to speak English. On average, only 8% and 2% claim the ability to speak German and French respectively. In this regard, it is the smaller minorities, combined under ‘Other’ that appear weakest (2%) and Lithuanians strongest (9%).
A competence in a second language is typically acquired over the course of formal full-time education, notwithstanding the growing importance of life-long learning programmes. This feature of language acquisition is clearly apparent in Table 6 below, which cross-tabulates age-groups by claimed second language speaking ability.
It is clear that only tiny percentages of young people acquire a capacity to speak a second language before the age of 10. Between one quarter and one third of the 10-14 year-old cohort appear to have acquired a knowledge of Russian and English, and about 10% speak Lithuanian and German respectively. The percentages for the next cohort – 15-19 years - are higher again. Between 50% and 62%% of this age-group claim a knowledge of Russian and English respectively, while 21% and 13% claim knowledge of German and Lithuanian. (Of course, as Lithuanian is the mother tongue of some 85% of the population, there is a natural limit on the proportion who will learn it as a second language.)
Table 6: Percentages claiming ability to speak other languages by age-group