Pupils in England worst for using languages independently
Just 9% of 14 to 15-year-olds in England can use their first foreign language independently compared with 82% in Sweden, a study has found.
A European Commission study of 14 EU countries found on average 42% could deal with "straightforward" matters in another language.
The findings put England at the bottom of the table, after France, while Sweden came top.
The government said the findings were "economically dangerous".
The Commission proposes a benchmark on language competence by the end of 2012.
The language competence survey found 30% of pupils in English schools do not reach the level of "a basic user who can use very simple language, with support".
It said England was bottom in reading, writing and listening in the main foreign language taught - French for English pupils - while pupils started learning a language later than average and were taught for fewer hours a week than average.
It also found only 1% of foreign language students in England were able to follow complex speech. This compared with a Europe average of 30%.
It also found:
- In the UK, 14% can speak two languages other than their own, compared with 25% across the EU.
- In Luxembourg, 98% speak at least one language in addition to their mother tongue, in Latvia 95% and the Netherlands 94%.
- More people in the UK (29%) regularly use another language than their mother tongue at work than the EU average (27%).
- 6% of English 14-15 year-olds studying German achieve the level of independent users.
The survey is a result of the Barcelona EU summit in 2002 which called for the teaching of at least two foreign languages from an early age and for "the establishment of a linguistic competence indicator".
Earlier this month, Education Secretary Michael Gove announced that learning a foreign language would be compulsory from the age of seven in England's primary schools in an overhaul of the national curriculum.
Responding to the Commission findings Schools Minister Nick Gibb said the "dramatic" fall since 2004 in the number of students studying foreign languages needed to be reversed "as a matter of urgency".
"For England, an international trading nation, to lie at the bottom of a league of language competence is economically and socially dangerous," he said.
"The government's new performance measure, the English Baccalaureate, takes into account foreign languages when measuring a school's performance. And already that has resulted in a 13 percentage point increase in the number of Year 10 pupils opting to study a language.
"Our new draft primary curriculum introduces compulsory languages into primary schools for year three.
"For school leavers and graduates in England to be able to compete in the global jobs market they need to be competent in at least one foreign language. We are determined to give young people the widest opportunities for the future."