Almost two billion people study English as a non-native language – that’s nearly one in three people worldwide. In the developing world, English is less of a forein language skill but a tool synonymous with development, expanding a country’s economy, and increasing its connectedness to the rest of the world. Indeed, for small countries with few native-language speakers, it also makes sense to learn a little of the world’s lingua franca for business and policy marketing. Which countries actually speak English the best as a second language?
The status of English today sets it apart from other foreign languages. In developed countries, educators and policymakers are more and more often discussing whether “English is enough,” and, if it is not, what accommodations should be made for other national and international languages in the curriculum. In developing countries, English is often tied to development goals, expansion of the service sector, and increased connectivity to the rest of the world. Each country approaches these questions from its own perspective, taking into account its distinctive history, internal linguistic landscape, and economic partners.
Increasingly, countries view English as a catalyst for development rather than a threat to national culture. However, much more will need to change before English can fulfill its potential to connect people to each other, spread information, and facilitate exchange. We believe the most essential shift needed is towards communicative teaching practices. In far too many countries, both rich and poor, English is still taught with little regard to its practical use. Until all English teachers are teaching English as a tool for communication, countries and individuals will not enjoy the full benefit of a global language.
The English Proficiency Index (EF EPI)
The English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) is a report which attempts to rank countries by the average level of English skills amongst adults. It is the product of EF Education First, a global language training company, and draws its conclusions from data collected via English tests available for free over the internet. The report was published for the first time in March, 2011 based on the results of over 2 million test takers. The most recent, fifth edition was released in November, 2015.
Last year EF released statistics based on exam results of hundreds of thousands of people on where English is learned around the world and quality of teaching to find the countries with the highest proficiency of English as a second language.
Europe continues to dominate the index, filling the highest proficiency bands. Northern and Central Europe are particularly strong, and their positions have strengthened over the past five years. France stands out in Europe for its low English proficiency.
Asia has a high level of English skill diversity, with three countries in the High Proficiency band as well as several in the lowest proficiency band. Asia is by far the most populous region in the index, so this diversity is not unexpected.
Latin America continues to be a low proficiency region, but its average proficiency level has improved. This year, for the first time, only three Latin American countries are in the lowest proficiency band.
The Middle East and North Africa
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have very weak English skills and are the only regions with declining adult English proficiency levels. Adults over 40 have the strongest English proficiency in MENA, unlike in any other region.
- Worldwide, English proficiency levels are highest among young adults aged 18-20. However, on a global level, the difference in English ability between age cohorts is extremely small for adults under 30. On a national level, the story is quite different, with some countries showing stark generational differences and others almost none.
- Women speak English better than men worldwide, in every region surveyed, and in almost every country. The gender gap is widest in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa and largely absent in the very high proficiency countries of Northern Europe.
- Despite shifting rankings every year, the correlations between English ability and income, Internet connectivity, scientific research, and a range of other indicators remain strong and stable over time.
With every passing year, education systems, organizations, and companies shift and adapt themselves to a world in which English is the modern lingua franca. Today, the ability to communicate in English is a requirement in sectors and positions that were exclusively monolingual even a decade ago. As English becomes more pervasive, there is also growing recognition of the subtleties of building a linguistic repertoire. Not everyone has the same abilities in English, nor do they need them.
Accordingly to the EF results, while demand for English speakers in the workforce is constant, English proficiency among adults is not progressing universally. Unlike consumables like flip-flops or computer chips, a rising demand for English skills does not guarantee a greater supply. Mastery of a language is difficult and expensive. Adult skill sets, particularly for complex tasks like speaking a language, have built-in inertia. In addition, adult English skills are largely determined by public school systems, not often known for their agility. Inertia and stability are not inherently negative, however. They also underlie consistently high adult English proficiency levels in some parts of the world.
Countries with high English proficiency share a number of effective strategies:
- Setting English apart from other foreign languages. Public debate on the role of English in the economy and the education system aligns public and private investment priorities, while at the same time easing the tension between English and other competing national and foreign languages.
- Focusing on practical communication skills from day one. Effective English education emphasizes fluency, speaking, and listening, particularly in beginners. Many education models are no longer prioritizing an ideal standard English accent. Pedagogy that emphasizes memorization over communication is outdated and ineffective.
- Training English instructors to teach English for communication. If well designed and executed, training programs for aspiring teachers and professional development for established teachers are smart investments. They bear fruit for several generations of students.
- Developing effective English assessment tools. Different situations, needs, and learner objectives require different evaluations. It is particularly important to reform high-stakes exams because of the way they influence pedagogy across the board. Making high-quality assessment tools free and accessible to corporate and individual adult learners is in line with other open-access trends in continuing education.
- Supporting workplace and private sector training for adults. In many cases, adult learners have frequent opportunities to interact with native English speakers at work, strong motivation to improve, and money to invest in upgrading their skill set. Adult English training must be included in broader discussions about English education.
- Investing in technology and online learning tools. For adult English learners, alternative classroom formats are especially beneficial. MOOCs, guided online self-study, and holiday immersion courses can be combined to support working adults who are motivated to improve their English on their own time.
- Considering English within the framework of other educational reforms. In countries with low levels of educational attainment and high levels of inequality, giving all students access to at least a decade of good public education, including instruction in English, inevitably leads to better English proficiency among adults.
Although it takes a great deal of effort to change course, steering a country, region, or company towards a future with an English-speaking workforce cannot be considered misguided. Economically speaking, English is here to stay, at least for the next several decades.
You can read the full report here.