Less than a quarter of the world’s English-speakers are ‘natives’ and this is likely to decline further as English becomes increasingly popular as a second language.
As globalization moves relentlessly forward English is increasingly the language of business as well as for research and other sectors. Proficiency in the language varies enormously around the world leading to very different experiences for expats trying to settle in different countries.
EF Education First has released its annual global ranking of English proficiency, drawing on data from 1.3 million non-native English speakers in 88 countries and regions. For the fourth time in eight years, Sweden tops the EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI), bumping last year’s top-scorer, the Netherlands, to second place.
“Our EF EPI research shows that countries and individuals continue to invest in English education, recognizing the importance of the language as a lever for competitiveness,” said Dr. Minh N. Tran, EF’s Senior Director of Research.
In their report EF Education First point to the correlations between various positive aspects of societies and English speaking. They say that societies that speak English tend to be more open, less hierarchical and fairer to women. They point out that although English cannot be said to cause these societal improvements, it does seem to accompany them and that the correlation makes sense. English breaks down barriers, fosters international exchange, and exposes individuals to the wider world.
They also point out that English and innovation go hand in hand. With more scientific journals published in English than any other language there is a correlation between English and the amount spent on R&D.
The report again shows that women continue to outpace men in English skills worldwide, and this gender gap has been widening since 2016. It also reports that across a wide range of industries and countries managers have a better grasp of English than executives and staff. As managers interact with colleagues and clients overseas more than junior staff they get more practice speaking English. Executives tend to be older and many have come up in a business when English-speaking skills were less valued.
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EF Education First believe that, although many recruiters now demand English skills in almost all candidates, it is clear that the best English speakers cluster in particular roles, such as legal and strategy, and in particular industries, such as banking and IT. The gap between the industries with the highest proficiency and those with the lowest in any given country can be over 15 points, or three proficiency bands, although the worldwide gap between industries is narrowing. The pressures of globalization mean that almost every industry is subject to international competition. Weaker English skills make competing more difficult.
Sweden topped the rankings and Norway (4th), Denmark (5th) and Finland (8th) show the high levels of proficiency in Scandinavia. With Netherlands and Germany in the top ten and Belgium and Austria just outside there is a clear strength in northern Europe. Three of the continent’s largest economies— Spain, Italy, and France—have persistent English skill deficiencies
There is a large gap between the highest and lowest proficiency countries in Asia with Singapore the first Asian country to make the top three and China and Japan in the low proficiency band. In Central Asia English language skills are lacking with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan falling into the very low proficiency band.
The middle east has the weakest English proficiency of any region, and also the most erratic. Most countries in the region experienced an improvement or decline of more than one point since last year. The addition of Lebanon to this year’s index made the regional average rise slightly, although the country only falls in the Moderate Proficiency band. Kuwait and Iraq experienced significant improvements, but not large enough to lift them from the very low proficiency band.
Africa shows stronger gains in English proficiency than any other region, with Algeria, Egypt, and South Africa improving by two or more points.
Travel to South America is not becoming any easier with Argentina the highest rated in the high proficiency band and Venezuela rated low.
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