Exemplary education but mediocre English
Japan and South Korea both have very literate populations and a strong Confucian culture that values education. Emphasis has been placed on English study in Korea and Japan, both in the public school system and through the enthusiastic use of thousands of private English training centers. Yet levels of English among adults are below the OECD average of 58.58. This is particularly striking when compared to the astoundingly high quality of achievement in math and reading in these countries, which is consistently demonstrated in international tests. An over-emphasis on rote learning, relatively low levels of exposure to foreigners in everyday life, and teacher-student norms which impede conversation practice all contribute to the problem. Government leaders in Tokyo and Seoul must study why their schools are failing pupils in English language instruction while succeeding brilliantly in other key subjects, then make changes accordingly. India and Pakistan both have large groups of English speaking adults thanks to the legacy of the British empire. But despite the emphasis placed on English in most schools, and the official status that the language holds, these two countries attain only moderate proficiency overall. While moderate proficiency is an achievement that few developing countries have attained, improvements are needed in both India and Pakistan, particularly in training qualified teachers to make better use of the instructional time already allotted to English.
English as an official language
Malaysia and Singapore, the highest proficiency countries in Asia, are examples of how English can be used to bridge linguistic divides between different communities within the same country. In addition to ethnic Malays, both countries have large Chinese and Indian communities, each with its own traditions and language. English has long been a required subject for all pupils starting in primary school, where it is often the medium of instruction. English proficiency is tested at the end of primary school and again at the end of secondary school. In these countries, English is valued as a shared language across communities, not owned by any one of the three, as well as being an international medium of communication. Hong Kong’s English skills fall significantly below those of other territories in East Asia where English is an official language. In a 2011 survey, more adults professed to speaking fluent Mandarin than English. Hong Kong has, in the past decade, struggled with how to prioritize foreign language instructional time in schools. English and Mandarin are both foreign languages to most Hong Kong natives. The existence of two important languages does not necessarily lead to lower English proficiency, but large amounts of time must be devoted to these subjects if they are to be taught to a high level.
China will require momentous English language training
China is attempting a remarkable linguistic feat. It is at once pushing its citizens towards Mandarin as a shared national language and ramping up English training to reap the full economic benefit of its current global position. More people are learning English in China than in any other country. 100,000 native English speakers are currently teaching there. The EF EPI score shows that China still has a long way to go before it can consider itself adequately proficient in English. But the government has shown drive both in training children via the public schools and in retraining adults—particularly those in the public sector. These efforts are already having measurable results among professionals. Tests administered to working adults in China show they have a large advantage in English proficiency over the population as a whole. These results are detailed in the EF EPIc report, available for download at www.ef.com/epi.