In 2018, the English language is as important as it has ever been. It is the de facto language of communication for all types of international exchange – goods, services, and ideas.
For companies, English is a key component of remaining competitive and fostering innovation in an internationalized marketplace. As English becomes necessary for ever more interactions in the globalized world, the value of proficiency in the language grows apparent, and the cost of not speaking English grows steeper.
As a consequence of its popularity, English is more detached than ever from any particular culture. Less than a quarter of the world’s English speakers are “natives,” and that proportion will continue to decline as more people learn English as an additional language. Already, experts estimate that the majority of the world’s population speaks two or more languages.
This report aims to broaden the understanding of how and where English proficiency is developing around the world. In order to create the eighth edition of the EF English Proficiency Index, we’ve analyzed the results of 1.3 million test takers who took our English tests in 2017.
Eight countries demonstrated significant improvement (by more than two points), and 12 countries – a record number – reached the highest proficiency band. Global trends suggest that this improvement will continue. Public and private investment in English language instruction has not slowed. English is as present as ever in the workplace. International travel increased by 7% in 2017.
Although English cannot be said to cause these societal improvements, it does seem to accompany them. The correlation makes sense. English breaks down barriers, fosters international exchange, and exposes individuals to the wider world.
More scientific journals are published in English than in any other language, and we’ve found consistent correlations between English and investment in R&D. This relationship is particularly interesting in light of recent research showing that companies with managers from many countries earn more of their revenue from innovation than less diverse competitors. English is changing the way that ideas flow from one place to another.
This finding has been true for all eight EF EPI indices, and the gender gap, which narrowed in 2016, has widened again. Research into how boys and girls learn foreign languages has shown that female students are more motivated, use a wider variety of strategies to retain new information, and are more willing to make mistakes. Women on the whole are also more likely than men to finish secondary school and attend university. Unfortunately, businesses are not benefitting as much as they could from women’s English skills. Studies have shown that women speak less in meetings and negotiations than men and are interrupted more when they do speak.
For the first time, adults aged 26 to 30 outperform those aged 21 to 25 worldwide, but the relative skills of different age cohorts vary widely among regions. Where economic incentives to learn English are strong, professionals invest time and money in improving their English and become more proficient than students. When English has been introduced or prioritized in a school system fairly recently, the youngest cohort outstrips all others. In places with little discernible difference between age groups, there have often been no major changes in the English learning landscape for decades, and everyone speaks English equally well. Or equally poorly.
This finding holds true across a large majority of industries and countries. Managers interact with their colleagues and clients overseas more regularly than junior staff, so they get more practice speaking English. English skills are also at a premium, and those who have them are often promoted to managerial positions. Executives, on the other hand, tend to be older, and to have come up in a business climate where English skills were less valued. Building English proficiency across all seniority levels would allow companies to develop more international teams and share information more quickly across their organizations.
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.
South Africa’s English improved more than any other country or region in the world, and Algeria, Egypt, and Nigeria also experienced significant gains. This is promising news for a continent with a young population and enormous potential for growth. English skills will enable further engagement with the international community.
Three of the continent’s largest economies – Spain, Italy, and France – have persistent English skill deficiencies, while countries in northern Europe occupy six of the top 10 positions in the index. Sweden returns to first position after a two-year absence, bumping the Netherlands to second place. The countries on the fringes of Europe lag significantly behind the European average.
Previous editions of the EF EPI have found a large gap between the highest and lowest proficiency countries in the region, and in 2017, that gap grew. Singapore improved from an already strong base, moving into third position in the overall ranking. China and Japan did not experience significant changes, and both remain in the Low Proficiency band. The lack of English skills in Central Asia became clearer this year with the addition of Uzbekistan to the index, which, along with Kazakhstan, falls in the Very Low Proficiency band.
The region remains the most uniform of any in the world in terms of English skills, with only 11 points separating Venezuela, the region’s lowest scorer, from Argentina, the region’s highest. Underperforming education systems and high levels of economic inequality are hampering efforts to improve English proficiency.
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. In 2018, the English language is as important as it has ever been. It is the de facto language of communication for all types of international exchange – goods, services, and ideas.
For these reasons and more, millions of parents invest in English tutoring, summer study abroad programs, and online English education programs for their children. This is also why millions of professionals make the same investments in their own English education, and governments include English on the core school curriculum.
English is unique in having such a wealth of educational resources outside the boundaries of formal schooling. Other skills – like web programming, accounting, numeracy, and literacy – are also extremely valuable, but they are already provided by public schools, or they are only required for certain types of jobs. English is unique in that it is in high demand for many professions, and yet most students do not master it adequately in school.
It’s not just individuals: companies, cities, regions, and countries stand to benefit from developing English proficiency. English facilitates international collaboration, investment, and mobility. In English-proficient communities, engineers have access to the latest techniques, recruiters can draw from a global talent pool, and mergers take place more smoothly and comprehensively. And if that were not enough, English proficiency is also correlated with key development indicators, including metrics of income, equality, and productivity.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to building a culture of English proficiency, but the regions and countries with the strongest English skills share certain time-tested strategies. In particular, they:
Companies with strong cultures of English proficiency also tend to pursue certain strategies. They:
While the exact strategies vary from place to place, the benefits of improved English proficiency are clear. Communities with strong English skills are more competitive and open, and better able to take advantage of opportunities, knowledge, and talent around the world. There is no sign that globalization is slowing, and technology promises to make international communication ever simpler. Now more than ever, English gives people access to the world.