In today’s world, the English language demonstrates a strong network effect: the more people use it, the more useful it becomes.
More than a billion people speak English as a first or second language, and hundreds of millions more as a third or fourth. For expanding businesses, young graduates, scientists and researchers, and international tourists, English proficiency broadens horizons, lowers barriers, and speeds information exchange. The incentives to learn English have never been greater.
And yet, the demand for English proficiency far outpaces supply. Education systems founded in response to the first industrial revolution have yet to adapt to the demands of the fourth. A front-loaded culture of learning leaves adults little time to reskill. The growth of the gig economy asks people to transition quickly from declining to emerging opportunities.
We often see English proficiency presented as a competitive advantage, but our analysis suggests that it is equally significant for the connections it enables. These connections may help individuals find better jobs or start their own businesses, but they are also intrinsically valuable. Connection is one of the defining characteristics of the global citizen – curiosity, contact, and a sense of shared responsibility beyond one’s own borders – and speaking English today is all about connection.
This report investigates how and where English proficiency is developing around the world. To create the ninth edition of the EF English Proficiency Index, we have analyzed the results of 2.3 million adults who took our English tests in 2018.
The worldwide, population-weighted average English proficiency score remained stable, but 11 countries’ scores improved significantly (meaning they gained more than two points), while only four experienced significant declines. There are more countries in the Very High Proficiency band this year than ever before.
English is the principal language of international collaboration, and as in previous editions of the report, we found correlations between English and various measures of investment in R&D. This finding resonates with recent research showing that companies with managers from many countries earn more revenue from innovation than their less diverse competitors. English-speaking teams are able to attract more diverse talent and access ideas from around the world. They are also more likely to collaborate internationally within their own organizations.
There is an increasingly clear relationship between a society’s connectedness to the world and the level of social and political equality experienced by its citizens. Closed societies turn inwards and nurture rigid hierarchies. Open societies look outwards. They are flatter, fairer places. English, as a medium of international connectivity, correlates well with measures of both equality and engagement with the outside world.
Technology-enabled distance education could one day allow anyone to learn English for a competitive price, wherever they are. While that potential has not yet been fully realized, we’ve found consistent correlations between English proficiency and measures of technology adoption, such as secure servers per capita, information and communication technology (ICT) exports, and broadband subscriptions. Access to English-language media speeds up many people’s learning process too.
For the first time, we find that adults aged 26-30 have the strongest English skills. This finding reflects the growing prominence of English instruction in university education around the world. It also suggests that on-the-job English practice and often some formal training are building English proficiency early in adults’ careers. Adults aged 21-25 have the second-best average English proficiency score in this year’s report.
Worldwide, there is a gap of more than three points between the English proficiency scores of managers and those of their colleagues in executive and staff positions. Managers interact with their colleagues and clients overseas more regularly than junior staff, so they get more practice speaking English. Additionally, because English skills are at a premium, those who have them are often promoted to managerial positions. Executives, though, tend to be older, and many came of age in a business climate where English skills were less valued. Building English proficiency across all seniority levels would allow companies to share information more quickly across their organizations, and to access more diverse pools of talent.
Every industry surveyed in this year’s report has an English proficiency score clustered within a 10 point range, except for two: education and government. English proficiency in these less competitive sectors is far lower than in other industries. Of course, public servants’ priority is serving their fellow citizens. But English is an essential skill for diplomats, teachers, government workers in countries with diverse linguistic landscapes, and any professional who wants to access global best practices, learn from international colleagues, and remain adaptable in a changing economy.
There is a growing gap between job functions with high average English proficiency and those for which language skills seem to be lagging. Some of the results are stark: for example, if all the people working in administrative and clerical positions were counted in the Index as a single country, they would rank 94th out of 100 this year. Of course, not every job requires English. But most people will not stay in one job for the duration of a 40- or 50-year career, and English proficiency is critical for adaptability. The divide between those who speak English and those who do not, and the jobs that require English and those that do not, will only grow larger, rendering companies less flexible and individuals less mobile.
Last year, women’s average English level was higher than men’s worldwide and in a majority of countries. That gap has closed significantly. Women outscored men by less than one point in Africa, Asia, and Europe. In Latin America, men’s scores were higher than women’s for the first time, albeit by a small margin. In the Middle East, men’s average score continues to outpace women’s by a significant margin, and the gender gap has widened since last year.
English proficiency levels are rising in the European Union, with more EU countries than ever in the Very High Proficiency band. France’s scores have improved for the past two years, but Spain and Italy still lag behind the rest of the EU. There is also a polarizing effect in the region, with most of the EU’s neighbors not developing English proficiency at the same pace as member states.
English proficiency in Asia declined slightly compared to last year, with over half the countries surveyed registering a drop in score. As was the case last year, Asia is the region with the widest range of proficiency levels—an unsurprising finding, given its size. China has consolidated its progress over the past decade, moving from low to moderate proficiency for the first time.
Twelve of the 18 countries surveyed in Latin America this year improved their English proficiency between 2017 and 2018, many of them significantly. The populationweighted regional average did not change, however, because the region’s two most populous countries, Mexico and Brazil, experienced slight declines. Other Latin American countries, many of which have invested heavily in teacher training in recent years, are at last seeing real improvement.
As in previous years, a few African countries performed well while the rest performed poorly, and the gap between higher and lower proficiency countries is wider than ever. The overall average for Africa dropped significantly, primarily due to score changes in South Africa and Ethiopia – both countries with large populations – and to the inclusion of Sudan and Cameroon, which were not in the Index last year, and both fall in the Very Low Proficiency band.
English proficiency in the Middle East remains the lowest in the world by a wide margin. The regional average fell slightly compared to last year’s report. Government efforts to improve English proficiency in the Middle East are not yet delivering results, but the region may be poised for a change.
Ninety-seven percent of European secondary students are learning it; it is a required subject in schools across much of Asia and Latin America; the majority of countries in Africa use English as the language of instruction; more than 90% of the people who learn a language with EF each year choose to study English.
Yet despite these massive public and private investments in teaching English, results are frustratingly uneven. Pupils with years of classroom instruction often cannot hold a conversation. Professionals see their prospects limited when their English skills cannot keep up with their ambitions.
Why is there such a mismatch between the supply and demand for English proficiency? It is largely due to the speed with which English rose in value in the workplace. In 1989, the Internet was not available to the public, and English, when it was taught at all, was offered alongside other electives. Fastforward 30 years and our hyper-connected world uses English as its common tongue. According to Cambridge English, threequarters of companies worldwide say English is important to their business. Those students who were attending school in 1989 and in the preceding decades are the core of the global workforce. Some speak enough English. Many do not.
Technology helped create this problem. It may also help solve it. While giving out laptops to children is demonstrably ineffective, true digitalization – including teacher training on using the new tools – has enormous promise in the English-language classroom. Ed-tech can connect students to authentic source materials and practice modules, allowing teachers to individualize instruction. Chatbots let students practice conversation without waiting their turn in a large class. Teachers can receive subjectspecific support, coaching, and professional development more consistently.
In countries without enough qualified English teachers – which is the vast majority of them – a device loaded with instructional material and an AI may eventually allow students to learn basic English on their own. For now, the urgency of training teachers can hardly be overstated. Again, technology can help. Many education ministries already understand that overhauling teacher training programs and upskilling their current teachers – in English and in other subjects – must be their top priorities. Leveraging technology to deliver teacher training at scale is a real possibility.
Children’s brains are particularly well adapted to learning languages, but the idea that adults cannot learn English has been thoroughly disproven. In a rapidly evolving society, we cannot possibly hope to learn everything we need to know in the first quarter of our lives for successful careers in the subsequent three quarters. As the world of work changes, a fundamental cultural shift towards lifelong learning is both necessary and inevitable.
The promise of technology is, if anything, even greater for adults. The flexibility of online English learning is perfectly suited to corporate training and personal upskilling. A distributed network of teachers can give adults access to higher quality instruction than available locally, and for a lower price. Universally recognized micro-credentials for English training would help reassure professionals and government sponsors about the quality of the courses they are investing in.
The Internet is littered with blog posts offering three amazing tips, five easy steps, and 10 great things anyone can do to learn English. If it were that simple, there would be no demand for English speakers because everyone would already be one. The reality is that an adult who does not speak English will need at least 600 hours of high-quality instruction and 600 hours of speaking practice to master English well enough for the average workplace. People whose native language is very different from English, who require advanced English skills, or who have no experience learning foreign languages will need quite a bit more time.
The myth of quick and easy language learning frustrates individual learners when their progress does not match their expectations. Many choose an English course with just a few hours of class per week, thinking it will be enough. Most give up well before reaching the 1,200 hour mark. The myth also derails employers and governments that invest in large-scale English training. They opt for less extensive programs and programs that offer participants no opportunities to actually speak English. The smaller price tag is only attractive until they measure the results. Busting the myth that a language can be learned without lots of time and practice would improve the efficiency of both public and private investments.
Worldwide, many people face common misconceptions about English-medium schools. Using English as the language of instruction makes perfect sense, of course, in communities where students speak English at home, or as part of a genuine bilingual education program, but it creates problems everywhere else. A large and definitive body of research shows that, in order to grow into literate and numerate adults, students must learn to read and write in their native language. That conclusion sounds perfectly obvious to native speakers of Mandarin, Spanish, and other highstatus languages, but for native speakers of hundreds of lower-status languages, a mother tongue education is not available.
The problem is particularly widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Pakistan, where colonial history has given English a special status, even in areas where students, parents, and teachers know very little English. The English-speaking elite see no reason to change a system that empowers them, and English-language schools are popular with parents who hope their children will join that elite. But several large-scale testing initiatives have shown that when children are taught in a language they do not understand, by teachers whose English is poor, they do not learn English – and they do not learn anything else, either.
Worldwide English proficiency has never been higher. This reflects the results of thousands of large and small-scale efforts to teach English around the world. But we are a long way from having a language that the whole world shares. People want to connect, they need to connect, and yet billions are being left behind. Governments, education systems, and companies must do more to ensure that English and the opportunities it affords are open to everyone.
Demand for English learning software, sites, classes, and study abroad programs has never been higher. What people are less sure of is how to improve English proficiency in their organizations, in their countries, in their schools, and for themselves. Many have wasted time and money on schemes that did not deliver. Many are frustrated by missed opportunities. The truth is that there is no single solution that will work in every situation, but there are patterns that characterize the most successful English programs.