Why English is the undisputed world language
If you ask yourself whether Chinese is going to become the new world language, you just have to look at the graph below. The graph shows the most used languages world wide, but distinguishes between native speakers (dark-blue) and non-native speakers (light-blue). Although Chinese Mandarin has by far the most native speakers (1.1 billion), it “only” attracts 118 million non-native speakers. In contrast, there are only one-third so many English native speakers (375 million), but 1.1 billion additional non-native speakers. English is adopted like no other foreign language and that makes it the most spoken language in the world. Obviously, not all of those 1.1 billion non-native English speakers will be perfectly fluent, but you’ll always have a range of abilities in all languages. The underlying point here is that English is the undisputed world language.
The benefits of learning English
In the professional world, English has firmly established itself as the common communication denominator. “You don’t speak German? Well, I don’t speak Japanese. Why don’t we just meet in the middle?” English is like the neutral ground among English non-native speakers.
Access to information is tremendous when it comes to English. Currently, Wikipedia lists 4,922,000 English articles, while German (1,836,000) and Spanish (1,187,000) are come in at second and third place, but well beaten by English. I visit the English Wikipedia pages first and then try to find the same page in German or Spanish – if necessary.
Better English skills have been associated with (1) higher quality of life (Source), (2) income (Source) and (3) greater economic competitiveness (Source). Although just a correlation, it makes a lot of sense why English would be so beneficial. It gives job seekers access to a global job market and countries can attract international companies with a good English-speaking work force.
The English proficiency of a country also correlates with the number of years of formal English education (see Graph). That means if (a) higher English proficiency correlates with higher quality of life, income and economic competitiveness and (b) English proficiency increases with the number of years of English education in school, then (c) students should start learning English early and continue with it throughout secondary education. This would increase their chances of experiencing these positive outcomes with which English has been associated with. “Even in full immersion environments, children need 4-7 years to gain native-level English skills”(Source). That’s a very considerable amount of exposure!
How do four world regions compare in their English proficiency?
The EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) (Source) has a wonderful website that showcases the different levels of English proficiency by country. Over the last 7 years about 5 million people have taken part in their surveys, making it the largest assessment of English proficiency in the world. Countries can be listed as having (1) very high, (2) high, (3) moderate, (4) low or (5) very low English proficiency. Native English speaking countries are not part of this assessment as well as sub-saharan Africa.
The highest English proficiency can currently be found in Europe. All of the seven countries listed in the “very high” English proficiency category are from Europe. Asia still has a long way to go, but is catching up rapidly. South America is even further behind and struggling harder than Asia. Finally, Middle East and North Africa (MENA) forms the tail light with most of the countries in the “very low” English proficiency category.
If we look at the CHANGES in English proficiency over the last seven years we can see English proficiency rising in general. Apart from MENA countries, which have worsened, the rest of the world is getting better. Europe and Asia show very similar improvements. Asia is trying to catch up, but Europe is running ahead at the same speed, meaning their relative proficiency hasn’t changed. Both regions exhibit the greatest improvements. Latin America is improving a little slower.
Among the MENA countries only the United Arab Emirates made it into the “low proficiency” category.
Native English speaking countries such as the US and the UK always had a strong influence on Europe. Many Europeans still today study, spend their vacations and also live in the UK and the US. There is also a much stronger feeling of common culture, which naturally brings these parts of the world together. I initially thought that east European countries might show worse English proficiency than their western counterparts due to (a) their often times Slavic-based languages, which means less of an overlap with English and (b) the iron curtain, which made learning English very difficult between 1945 and 1991. The reality is that Poland and Romania (among others) have a higher English proficiency than Switzerland, Italy or Spain. The economic incentive of the west is probably reflected in their performance.
If you are looking for the largest improvements in English proficiency you have to look at Asia. Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are catching up really fast with 7+ points improvement over the last seven years. Indonesia now speaks better English than Hong Kong!
On the other hand, many Asian countries are stagnating as well, especially the wealthy parts. In Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, English proficiency actually got worse over the last seven years. Asia’s improvement by 3.52 points is tremendous if you consider that about 4.4 billion people live there! In absolute numbers, I have no doubt that Asia would be the world’s top English student!
Latin American countries improved on average by 2.16 points, which is good, but the continent continues to show poor English proficiency. Only Argentina made it into the “high proficiency” category. Ecuador, Peru and the Dominican Republic have achieved the greatest improvements across time. Most of the continent speaks Spanish, which is also a very widespread language, especially in the US and Spain (duh!). I could imagine this being a hindrance in adopting English as well as the slower economic development relative to Asia. Along those lines, Argentina is one of the stronger economic countries in South America and it performed the best in English. I speculate that there is a very strong correlation between the economic power of a country, which requires a larger English speaking work force and the actual English proficiency performance.
Middle Eastern and North Africa (MENA)
Not only are MENA countries performing the worst, they are also worsening in their English proficiency. On average, the region dropped by -2.66 points. Iran dipped by -11 points over the last 7 years. In fact, the only two countries that improved were Jordan (1.38 points) and the United Arab Emirates (1.43 points). The United Arab Emirates was the only country that made it into the “low proficiency” category. The Arab spring and Irans isolation from the rest of the world come to mind. The EF EPI website raises an interesting argument to explain the dip in performance. Currently, MENA’s internet penetration is growing rapidly, which means that the test takers have become more representative of the average actual English proficiency. Seven years ago, only wealthier people had access and they were surely more likely to speak English well (Source).
- English is the undisputed international language because of its high adoption rate
- English proficiency correlates with higher income, better life quality and higher economic competitiveness. Kids need to get at least 4-7 years of English exposure in school to master it.
- The world is getting better at English. Europe is still leading the charts and Asia is rapidly raising its average.. Latin America is advancing as well, but slower. MENA is falling behind, but that might be due to the higher internet penetration today compared to seven years ago.
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How Countries Compare in their Foreign Language Education