For the third year in a row, Dutch people were ranked as the best non-native English speakers. The results were presented by a report by EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI), which studied the English level of two million people in 112 countries and regions.
EF calculates each score through three separate tests – two of which are available online for free, and the third is an online placement test used by EF during the enrollment process for English courses. Every score for all of the tests taken was then normalized by EF in order to obtain the percentage of correct answers for each test. All the scores for each country / region were then averaged across the three tests in order to calculate an overall score.
Among those ranked at the top are the Dutch, Austrians, Danes and Singaporeans. Then there are the Norwegians, Belgians, Portuguese, Swedes, Finns, Croatians, Germans, South Africans, and Luxembourgers.
Since 2015, adults in their 30’s have improved their English three times as much as those aged 21-25. This year, the worldwide average for adults over 40 places them in the Moderate Proficiency band for the first time. These trends run contrary to the perceived wisdom that there is a golden (youthful) age to learn languages after which progress becomes impossible. When adults are motivated by social and economic gains, and are regularly exposed to English in a variety of practical situations, they too can improve their skills.
English is by far the most common language of information exchange across borders, making it a key component for accessing knowledge and expertise. We find strong and consistent correlations between English and various measures of innovation and competitiveness. This finding resonates with research showing that companies with an international management team earn more revenue from innovation than their less diverse competitors. English-speaking workplaces are able to attract more diverse talent and draw on ideas and information from a larger pool. They are also more likely to collaborate internationally with partners and within their own organizations.
English proficiency is higher in almost every large city than in its surrounding region and capitals outperform their country as a whole. The economy is the most likely driver of this urban/rural divide. More jobs and better salaries draw ambitious individuals from the countryside. Once in the city, office jobs and a more international environment expose them to English more frequently. Although closing this gap is unlikely, countries can avoid deepening it by ensuring English instruction in rural schools is at least as good as in urban ones.
There is an increasingly clear relationship between a society’s connectedness to the world, its level of equality and freedom, and its level of English. The simplest relationship to explain is between a country’s level of outward focus and its English. It is a virtuous cycle. Places that engage heavily with the world (economically, scientifically, diplomatically, etc.) need English, so English becomes a priority. And through their engagement with the world, adults have more exposure to English, which in turn raises proficiency.
The more complex relationship is between English and fairness, and yet we find strong and consistent correlations between English and gender equality, social mobility, and freedom. Inequality appears to dampen English proficiency, perhaps by leaving a portion of the population behind when it comes to English learning opportunities.
English proficiency in Europe remains higher than in any other region and has risen significantly since 2011. However, the gap between the average level in France, Spain and Italy, three of Europe’s largest economies, and the EU average, is remarkably stable. Despite a significant improvement in the past decade in these three countries, none is improving fast enough to catch up to their neighbors.
Top 10 countries around the world for English proficiency
- The Netherlands