Speaking English was once an admirable skill. Instead of the admiration you got 20 years ago for being fluent in English, it is more and more taken for granted and will probably reach the status of literacy in terms of an elementary skill.
Thanks to the EF English Proficiency Index we can see where certain countries are on the road to achieving this status. It doesn’t come as a surprise that the Nordic countries came out on top along with the Netherlands, Austria and Poland. The latter one and Finland are the odd one outs, since the others are all countries where a Germanic language is spoken. Their success is due to their language being similar to English, high exposure to English and their view on their languages having no use beyond the borders of their country. In contrast, Spain is only in the “moderate” category with their widely spoken Spanish.
In the same category we find Italy, France, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
The Romance countries are uniformly below the European average, but at least they are improving year by year, with the exception of France, where English proficiency is declining. Low exposure, laws regulating foreign language use in the media and a nationalistic attitude all contribute to the decline. France is still trying to protect their much-beloved French against the “evil” English.
The Slavic members of the group are making progress as well but not as much as Poland (very high). Along with Hungary (high), Poland made the most progress in Central and Eastern Europe. Turkey, however, still with “very low” proficiency though, made the most improvement worldwide in the past six years.
Leaving Europe, we can see progress in Asian countries with some exceptions. China is doing well with a lot of money invested in English teaching. Japan on the other hand is struggling mainly due to their traditional way of teaching the language: they lecture in Japanese, encourage rote learning and don’t teach communication. Progress can only be made if they adopt a communicative approach.
The rest of the world, Latin America, Middle East and North Africa have the weakest English skills. Latin America’s performance is in line with how they fare in other subjects. Their reading skills in their native language are way below the OECD average and of course the lack of native language proficiency makes it significantly harder to learn a foreign language.
The study has also shown that there is a positive correlation between the Gross National Income per capita with English proficiency. We can also conclude that large investments don’t necessarily produce good results like in the case of Japan. Luckily though, English proficiency is improving around the world with only a few exceptions. Hopefully, those legging behind will catch up with the rest of the world soon.