ENGLISH IS THE most widely spoken language in the world. And of the roughly 1.5bn speakers globally, the vast majority speak it as a second language. So where are the world’s best non-native English speakers? According to a new report by EF Education First, an English-teaching company, Northern Europeans are the most fluent (the Netherlands tops the rankings, followed by Sweden, Norway and Denmark). Middle Easterners are the least proficient (Iraq, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia all rank near the bottom).
These results are not comprehensive, however. Nor are they representative. EF’s index is based on the results of a free online test taken by 2.3m volunteers in 100 countries. Only people with an internet connection and time and willingness to take a test are included in the sample, which means the results are biased towards richer countries interested in English. As a result, many African countries do not have enough test-takers—at least 400—to be included in the index.
Such biases aside, the EF’s index produces results that are interesting, if not entirely scientific. Nearly six in ten of this year’s test-takers were female. Women have always fared better than men, but this year men closed the gap somewhat. Some countries saw their proficiency scores decline. This is probably not because their English got worse; more likely, a big increase in the number of test-takers brought in more people with weak English.
In Europe, the powerhouse economies fare surprisingly badly: only Germany makes the top tier of “very high proficiency” countries. France is next, while Spain and Italy are persistent laggards. A study by a Spanish research institute confirmed the bad news: 60% of adults say they speak no English at all. The fact that Spanish is a global language in its own right (the language boasts 400m native speakers) is probably the culprit. If you speak Danish, you need another language to take part in global culture; speaking French or Spanish (or Arabic) means hundreds of millions of people to talk to without English.
Asia is the region of greatest diversity. Only Singapore makes the top tier, but the Philippines, Malaysia, Hong Kong and India are not far behind. China is further back but still in the second tier, a few slots ahead of Japan. Languishing in the bottom slots are a clutch of South-East and Central Asian countries like Cambodia and Kyrgyzstan. This correlates with another factor: EF repeatedly finds that English skills are highly correlated with connections and openness to the rest of the world.