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English proficiency in Mideast lowest in the world

8 Dec 2019

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 international education 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). 

EF English Proficiency Index, a ranking of 100 countries and regions by English skills, ranks most countries in the Middle East at the bottom. In the GCC, Bahrain is ranked the highest (55th), followed by the UAE (70th), Qatar (80th), Kuwait (84th), Oman (92nd) and Saudi Arabia (98th).  

According to the report, English proficiency in the Middle East is by far the lowest in any region in the world. ‘Unfortunately, progress in teaching basic skills to schoolchildren has been slower, and many countries have been forced to set up programmes to help transition students from secondary school to university,’ it stated.   

Once at the forefront of science, literature, and trade, the cultures of the Middle East are today more marginal to cutting-edge research and economic production. But change may be coming to the region. ‘In the past two decades, these countries have invested more in education – a wise decision considering their young population.’

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 2.3mn 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. 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 per cent of adults say they speak no English at all. The fact that Spanish is a global language in its own right (the language boasts 400mn 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 it to 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.


01  Netherlands  

02  Sweden  

03  Norway  

04  Denmark  

05  Singapore  

06  South Africa  

07  Finland  

08  Austria  

09  Luxembourg  

10  Germany

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