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The world is getting better at English—but some countries are learning faster than others

Young Myanmar refugees from the Rohingya ethnic minority attend their English class in Kuala Lumpur in this August 16, 2011 file picture. In 1982 Myanmar passed a law which made it impossible for Rohingyas to get full citizenship. Many fled to Bangladesh in 1991 and 1992 following a government crackdown. Today, an estimated 800,000 live in Myanmar and up to 300,000 in Bangladesh. On August 25, 2011, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR will launch an international campaign to highlight the plight of the estimated 12-15 million people worldwide who are not recognised as nationals by any country and become stateless. Picture taken August 16, 2011. To match STATELESS/ REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad (MALAYSIA - Tags: SOCIETY POLITICS) - GF2E78N0N4X02
Reuters/Bazuki Muhammad
Speaking better.
By Nikhil Sonnad
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Speaking English well is a good sign for a country’s development. Places where people have relatively good English skills score higher on measures of quality of life, average income, and more.

This relationship doesn’t show causation—improving people’s English might not lead those other indicators to increase. But the correlations are strong enough that improvements in English ability are a good proxy for positive changes in other areas. Good knowledge of English means people have access to a huge set of global ideas and services that would otherwise be unavailable.

So it’s worth asking: where are people’s English skills improving the most? Based on data from the English Proficiency Index, organized by the company Education First (EF), this chart shows how a country’s average score on EF’s English test has changed from 2014 to 2017.

There are a couple things to note here. For one, the overall trend is up. Among these 59 countries—the ones the EF has measured every year since 2014—the average score has gone from 51.9 to 53.5. Second, countries with previously very low levels of proficiency—many of them places in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Iran—are starting to catch up. In part this just shows regression to the mean: countries starting from a low base have more room to improve. It also shows, though, that the minimum level of English is rising, even in places where it is not widely spoken.

That said, even countries with high levels of proficiency can continue to improve. Norway, currently home to the world’s fourth-best English speakers, according to EF data, improved considerably. As did Singapore, where English is an official language. Here are the latest proficiency scores for several countries in the top, middle, and bottom of the rankings.

Finally, a few countries saw their levels of English fall. Many of these are home primarily to Spanish speakers, like Ecuador, Argentina, Spain, and Peru. It could be the case that in these places, speaking Spanish—also a multinational language—is enough to get most of the benefits of globalization usually associated with English. At the same time, Spanish-speaking countries Panama and Costa Rica are among the most improved, though both get lots of tourists from the US.

The EF’s data comes with a couple caveats. The proficiency scores are based on free online tests, so the people taking them are self-selected. They are not a representative sample of the country’s citizens, and may instead represent a group that is particularly interested in English and has access to the internet. And the EF only has data on a partial list of the world’s nations.

Still, it is the best dataset available for measuring English ability across countries, and it shows a world that is increasingly proficient in the new global lingua franca.

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