Europe’s largest economies are falling behind in English

English proficiency may be creating a new divide among European countries.
English proficiency may be creating a new divide among European countries.
Image: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
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Language might once have been a barrier but today it would be commonplace—barely noticeable, in fact—to hear a Dutchman in Japan asking his Russian waiter for a glass of water. That’s because, for better of worse, English has become the world’s lingua franca. But a new report shows that, in some of Europe’s leading economies, English proficiency appears to be declining.

Of the four largest economies in the euro zone, meaning France, Germany, Spain, and Italy, “only Germany speaks English well,” according to a report published today (Nov. 5) by EF Education First, a Swedish company based in Switzerland that manages more than 600 language schools across 50 countries.  The report, which has been issued every year since 2011, analyzed the test-score data of 2.3 million people in 100 countries who took an EF standardized English test online in 2018. Countries were given a score on a scale from zero to 100, based on test-takers’ proficiency in reading and listening.

There are some concerns, as Quartz’s Nikhil Sonnad noted about last year’s report, about how representative the data it collects and analyzes is of the general population of each country. “The proficiency scores are based on free online tests, so the people taking them are self-selected,” he wrote, “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.” Even so, Sonnad says “it is the best dataset available for measuring English ability across countries.”

The new report says that “France, Spain, and Italy lag behind nearly every other [Eurozone] member state—a finding that has been consistent across previous editions” of the index. Out of 100 countries, France ranks 31st, Spain 35th, and Italy 36th. The three countries are in the “moderately proficient” category—along with countries like Costa Rica, Latvia, and Cuba—which means the average person there can do things like participate in English-language meetings about topics they know well, or understand song lyrics. And while “France has made modest gains over the past two years,” the report states that “English proficiency in Spain has been declining since 2014,” and Italy’s score has also decreased since last year.

The report draws a connection between a country’s level of English ability and its success on a range of development indicators, such as net income and productivity. This is not the first time that studies have shown a correlation between economic prosperity and bilingualism (pdf), but correlation doesn’t necessarily prove causation. Is it, as EF and others argue, that better English skills facilitate global trade and investment, which leads to growth and new jobs? Or is it that rich countries can invest more in bilingual education? Germany, for example, is ranked 10th and in the “very high proficiency” category. It is also one of the most successful economies in Europe. Which came first?

Both France and Spain already invest in bilingual education, which makes their relatively low score on EF’s English proficiency index worrying for policymakers. Some regions of Spain, for example, have worked with the British Council to make public primary and secondary schools bilingual, with a third of the curriculum taught in English. But critics say that the schools are under-staffed or staffed with teachers who have poor English skills themselves. The project “has so far had no measurable effect on adult English proficiency,” states EF. In a 2017 poll from Spain’s CIS state research institute (pdf)(link in Spanish), nearly 60% of respondents said they didn’t read, write, or speak English.

Meanwhile, France’s Emmanuel Macron, who has been known to pepper his speeches with English words, has pledged to invest in English education. One of his political allies, Benjamin Griveaux, who is running to be the next mayor of Paris, said his goal was for all Parisian children to be bilingual by the age of 16. And yet a recent government report (link in French) shows that, by the end of 9th grade, 75% of French teenagers can’t even produce a few “globally correct” English sentences. As the British like to say, the proof is in the pudding.