Executive Summary

In today’s world, the English language demonstrates a strong network effect: the more people use it, the more useful it becomes.

More than a billion people speak English as a first or second language, and hundreds of millions more as a third or fourth. For expanding businesses, young graduates, scientists and researchers, and international tourists, English proficiency broadens horizons, lowers barriers, and speeds information exchange. The incentives to learn English have never been greater.

And yet, the demand for English proficiency far outpaces supply. Education systems founded in response to the first industrial revolution have yet to adapt to the demands of the fourth. A front-loaded culture of learning leaves adults little time to reskill. The growth of the gig economy asks people to transition quickly from declining to emerging opportunities.

We often see English proficiency presented as a competitive advantage, but our analysis suggests that it is equally significant for the connections it enables. These connections may help individuals find better jobs or start their own businesses, but they are also intrinsically valuable. Connection is one of the defining characteristics of the global citizen – curiosity, contact, and a sense of shared responsibility beyond one’s own borders – and speaking English today is all about connection.

This report investigates how and where English proficiency is developing around the world. To create the ninth edition of the EF English Proficiency Index, we have analyzed the results of 2.3 million adults who took our English tests in 2018.

Our key findings are:

English proficiency is improving

English and innovation go hand in hand

Countries with high English proficiency are more fair and more open

Technology spreads English

Adults in their late twenties speak the best English

Managers speak the most English

Competitive industries use English

Non-English speakers cluster in specific job functions

The gender gap is closing

European English skills are polarized

Asia spans the spectrum

Latin America is turning around

Africa skews high and low

The Middle East falls further behind

Conclusions

English is, by far, the most widely studied second language in the world.

Ninety-seven percent of European secondary students are learning it; it is a required subject in schools across much of Asia and Latin America; the majority of countries in Africa use English as the language of instruction; more than 90% of the people who learn a language with EF each year choose to study English.

Yet despite these massive public and private investments in teaching English, results are frustratingly uneven. Pupils with years of classroom instruction often cannot hold a conversation. Professionals see their prospects limited when their English skills cannot keep up with their ambitions.

Why is there such a mismatch between the supply and demand for English proficiency? It is largely due to the speed with which English rose in value in the workplace. In 1989, the Internet was not available to the public, and English, when it was taught at all, was offered alongside other electives. Fastforward 30 years and our hyper-connected world uses English as its common tongue. According to Cambridge English, threequarters of companies worldwide say English is important to their business. Those students who were attending school in 1989 and in the preceding decades are the core of the global workforce. Some speak enough English. Many do not.

Click here to meet your English teacher

Technology helped create this problem. It may also help solve it. While giving out laptops to children is demonstrably ineffective, true digitalization – including teacher training on using the new tools – has enormous promise in the English-language classroom. Ed-tech can connect students to authentic source materials and practice modules, allowing teachers to individualize instruction. Chatbots let students practice conversation without waiting their turn in a large class. Teachers can receive subjectspecific support, coaching, and professional development more consistently.

In countries without enough qualified English teachers – which is the vast majority of them – a device loaded with instructional material and an AI may eventually allow students to learn basic English on their own. For now, the urgency of training teachers can hardly be overstated. Again, technology can help. Many education ministries already understand that overhauling teacher training programs and upskilling their current teachers – in English and in other subjects – must be their top priorities. Leveraging technology to deliver teacher training at scale is a real possibility.

The forever student

Children’s brains are particularly well adapted to learning languages, but the idea that adults cannot learn English has been thoroughly disproven. In a rapidly evolving society, we cannot possibly hope to learn everything we need to know in the first quarter of our lives for successful careers in the subsequent three quarters. As the world of work changes, a fundamental cultural shift towards lifelong learning is both necessary and inevitable.

The promise of technology is, if anything, even greater for adults. The flexibility of online English learning is perfectly suited to corporate training and personal upskilling. A distributed network of teachers can give adults access to higher quality instruction than available locally, and for a lower price. Universally recognized micro-credentials for English training would help reassure professionals and government sponsors about the quality of the courses they are investing in.

The myth of quick and easy

The Internet is littered with blog posts offering three amazing tips, five easy steps, and 10 great things anyone can do to learn English. If it were that simple, there would be no demand for English speakers because everyone would already be one. The reality is that an adult who does not speak English will need at least 600 hours of high-quality instruction and 600 hours of speaking practice to master English well enough for the average workplace. People whose native language is very different from English, who require advanced English skills, or who have no experience learning foreign languages will need quite a bit more time.

The myth of quick and easy language learning frustrates individual learners when their progress does not match their expectations. Many choose an English course with just a few hours of class per week, thinking it will be enough. Most give up well before reaching the 1,200 hour mark. The myth also derails employers and governments that invest in large-scale English training. They opt for less extensive programs and programs that offer participants no opportunities to actually speak English. The smaller price tag is only attractive until they measure the results. Busting the myth that a language can be learned without lots of time and practice would improve the efficiency of both public and private investments.

Speaking the same language

Worldwide, many people face common misconceptions about English-medium schools. Using English as the language of instruction makes perfect sense, of course, in communities where students speak English at home, or as part of a genuine bilingual education program, but it creates problems everywhere else. A large and definitive body of research shows that, in order to grow into literate and numerate adults, students must learn to read and write in their native language. That conclusion sounds perfectly obvious to native speakers of Mandarin, Spanish, and other highstatus languages, but for native speakers of hundreds of lower-status languages, a mother tongue education is not available.

The problem is particularly widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Pakistan, where colonial history has given English a special status, even in areas where students, parents, and teachers know very little English. The English-speaking elite see no reason to change a system that empowers them, and English-language schools are popular with parents who hope their children will join that elite. But several large-scale testing initiatives have shown that when children are taught in a language they do not understand, by teachers whose English is poor, they do not learn English – and they do not learn anything else, either.

Worldwide English proficiency has never been higher. This reflects the results of thousands of large and small-scale efforts to teach English around the world. But we are a long way from having a language that the whole world shares. People want to connect, they need to connect, and yet billions are being left behind. Governments, education systems, and companies must do more to ensure that English and the opportunities it affords are open to everyone.

Recommendations

Most organizations and individuals are convinced of the advantages of English proficiency in the modern world. Not everyone knows how to get there.

Demand for English learning software, sites, classes, and study abroad programs has never been higher. What people are less sure of is how to improve English proficiency in their organizations, in their countries, in their schools, and for themselves. Many have wasted time and money on schemes that did not deliver. Many are frustrated by missed opportunities. The truth is that there is no single solution that will work in every situation, but there are patterns that characterize the most successful English programs.

For companies

  • Set realistic goals that take into account the hours needed to close the gap between current and target proficiency levels for each individual.
  • Build a culture of internationalism and mobility, including in branch offices.
  • Use platforms that facilitate frequent contact between teams in different countries.
  • Build diverse, multi-national teams in all functions, including the back office.
  • Test the entire workforce to identify strategic weaknesses in English.
  • Train employees using a role-specific English curriculum.
  • Leverage technology to bring flexible learning at scale.
  • Set minimum standards of English proficiency for different roles, and test that those standards are being met.
  • Hire strong English speakers.
  • Reward employees who invest time in improving their English.
  • Encourage executives and managers to lead by example and share their experiences as English learners.

For governments and education authorities

  • Consider the hours available in the curriculum and the proficiency level achievable for each major educational milestone.
  • Use large-scale assessment of both teachers and students to benchmark a starting point and track progress over time.
  • Adjust entrance and exit exams so that they evaluate communicative English skills.
  • Include English in the training regimens for all new teachers.
  • Re-train English teachers in communicative teaching methods if they were initially trained using other methods.
  • Ensure that English is taught only by people who speak the language well enough to instruct in it.
  • Set a minimum level required to teach English, test instructors regularly, and train those who miss the mark.
  • Teach children to read and write in their own native language first.
  • Assess the English skills of all public servants and provide training as necessary, not only for their current jobs, but also for their careers.
  • Provide English language instruction in job centers and unemployment reduction programs.
  • Give adults access to lifelong learning programs.
  • Ensure that government-funded adult language courses are long enough and intensive enough for learners to meet their goals.
  • Develop standardized microcredentials that certify course quality and improve skill portability.
  • Allow TV shows and movies to be shown in their original language, with subtitles rather than dubbing.

For teachers, schools, and universities

  • Teach English using a communicationbased methodology.
  • Give students frequent opportunities to speak English through activities like English clubs, theme days, classroom twinning, school trips, and guest speakers.
  • Provide a forum for teachers to share best practices and get advice about teaching English effectively.
  • Give teachers a straightforward path to improve their own English.
  • Include English language requirements for all university majors.
  • Allow subject classes to be taught in English if both the students and the professor meet the requisite English level.

For individuals

  • Play the long game: plan for the hundreds of hours it takes to move from one proficiency level to the next.
  • Be aware of growing competence at different stages and celebrate your successes.
  • Study English every day, even if only for a few minutes.
  • Study in sessions of 20-30 minutes rather than for hours at a time.
  • Set specific, achievable goals and write them down.
  • Memorize vocabulary relevant to your job or field of study and begin using it immediately.
  • Practice speaking, even if it’s just reading a book aloud.
  • Watch TV, read, or listen to the radio in English.
  • When traveling to an English-speaking country, speak as much as possible.
EF EPIEF EPI Executive Summary