The English Proficiency Index 2019 – what can we learn from it?

The annual English Proficiency Index, published by the global English teaching company Education First, holds few surprises this year.

Based on an online English test taken by over 2 million people worldwide, the Index provides us with a rough but handy guide to levels of English in 100 countries. Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa are all represented.

So which country won this year?

Top place goes to The Netherlands, closely followed by the Scandinavian countries.

In 10th place, Germany performs well. At No. 31, France has improved slightly on last year’s performance. Spain’s performance continues to decline, and it now comes 35th. Italy has also dropped down the Index, and is now in 36th place. France, Spain and Italy are the lowest performing countries in Western Europe, and are close to the lowest in the whole of Europe.

Should we trust it?

Let’s not take the Index too seriously.  The participants in Education First’s online English test aren’t randomly selected, but are people sufficiently interested in their level of English to have come across and taken the test on their own initiative. That process doesn’t lend itself to accurate results. But it does appear that the steps being taken in both Spain and Italy to improve English teaching in schools have some way to go.

Learning from the Netherlands…

We don’t need the EF Index to tell us that the citizens of the Netherlands speak excellent English. Why is that, and can other, worse performing countries learn from their example?

The Dutch have one great advantage – shared only by the Germans. English, Dutch and German belong to the same branch of languages – the West-Germanic languages. This means that learning English is simply easier for Dutch and German speakers. That seems a bit unfair, but there it is.  There are in fact plenty of similarities between, say, French and English too.

As in much of the rest of the world, a lot of Dutch TV programmes and films come from English speaking countries. But they’re not dubbed into Dutch. That’s not the case in France, Spain or Italy, where TV viewers enjoy watching in their own language. And that makes a real difference to levels of English.

I suspect that another factor affects language levels too. In the Netherlands, it’s taken for granted that schoolchildren will learn to communicate effectively in English.  After all, the adults already do. That’s still not the case in many countries around the world. In my view, knowing that English can be learned, not just by a select few but by most of the people around you, provides a vital confidence boost. Learning to speak English well isn’t so difficult. And yes, of course you can manage it.