If you are reading this article, the chances are that you have studied English as a second language. There are roughly 350 million native speakers of the language – but, depending on how you measure proficiency, there are somewhere between 800 million and 1.4 billion English speakers alive today. What’s more, that number is growing – fast! According to research by the British Council, there were approximately one billion people actively studying English in 2014, with that number expected to double within ten years.
These figures are truly astonishing, but at the same time, is it really that surprising? English is spoken not only in its homeland, Britain, and her former colonies, but also in a wide range of countries across the globe. Even more importantly, it has become the de facto lingua franca of the 21st century. For travel, business, education, and just simple communication, English has generally become the language of choice. But where and to what degree? Read on and find out!
Countries where English is spoken
There are, as eminent linguist Braj Kachru put it, three circles of English. You probably already know that English is the dominant native language of the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland.
What might be more surprising is that it is an official language of a further 63 nations including India, Pakistan, Nigeria, the Philippines, South Africa, and Singapore. Further to that, it is a de facto official language of many other large countries such as Malaysia, Israel, and Bangladesh. In these countries, English is frequently used as a medium for education, government, and business.
There is also a third grouping of countries in which English is spoken. In a rapidly globalising world, many individuals and governments have recognised the emergence of English as the dominant lingua franca. The study of English as a second language has thus exploded across Europe, Asia, and South America.
Knowledge of English across Europe
According to European Union research, 38% of EU citizens (excluding native English speakers) are capable of having a conversation in English. Knowledge of English is not equally distributed across the continent, however. As a general rule, it seems that northern and central European nations have better English skills than their Eastern and Mediterranean cousins.
The prestigious EF English Proficiency Index tests English speakers around the world, measures their levels of proficiency, and gives each country a rating out of 100.
According to them, there are nine European countries with “very high proficiency”: Sweden (70.9), the Netherlands (70.6), Denmark (70.1), Norway (67.8), Finland (65.3), Slovenia (64.9), Estonia (63.7), Luxembourg (63.5), and Poland (62.9).
Austria (61.9), Germany (61.8), Portugal (60.6), Romania (59.7), Belgium (59.1), Czechia (59.0), Switzerland (58.4), and Hungary (57.9) all have “high proficiency”.
Latvia (57.2), Spain (56.8), Slovakia (56.3), Lithuania (55.1), Italy (54.0), and Ukraine (52.6) have “moderate proficiency”.
France (51.8) and Russia (51.6) lag behind, with “low proficiency”, and Turkey (47.6) and Azerbaijan (46.1) bring up the rear, with “very low proficiency”.
Knowledge of English across Asia
Asian nations fared well on the EF English Proficiency Index, though their English levels were understandably lower on average than their European counterparts.
At the top of the pile, with “high proficiency” were Singapore (61.1), Malaysia (60.3), and India (58.2).
Coming in next, with “moderate proficiency” were South Korea (54.5), Vietnam (53.8), Japan (53.6), Taiwan (53.2), Indonesia (52.9), and Hong Kong (52.7).
Pakistan (49.9) and China (49.4) scored “low proficiency” whereas Sri Lanka (47.9), Kazakhstan (47.0), Thailand (45.4), Mongolia (43.6), and Cambodia (39.2) were considered to have “very low proficiency”.
Knowledge of English across South America
Argentina (60.3) is the only nation with “high proficiency” in South America, and the Dominican Republic (56.7) is the only one with “moderate proficiency”.
The majority of countries there have “low English proficiency”: Peru (52.5), Chile (51.9), Ecuador (51.7), Mexico (51.3), Brazil (51.0), Costa Rica (50.5), Uruguay (50.3), Guatemala (49.7), and Panama (48.8).
Colombia (46.5), Venezuela (46.1), and El Salvador (45.5) placed in the “very low proficiency” category.
All in all, worldwide knowledge of the English language continues to grow. Already it is the go-to language for international communication, and all indications suggest that this trend is set to continue and indeed strengthen in the coming years.