Compared to other regions, Asia was found to have the widest range of English proficiency levels, from Singapore with a proficiency band of 'very high', the Philippines benchmarked as 'high', Malaysia in the 'moderate' range, to Indonesia with 'low' and Thailand having 'very low' proficiency in the language. 

This was revealed by the recent English Proficiency Index by Education First which also found that English proficiency in Asia declined slightly compared to last year, with almost half the countries surveyed registering a drop in score. 

In the region, the countries most proficient in English were Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, South Korea, and Hong Kong, China.

After decades of fueling economic growth across the region by being the 'workshop of the world' Asia's transition from manufacturing to knowledge-driven growth will require better English. Notable observations from the report include: 

  • China expanding English instruction to schools across the country, transitioning from memorisation-driven to communication-driven teaching, reforming the national assessment tool, incentivising foreign-educated Chinese talent to return home, and investing in transforming its leading universities into world-class research institutions that publish in top English-language journals. All these to meet its objective of shifting to developing a worldclass scientific community and cultivating soft power abroad.
  • The ageing population in Japan (28% of people over 65) has led the Japanese government to encourage older adults to retire later. However, in order for these employees are to remain productive, their careers need to be supported by expanded adult education provision, including English training. 
  • Even the wealthiest countries in Asia lag behind Europe in funding for adult education outside the workplace. 
  • As Central Asia continues to open up to global trade, it will experience a more pressing need for English speakers. Currently, the region ranks low in English proficiency partly because the most commonly taught second language in schools is Russian.
  • In Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, a lack of English proficiency hampers access to jobs in the tourism industry, which represents at least 10% of their economies. While the region attracts over 38 million visitors per year (pre-COVID), these tourists are concentrated in resort areas. To spread the wealth more evenly to different regions and open jobs in tourism to more of the people who want them, schools will need to do a better job teaching English to all students.
  • Education systems in India and Pakistan face structural challenges beyond English education given that English is used as the language of instruction despite most students not speaking the language. 

The report noted that as Asian countries seek to expand into service and knowledge-based industries and as the growing middle-class looks for more opportunities, it is essential to improve English instruction in schools and for adults.

Ranking: Countries with the highest and lowest English Proficiency in Asia 

  1. Singapore (10th globally with a score of 611)
  2. Philippines (27th globally with a score of 562)
  3. Malaysia (30th globally with a score of 547)
  4. South Korea (32nd globally with a score of 545)
  5. Hong Kong, China (33rd globally with a score of 542)
  6. China (38th globally with a score of 520)
  7. Macau, China (45th globally with a score of 505)
  8. India (50th globally with a score of 496)
  9. Japan (55th globally with a score of 487)
  10. Nepal (60th globally with a score of 480)
  11. Pakistan (61th globally with a score of 478)
  12. Bangladesh (63th globally with a score of 476)
  13. Vietnam (65th globally with a score of 473)
  14. Sri Lanka (68th globally with a score of 466)
  15. Indonesia (74th globally with a score of 453)
  16. Mongolia (78th globally with a score of 446)
  17. Afghanistan (79th globally with a score of 445)
  18. Cambodia (84th globally with a score of 435)
  19. Uzbekistan (88h globally with a score of 430)
  20. Thailand (89th globally with a score of 419)
  21. Kazakhstan (92nd globally with a score of 412)
  22. Myanmar (93rd globally with a score of 411)
  23. Kyrgyzstan (96th globally with a score of 405)
  24. Tajikistan (100th globally with a score of 381)

Recommendations: Setting ealistic goals, building a culture of internationalism, leading by example

In line with the findings, Education First shared some recommendations on how companies can help improve the English proficiency of the workforce. 

While there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution, patterns that characterise the most successful English programs include: 

  • 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.

Global insights: Scandinavian countries lead the way with the Netherlands upfront

Globally, the report found that English proficiency is improving, with the population-weighted average English proficiency score remaining stable. Scores improved significantly (gained more than 20 points) in 26 countries, while only seven experienced significant declines.

Europe has the highest English proficiency of any region by a wide margin, with the countries with the highest English proficiency in Europe are clustered in Scandinavia. Among the top 20, the only non-European countries were Singapore (10th) and South Africa (12th).

Key findings include: 

  • English and innovation go hand in hand: Companies with managers from many countries earn more revenue from innovation than their less diverse competitors. English-speaking teams are able to attract more diverse talent and access ideas from around the world. They are also more likely to collaborate internationally within their own organisations.
  • Countries with high English proficiency are fairer and more open: Closed societies turn inwards and nurture rigid hierarchies. Open societies look outwards. They are flatter, fairer places. English, as a medium of international connectivity, correlates well with measures of both equality and engagement with the outside world.
  • Technology spreads English: Technology-enabled distance education could one day allow anyone to learn English for a competitive price, wherever they are. Access to English-language media speeds up many people’s learning process too
  • Adults in their late twenties speak the best English: Adults aged 26-30 have the strongest English skills, reflecting the growing prominence of English instruction in university education around the world. This also suggests that on-the-job English practice and often some formal training are building English proficiency early in adults’ careers.
  • Managers speak the most English: Managers interact with their colleagues and clients overseas more regularly than junior staff, so they get more practice speaking English. Additionally, because English skills are at a premium, those who have them are often promoted to managerial positions. Executives, though, tend to be older, and many came of age in a business climate where English skills were less valued.
  • The gender gap is narrow: Two years ago, women’s average English level was higher than men’s worldwide and in the majority of countries. That gap has closed significantly with men now tied with women in Asia for the first time. Women remain narrowly ahead of men in the Middle East, while men’s scores are higher than women's by a small margin in Latin America and Europe. It is only in Africa that women continue to significantly outpace men in English proficiency.

global epi 2021 education first

Photo and infographic / Education First's English Proficiency Index

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