Who in the World Speaks English?

by Translation Guy on April 13, 2011

What are the differences between those who learn to speak English and those who don’t? Of some half-billion speakers, two-thirds are native speakers and one third speak English as a second language. Education First, a language school, did a report comparing English proficiency around the world. Information was collected from volunteers, so it wasn’t strictly scientific, but findings are no surprise to scientific researchers.

Where are they speaking English? Wealthy countries do better, and small wealthy countries do even better than that. Big countries with big languages are not the biggest when it comes to English. So Scandinavians do so well. Outside of Sweden, there are few who can speak Swedish. Spaniards, the worst English speakers in Europe, can get around pretty well without English, thanks to the widespread use of Spanish. Ditto in Latin America. Who needs another international language if you’ve already got one?

Countries that do a lot of exporting have learned the language of their business customers. Malaysia, the best English performer in Asia, is also the sixth most export-dependent country in the world. While the U.S. and U.K. are not viewed favorably culturally or politically by Malaysians, the growth of English is unaffected.

“Teaching plays a role, too. Starting young, while it seems a good idea, may not pay off: children between eight and 12 learn foreign languages faster than younger ones, so each class hour on English is better spent on a 10-year-old than on a six-year-old. Between 1984 and 2000, the study’s authors say, the Netherlands and Denmark began English-teaching between 10 and 12, while Spain and Italy began between eight and 11, with considerably worse results. Mr Hult reckons that poor methods, particularly the rote learning he sees in Japan, can be responsible for poor results despite strenuous efforts. (He would say that, as his company sells English-teaching, but it rings true.)”

The study authors also argue that English spreads innovation. “Researchers in the United States publish by far the most scientific papers every year and the U.K. ranks third in publication numbers, after China. But countries with low English proficiency demonstrate unusually low levels of international collaboration on research. In 2009 only 15% of scientific papers published in China cited an international collaborator, compared to 45% in the U.K. and 48% in Germany. This inability to read the research published by others and to contribute to international innovation is a significant challenge for countries lacking English skills amongst highly trained professionals.”

More and more people are learning English, even as the number of native speakers starts to decline. The report predicts two billion people will be learning English in the next decade. Because candidates with English skills above the local average “stand out from the crowds,” they can earn half again as much as their non-English-speaking peers. No surprise that this report from an English language school would call English skills and income “a virtuous circle where better proficiency leads to higher incomes.”

This post lifted mostly from Who speaks English? at the Economist’s most excellent Language Johnson Blog.


  1. Thanks for sharing such great Blog. For a universal expansion of your business and better business viewpoint, doubtless by employing a language interpretation service provider/agency, you can convert all your English-based business documents into any alien language you require.

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  2. smiles says:

    I was surprised to read how many countries dont speak English. Im not surprised to hear how many will be learning in the next decade. This was an interesting artcle

  3. Nina Lawson says:

    its no surprise that wealthy countries are more proficient in english than their poorer counterparts. With resources at your disposal, tutors, schools, foreign exchange, there is more opportunity to put your newfound skills to the test

  4. Bill Ding says:

    For researchers, collaboration provides opportunities to move further and faster by working with other leading people in their field. It is therefore unsurprising that collaborative research is also identified as contributing to some of the highest impact activity

  5. Nellie says:

    There is a widespread appetite for innovation in so many different fields; healthcare, defense and all levels of government. We must successfully follow a strategy of innovation and create the right conditions for it to bloom. It is hard to spread innovative ways of doing things until they become universal practice, but uniting under one language “umbrella” would help towards it

  6. u’ve gotta b able to communicate with the world, english is the way to go

  7. Allen Hansen says:

    I’m not following how the number of “native” english speakers is on the decline?

    • Ken says:

      That should have read “relative decline”

      “David Graddol, an expert in the development of languages, calculates that by 2050 the number of native English speakers will have fallen to about 5 per cent of the world’s population, from about 9 per cent in 1950. Nine years ago, English was second to Chinese in the number of native speakers, with 1.1 billion native Chinese speakers, and 372 million native English speakers.

      But by the middle of this century there will be more native speakers of Hindi and Urdu, and the number of native Arabic and Spanish speakers will virtually match that of native English speakers.” See also my post “End of English as We Know it.”

  8. William says:

    Malaysia is a great example of adapting to the demands of markets. In order to prosper they’ve set aside their feelings about culture and more importantly, language, to thrive in the global marketplace.

  9. Vivi says:

    American states bordering Mexico should start teaching spanish as a required course in the curriculum…there’s a lot of unhappy illegals spreading hurtful information using spanish as a conduit. Since most people don’t understand it goes pretty much undetected.

  10. Walter says:

    don’t really think that english will decline as much as they’re saying

  11. 1100010100111010111001…that – and mathematics is the only universal language – bigger than english and mandarin

    • Ken says:

      01010101 01101110 01101001 01110110 01100101 01110010 01110011 01100001 01101100 00101100 00100000 01101001 01100110 00100000 01111001 01101111 01110101 00100000 01110011 01110000 01100101 01100001 01101011 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01101100 01100001 01101110 01100111 01110101 01100001 01100111 01100101 00100000 01101111 01100110 00100000 01101101 01100001 01110100 01101000 01100101 01101101 01100001 01110100 01101001 01100011 01110011 00101100 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100001 01110100 00100000 01101001 01110011 00101110 00100000

  12. how far can places like china go without international collaboration in their research?

  13. Nat says:

    lets just give up learning languages alltogether and start communicating telepathically

    • Ken says:

      Looks like telepathy is going to require translation too, Nat.

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