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Who in the World Speaks English?
April 13, 2011 - By: - In: Language - 16 comments

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.

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