The world's understanding of English appears to be getting better. The private education company EF recently released a report called English Proficiency Index. The report ranks English language proficiency in 63 countries into five categories or classes. They are: "very high proficiency, high, moderate, low and very low."
Minh Tran is EF's Director of Research and Academic Partnerships.
"At the global level, we are seeing a consistent improvement year after year. I think that many countries that are looking outward, that are looking to internationalize their economies are seeing the importance of English."
The English Proficiency Index says Denmark is the top country for English as a foreign language. Poland and Austria have joined Denmark and other northern European countries with the "very high proficiency" ranking.
Malaysia and Singapore have the best ranking in Asia with "high proficiency" in English. Joining them is Argentina, the only Latin American country to rank as "high proficiency." English levels in the rest of Latin America remain low.
South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong have invested a lot of time and money in English education. But these countries have not improved since the last study came out in 2007.
Minh Tran has this to say: "I think they are not improving because they have not made any significant reform to the way they teach English. In Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong. They still rely quite heavily on rote memory. And there's a strong focus on grammar and vocabulary acquisition, but not so much on the actual communicative skills."
English language proficiency has actually fallen in many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, partly because of wars in the area.
For its report, EF used online test results from 750,000 adults in 63 countries. The test takers were adults who chose to take the company's online test. They were not a random sample of the total population. For that reason, the results might be biased toward people who are interested in English and use the Internet.
Dr. Clive Roberts is the Director of Assessment, Analysis & Research at ELS Educational Services. He does not know about the report's research methods, but he thinks the study is helpful.
"...Conducting such research enables countries, regions, organizations to sort of assess their own position relative to other places. What trends are happening..., then they can sort of re-assess their own situation and figure out a strategy."
Improvements have also been noted on average scores for the TOEFL, the Test of English as a Foreign Language, and IELTS, the International English Language Testing System.
Eileen Tyson is Executive Director of Global Client Relations at the Educational Testing Service. ETS produces the TOEFL. Ms. Tyson agrees that English proficiency is rising worldwide. Average TOEFL scores have risen by two points in the past nine years. But she thinks it is not wise to compare countries by average TOEFL scores. She says many things can influence test results.
"For example, the age at which students start to learn English. ...Some native languages are closer to English...How many hours per week a student spends learning English, and what kind of curriculum they use. So all of these combine ...we feel strongly that you really can't use TOEFL scores for comparing general proficiency across countries."
In 2005, ETS made big changes to the TOEFL. It went from a paper test to a test that required use of a computer and an Internet connection. Notably, ETS cut the grammar section and required test takers to record spoken responses to questions.
Eileen Tyson thinks the new TOEFL encouraged many teachers to make their classes more interactive.
"We think it did help teachers to look at how they were teaching English, to make it more communicative, to make sure they were teaching speaking and writing. And we're actually kind of proud of the fact that we've helped to influence language teaching and language learning worldwide."
The British Council estimates that 1.75 billion people speak English today. The group expects that number to grow to two billion by 2020 -- about one-fourth of the world's population.
I'm Jonathan Evans.