Young People’s English Language Skills Decreasing

09 January 2024

A recent index that measures English language ability around the world finds that young people's English language proficiency is decreasing.

The 2023 EF English Proficiency Index (EPI) ranks countries and areas by English proficiency. The index is based on test results from 2.2 million people in 113 countries. The test is published by EF Education First, a private company based in Switzerland. VOA Learning English has a partnership with EF Education First to provide the online test to English learners.

The EPI found that while young people's English skills are decreasing, working adults continue to increase their proficiency in English. There are different opinions about why the difference exists. Some people blame the COVID-19 pandemic, but others say artificial intelligence (or AI) tools could also be a reason.

FILE - A teacher gives an English lesson in a private school of Birkhadem, outside Algiers, Wednesday, Sept.21, 2022. English proficiency in Algeria has remained stable since 2021. (AP Photo/Fateh Guidoum)
FILE - A teacher gives an English lesson in a private school of Birkhadem, outside Algiers, Wednesday, Sept.21, 2022. English proficiency in Algeria has remained stable since 2021. (AP Photo/Fateh Guidoum)

EF Education First released the 2023 index last November. EF EPI author Kate Bell warned that the 2023 index gives a false sense of global stability, meaning English speakers' proficiency stays about the same. But the truth is that gains in some countries are being offset by losses in others, Bell said in an EF Education First press release.

Results by age group

Results were reported by age group for the first time in 2015. Since that time, the English proficiency of young people has decreased by 89 points. The EPI defines young people as being 18 to 20 years of age.

However, the EPI notes that the 18 to 20 group was mostly stable with big decreases in a few large countries. India, Indonesia, Mexico, and Japan showed the largest proficiency decreases among youth.

Kansuke Ikebe is a 21-year-old student from Shiga, Japan. He told VOA Learning English that the results are "really surprising. In my opinion, I've never felt it is decreasing. It is maybe because there are many youth who can speak English in my university."

The EPI report noted that the decrease appears to have taken place when the COVID-19 pandemic interfered with normal education. The report said, "It is not yet clear if learning loss due to Covid will self-correct over time," but increased scores are expected in the future.

The EPI said the problem is more difficult in countries where proficiency has been decreasing over time and "where education systems are teaching English less well than before."

There has been a decrease in proficiency in Japan for nearly 10 years. Ikebe said he could believe the EPI results because of the way English is taught in Japan. "It makes nobody want to learn English more. It is not practical at all and really boring."

However, working adults, people 26 years old and older, have been improving their English since 2015. The EPI said this might be because the value of a shared language is most recognized in the workplace. English creates possibilities for individuals and productivity for organizations.

Results by gender

Results from the index also show a difference between men and women, what it calls a gender gap. The gender gap among those aged 18 to 25 is three times bigger than it is among working adults. Men's proficiency has improved by 14 points since 2015, while women's has decreased by 19 points.

The lack of women in international jobs could be one reason for the gender gap the EPI said. But the gender gap among those aged 18 to 25 might demonstrate "a problem engendered by educational systems themselves or a societal problem schools are failing to address," the report said.

An exception was the Middle East. The average score for women in that area has increased by 44 points, placing them ahead of men there.

Lower average scores

One notable trend in the 2023 EF EPI is that all the very high proficiency countries and many of the high proficiency countries had lower average scores than in 2022. This could be a possible effect of the pandemic on learning, travel and in-person communication.

The Czech Republic is one country whose score dropped in 2023.

Sabina Wyrob is with the Czech office of EF Education First. She told the Czech News Agency online teaching during the pandemic affected children's English skills. Schools and students are trying to catch up on what was missed, she told the news organization, but they are still not moving forward.

The reach of AI

The EPI report says that learning a language provides understanding of new ideas as well as better understanding of people. These skills, the report said, remain beyond the reach of AI, or artificial intelligence.

But Ikebe said in Japan: "now AI and translation are being developed well. So, they don't need to learn English if they just do their homework. I think they don't use it as a tool to communicate, just a subject to pass the entrance exam."

Jeannie Tse is a country manager at EF Hong Kong and Macau. She spoke to The Standard newspaper in Hong Kong.

Tse said that while AI has changed the way young people work and learn, the importance of schools, teachers, and face-to-face instruction remains. "I do not believe that AI can completely replace language learning," Tse said, "but educators can harness AI to enhance language learning methods."

I'm Gena Bennett.

Gena Bennett wrote this story for VOA Learning English using information from EF Education First and other sources.

How well does your country speak English? Do you agree with the report's findings? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section, on Facebook or Instagram."


Words in This Story

proficiencyn. ability to use or knowledge of a language

stableadj. remain the same

practicaladj. related to what is real rather than what is imagined or is a possibility

boringadj. not interesting

gendern. the sex of a person; male or female

gapn. a space between two things

engenderv. to cause

translationn. changing writing from one language to another

harnessv. to control and make use of

enhancev. to improve or add to something