This week, we interview Minh Tran, Director of Research and Academic Partnerships at EF Education First, and co-author of the recently released 5th edition of the EF English Proficiency Index (EPI).

Can you give us an overview of the findings in the 2015 EPI report?

Sweden returns to the top this year for the third time out of five EF EPI editions. In line with previous years' findings, Europe continues to dominate the EF EPI, occupying the top ten slots. Asia and Latin America continue to improve, but the Middle East and North Africa have not seen as much progress.

Were there any significant trends that emerged in the 2015 data? What are the reasons behind these changes?

There are three particular trends that are noteworthy:

In almost all countries surveyed, women have better English than men. This is the first year when we’ve seen that this trend is not true in the countries with the best English. In Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, men are doing as well as or have a slight edge on women. This is surprising because research has consistently shown women to be stronger in languages than men.

Several Latin American countries, such as Mexico, Chile, and Panama, have recently kicked off new governmental programmes focused on augmenting or overhauling English education. These programmes emerged first as campaign promises, so they reflect a desire among Latin Americans to strengthen their public education systems and give students and professionals better opportunities to participate in the global economy. It remains to be seen where these programmes will lead.

Countries with stronger English innovate more. They spend more on research and development, and they have more technicians and researchers; therefore, yielding more high-tech exports. The ability to learn from the research of others, participate in international conferences, publish in leading journals, and collaborate with multinational research teams is dependent upon excellent English. Korea and Japan are two outliers where these countries’ innovation activities are high, but their English levels are only moderate.  This is a new set of correlations we looked at for the first time this year.

Which countries increased or decreased most in the last year? What could the reasons behind this be?

Since last year, Panama’s EF EPI score has improved more than that of any other country in the world. Despite this progress, most Panamanian adults still lack the English skills necessary to work across borders. Having identified English as a key driver for the Panamanian economy, President Juan Carlos Varela launched the Panama Bilingual Program in 2014. The programme includes local and overseas teacher training, additional lessons taught in English for elementary school students, and after-school English classes for secondary school students. The programme’s goal is to create 10,000 bilingual teachers and 260,000 bilingual students over the next four years.

This year, China dropped ten places in the EF EPI rankings (from 37th place in 2014 to 47th place in 2015), though its EF EPI score fell less than one point, and compared to the first edition of the EF EPI published in 2011, China’s EF EPI 2015 score has improved by 1.79 points. The drop in rankings was due to new countries joining the index for the first time and a few countries improving more than China. It is interesting to note that six of the seven countries that moved ahead of China last year are Latin American countries.

The Chinese government has questioned how much emphasis should be placed on English training in the public education system. Officials in some parts of China have lowered the weight of the English language section on the national college entrance test, gaokao, and increased the importance of the Chinese language component.

China’s private English learning centres, however, have only gained popularity among students and professionals, who seek to gain a competitive edge outside of the public system in order to work in an international setting or study abroad. With the number of online learners in China expected to grow from 67.2 million in 2013 to 120 million by 2017, private English companies are increasingly expanding their reach into second-tier cities and more remote provinces.

Now that we are on to the 5th EPI set of results, can you start to identify any solid trends across all the surveys?

For five years running we have found strong correlations between a country’s English level and its economic competitiveness. The better a country’s English, the more its people earn, the fewer people in the country out of employment or training, and the higher the quality of life in the country. While these correlations are not new, it’s surprising how consistently strong they are. It is, therefore, not surprising that governments and companies in both developing countries (e.g., Brazil, China, Colombia) and developed countries (Italy, Japan, Hong Kong) are so focused on improving their countries’ English levels.

Can you explain a little about the methodology of the EPI and how you arrive at these findings?

The EF EPI is constructed each year from results on a set of English tests completed by hundreds of thousands of adults around the world during the previous calendar year. The data for this fifth edition was calculated using results from 910,000 test takers who completed two different EF English tests in 2014.

In order to calculate a country’s EF EPI score, each test score was normalized to obtain the percentage of correct answers for that test. All the scores for a country were then averaged across the two tests, giving equal weight to each test. Regional and global averages were weighted by the populations of each country within each region.

The full results of the latest EF English Proficiency Index (EPI) can be accessed here

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