GLOBAL: English proficiency ranking of 44 countries

With countries such as Britain and Australia tightening up on the level of English language skills for international student visas, students in some countries are having to invest a great deal more than others in improving language proficiency.

While this has been known for some time, a ranking of adult English proficiency comparing 44 countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America where English is not one of the official languages, has shown wide differences in English language skills across countries.

Countries were classified as having 'very high' proficiency in English, 'high', 'moderate', 'low' and 'very low' proficiency in what is described by the language training company Education First (EF) as the first English Proficiency Index (EPI) providing a standardised measurement of adult English language performance, comparable between countries.

The Nordic countries, Finland and The Netherlands top the ranking with the highest proficiency followed by Austria, Belgium, Germany and Malaysia. Malaysia is the only country in Asia to be ranked as having 'very high' English language proficiency. But the list excludes Singapore, where English is an official language.

China and India, major sources of international students, are classified as having 'low proficiency', coming 30th and 31st respectively in the 44-country table. Other countries with low proficiency include Italy and Spain.

More surprising was that general English language proficiency in India and China was similar despite the role of English in India, including as the main language of instruction in many universities there.

"The EPI does not look at those who already speak English," said Yerrie Kim, special project manager at Education First. In particular the online tests do not include speaking skills, which may account for poorer scores in India and Hong Kong where English is widely used in everyday situations, and higher than expected scores in China and South Korea where it is not.

"It does raise questions about why some countries are lower than others," said Kim. "There are huge pockets within Hong Kong where English isn't spoken and the result is a reflection of that."

Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan formed a cluster with 'moderate' English language proficiency, coming 12th, 13th and 14th on the table just below Poland and Switzerland, but above France.

A strong emphasis has been placed on English study in Korea and Japan, both in the public school system and through the thousands of private English training institutes in those countries, the report noted. "Quite a lot of dollars are spent in Korea to learn English. More is spent there than any other Asian country," Kim said.

Europe is remarkably strong in English, containing all but one of the highest proficiency countries in the world. "Today, over 90% of all students in Europe exit their years of required schooling having studied English," the report said.

"Requiring English as the first foreign language results in high proficiency. There is, however, a strong correlation between the requirement of English for all students as the first foreign language and high English proficiency. Only Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Germany required English as the first foreign language for 100% of students between 1982 and 2000," the just-released EF EPI report 2011 said.

Other countries either required all students to learn another language first, or allowed schools or students a choice of first language.

Countries that share a language with a large worldwide community show weaker English proficiency, with Latin American countries clustered around the 'low' and 'very low' levels of proficiency.

"Undoubtedly, this is due to international languages, such as Spanish, taking the place of English as the language of trade, travel and diplomacy. This suggests that learning English may not currently be as important to the economies of these countries as to some others," the report said.

Although the age range is 18 to 80 years, the vast majority of the two million respondents who took the EF proficiency tests over three years, on which the EPI is based, were aged 18 to 30 years.