What began as an idealistic forum to promote peace has evolved into the most tightly integrated political and economic union in the world, enabled by a shared language.
Europe has the highest English proficiency of any region by a wide margin – even more so if only EU and Schengen Area countries are included in the regional average. This success reflects decades of effort by national education ministries and the EU itself to promote multilingualism. Fast and easy communication strengthens ties between Europeans, as does student exchange, travel, and transnational work. Even as growing nationalism challenges the EU project, the opposing forces of European cohesion appear robust.
The countries with the highest English proficiency in Europe are clustered in Scandinavia, but the number of very high proficiency countries across the region has grown every year since 2017. School systems in these countries employ several key strategies, including an early focus on communication skills, daily exposure to English both in and outside the classroom, and career-specific language instruction in the final years of study, whether that is vocational school or university. The EU’s robust data-collection and information-sharing network has been helpful in spreading best practices between member countries.
Corporate and government-funded adult training programs are common across Europe as well, but these English courses are often too short and too low-intensity to be effective. European countries would be able to raise English proficiency even further, especially among older demographics, by instituting adult training that is certified externally and normalized against credentialing systems to ensure its quality and portability between jobs.
Proficiency: Very high
EF EPI score: 70,27
Proficiency: Very high
EF EPI score: 63,77
EF EPI score: 57,25
Of the Eurozone’s four largest economies, only Germany speaks English well. France, Spain, and Italy lag behind nearly every other member state – a finding that has been consistent across previous editions of the EF EPI. Of the three, only France has made modest gains over the past two years. According to a recent government report, at the age of 15, only a quarter of French children are able to string together a few sentences in “more or less correct” English. Another round of education reforms was announced this year.
Our data indicates that English proficiency in Spain has been declining since 2014. According to the latest polling by CIS, a Spanish public research institute, 60% of adults say they speak no English at all. A vast project to convert public primary and secondary schools into bilingual schools, in which up to 30% of the curriculum is taught in English, has so far had no measurable effect on adult English proficiency.
The gap in English proficiency is particularly concerning because both Italy and Spain suffer from high rates of unemployment, particularly among the young, and could desperately use the new economic opportunities that faster, smoother communications with the rest of Europe would bring.
English skills continue to lag in countries on the margins of the European continent. English proficiency in Turkey has declined in the past five years as the country’s dreams of joining the EU have faded and other priorities have emerged. English instruction in schools focuses on grammar and translation rather than practical communication skills, with much of the content delivered in Turkish. Hundreds of elite high schools with a portion of the instruction delivered in English have been closed across the country for political reasons. As in the Gulf States, Turkish graduates often need a year of intensive English preparatory courses before entering university because their level of English is too low for the degree they plan to pursue.
English proficiency in Russia is not improving either; the country’s score has hovered within one point of its current position for the past five years. A survey in 2014 found that 70% of Russian adults admitted to having no knowledge of any foreign language, and only 11% said they could have a conversation in English.
Consistent with previous years, women outscored men in Europe, but this gap has narrowed significantly, from three points last year to less than one point this year. Indeed, men outperformed women in more than half the countries in the region, and by significant margins in Denmark and Romania. Hungary has a significant gender gap in the opposite direction, though, and a majority of the indexed European countries have gender gaps smaller than one point.
Age group performance was remarkably stable in Europe as compared to last year, with the exception of people aged 18-20, who experienced a small decline. Adults in their late twenties are the most proficient English speakers on the continent. The expansion of tertiary English language instruction, often oriented toward professional use, likely deserves credit for this trend. However, the proficiency variation in all age groups under 40 in Europe is the narrowest in the world.