Last Updated: 30/08/2023
English Speakers in the World: Who Are the Best Students and Who Are the Worst?
1.5 billion people speak English. However, not everyone has learned it the same way.
For example, 375 million people speak it as an official language. About 369 million people speak English as a first language and over 898 million people speak it as a foreign language. As a result, there are over one billion English learners across the globe.
We wanted to know, who are the best English students and who are the worst?
To get an idea of the level of English of people in countries besides the US, we researched:
- Their education
- The distance from an English-speaking country
- The age from which they began to learn it
- And other general demographics
We also highlighted some of the best practices used by countries to optimize their English studies, at school or elsewhere. All of the data we found went into the infographic below to give you an image of the ranking of the English-speaking countries in the world!
According to the 2022 Education First English Proficiency Index, these are the countries with the best English skills:
- The Netherlands
- South Africa
Unfortunately, in any ranking, someone has to come in last. Overall, the Middle East region has the lowest composite score. Here are the countries at the bottom of the list:
- Saudi Arabia
- Côte d’Ivoire
- Democratic Republic of the Congo
Where in the world do people speak the best English?
English speakers in European countries
As you can see in the lists above, most countries at the top of the list are in Europe. People from Scandinavian countries, the Dutch, Germans, Austrians, Belgians, and the Portuguese tend to speak English extremely well. The same goes for Spaniards (33rd), Italians (32nd), and the French (34th).
That being said, not all English language studies rank these countries the same. An EU study done in 2012 found that the French actually ranked in 14th place, far ahead of both Italy (21st) and Spain (24th). This conflicting data shows how hard it is to measure the English skills of an entire population accurately.
Language learning in Europe
At what age do students start learning a foreign language in Europe?
- Before 5 years of age in Spain
- Starting at 6-7 in France, Italy, Austria, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Estonia
- From 8-9 years old in Portugal, Luxembourg, Germany, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, and Denmark
- Around 10 years of age in the U.K., Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, and Lithuania
Although the French start to learn English relatively early, curriculum requirements don’t evolve much, so students often learn the same basic vocabulary each year, at least at the beginning. In some other countries, however, the quantity and difficulty of English lessons evolve at the same pace as that of young students. This could account for their relatively low ranking.
- For pupils aged 9 to 11, schools in France dedicate around 7% of teaching time to modern foreign languages.
- Luxembourg, around 20%
- Greece, around 15%
- Italy, around 12%
- Spain, Denmark, and even Germany devote around 10% of their lessons to language.
How about Latin America?
When it comes to Latin America, Argentinians have the best level of English, in 30th place. Despite being a key economic player in this part of the world, Brazil does not show a high level of proficiency, coming in at 58th, after Peru, Chile, Costa Rica, and 8 other Latin American countries. Ecuador, Mexico, and Haiti occupy the bottom positions in the ranking in this region.
What’s Asia’s relationship with English?
Excluding Singapore and Malaysia, both of which have a good level of English proficiency due to colonialism, overall, the English situation in Asia is not great. That is especially true for Japan (80th), Thailand (97th), and Cambodia (94th).
On the other hand, South Korea seems to have made a lot of progress recently and now holds the 36th position.
How good at English are Africans?
You may be wondering why there aren’t many African countries on the list of the best/worst English learners. Perhaps it’s because English is an official language in 21 African countries.
Did you know that there are about 6.5 million native English speakers in Africa? (Which actually isn’t a lot, considering that Africa is an extremely linguistically diverse continent and its 1 billion+ inhabitants speak an estimated 1,200-3,000 languages!) English is an official language in many places, like Ghana, Nigeria, and Botswana. However, in some countries like Zimbabwe, English is an official language but only the native language of about 2% of the population.
In fact, it may just be due to the data EF was able to collect for their study. 2.1 million people took their test, but only 20 of the 54 countries on the African continent participated (compared to 35 in Europe and 24 in Asia).
Is it about distance?
Distance is another factor to take into account.
The Dutch have a good reputation for their level of English… and the Netherlands is less than 130 miles from the United Kingdom if you go straight across the English Channel.
However, distance isn’t always a determining factor. We often hear how Japanese people aren’t any good at speaking English… well, they are located more than 5,250 miles away from the nearest major English-speaking country (Australia).
Mexicans are the closest neighbors to the United States, yet they aren’t known for having excellent English. In fact, they came in with a “very low” score placing them 88th in the ranking.
…or diffusion of language?
Swedes hold first place. Think about it, where else in the world could they possibly use their native language? When traveling abroad, they have to communicate somehow… Since English is so widespread, it’s often the go-to intermediary language for people who don’t speak the same language.
Spain, on the other hand—as with many countries in Latin America—is clearly not among the countries with the highest level. But then again, they are able to communicate in Spanish in many other countries. Useful!
Battle of the sexes
The EF study found that men speak English better than women, no matter their geographical location. This is one metric that changed a lot in the past few years; in 2015, women outscored men in every geographical area.
According to 2022 EF EPI test results:
- Men around the world narrowly outscored women in all five regions. They received an average score of 511 compared to 495 for women.
- For the first time since EF started its annual study, African men received a higher average score (490) than women (489).
- The largest gender gap was measured in Asia, where men outscored women by 25 points (514 to 489).
- European men surpassed women, receiving an average score of 57.05 and men got an average of 56.37, compared to 56.56 and 54.74 in 2015.
- The gender gap is getting narrower in the Middle East, where men outscored women 456 to 435, a 21-point difference compared to a 31-point gap the previous year.
- It was a tight race in Latin America, but men prevailed, with an average score of 506 to 484.
Click on the image below to enlarge it:
*These rankings are updated each year, so our infographic may not reflect the most current data.
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There are a few countries you won’t find on the list of best English students. And that’s because they speak English as a native language! But where is English an official language? Below, you’ll find a list of the over 60 countries around the world where English is an official, or co-official, language. Some of them may surprise you!
|American Samoa||46,366||Samoan, English|
|Antigua and Barbuda||97,118||English|
|Australia||25,766,605||None (English is the de facto language but there are also hundreds of Aboriginal languages)|
|British Virgin Islands||30,030||English|
|Fiji||889,953||Fiji Hindi, Fijian, English|
|Hong Kong||7,507,400||Chinese, English|
|Kiribati||117,606||English, Kiribati (or Gilbertese)|
|Federated States of Micronesia||113,815||English|
|New Zealand||4,841,000||English, Māori, New Zealand Sign Language|
|Northern Mariana Islands||57,216||English, Chamorro, Carolinian|
|Papua New Guinea||8,776,109||Tok Pisin, English, Hiri Motu, Papua New Guinean Sign Language|
|Puerto Rico||3,193,694||Spanish, English|
|Rwanda||12,626,950||Swahili, English, Kinyarwanda, French|
|Saint Kitts and Nevis||52,823||English|
|Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||100,455||English|
|Seychelles||97,625||French, Seychellois Creole, English|
|Singapore||5,703,569||Malay, English, Tamil, Singaporean Mandarin|
|South Africa||58,558,270||English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Sepedi, Tswana, Southern Sotho, Tsonga, Swazi, Venda, Southern Ndebele, South African Sign Language|
|Trinidad and Tobago||1,394,973||English|
|United States||328,239,523||None (but English and some indigenous languages are official languages of certain states)|
|Vanuatu||299,882||French, Bislama, English|
|United States Virgin Islands||104,737||English|
|Zimbabwe||14,645,468||Chewa, Chibarwe, English, Kalanga, Koisan, Nambya, Ndau, Ndebele, Shangani, Shona, Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, Zimbabwean Sign Language|
If you are an English learner, you might be wondering how you measure up to the “average” person in your country. But how…? Well, you could participate in EF’s study next year! But in the meantime, why not read our guide to finding out your level of English? Our English teachers even developed a self-assessment to find out where you fall on the CEFR scale:
Lisa-Joy recently made a video all about the non-English-speaking countries with the best English. Check it out for an overview of the rankings!
Only watching movies in their original language (rather than dubbed)
93% of Finns say they watch all movies in their original version. In many other of the top countries, dubbing foreign movies and series is very rare.
In France, however, broadcasting a TV program without subtitles decreases its rating by 30%*… (it’s not all school’s fault!).
Encouraging spoken practice in school
In Denmark, teachers favor discussions and debates over grammar and spelling. In Italy, France and Spain, on the other hand, writing and spelling still play a major role in the classroom.
Staying motivated and determined
The level of English is generally higher in countries where the country’s national language isn’t very well known around the world, such as Sweden, Denmark, or Romania.
On the contrary, in Spanish-speaking and French-speaking countries, people tend to be a bit lazy… (we love you, French and Spanish speakers!) as they can make themselves understood quite easily when abroad. If you can communicate just fine and don’t see a reason to learn English, you might not be very enthusiastic about learning it. Motivation plays an essential role.
It’s better to study for 10 minutes every day than an hour once a month. Regularity is key to making quick progress! Here’s how you can make sure to study English every day.
Learning and having fun with the latest technologies
In the Netherlands, children watch movies during their English lessons. In Sweden, children learn with tablets and other interactive methods. We love technology here at MosaLingua, so we’ve written several articles about how to combine language learning and digital activities:
I hope you enjoyed this infographic on English speakers in the world and the rest of the blog post, which contains a bit more information. If you did, take a moment to rate it and share it with your friends!