November 7, 2013, by michaelgroves

Why international measures of English may not be so clear

Recently, English First, a global language teaching chain released the results of a survey of global English Language proficiency. In first place came Sweden, then Norway, and a slew of other European nations. Malaysia came top in Asia and 11th globally, beating Singapore into 12th place, and India came quite some way back.

So, at first sight, this seems like great news for Malaysia- but, to me, we need to treat this survey with a lot of caution. What EF are publishing are the results of its online placement test, which can be taken by anyone with a web connection- combined with the test it administers to its new students.

So, it’s a dodgy sample in a number of ways. It is biased towards those with access to an internet connection, not so much an issue in Sweden I imagine, more so in Vietnam. It is biased towards those who actually take the test- those with the time and inclination (and spare cash) to consider taking a part time English course- and probably living in an urban centre close to where EF operates.

It also fails to take into account the numbers of people who would not see the need to take a test. Many Malaysians would laugh at the idea of attending an English course in the evening. English is the first language, or one of two or more, jostling for first place.

This survey also fails by lumping whole nations together, without taking into account the socio-economic factors which also have a huge influence on English language ability. Issues such as income (in)equality and investment in education are totally ignored in the report.

I have nothing against EF- they are an openly commercial company, doing well in a very competitive global market- I daresay they have achieved this through excellent materials development and efficient classroom practice.

However, what this demonstrates to me is the complexity of a seemingly simple issue – “we speak English” is never, and can never be, a black and white issue. How you measure language proficiency, what you measure and even how you define “English” is open to question- these are complex issues which cannot be addressed with a single glossy report.

Posted in CommunicationLearning EnglishMalaysia English