For decades, Asia has been the workshop of the world, fueling economic development across the region. But a transition from manufacturing to knowledge-driven growth will require better English.
Despite major investments in English education, in both the private and public sectors, the average English proficiency score in Asia has remained stable for the past five years. That average, though, masks substantial diversity: Asia is the region with the widest range of English proficiency levels, from Singapore (with a score of 66.82) to Kyrgyzstan (with a score of 41.51). This year, in the population-weighted regional average, China’s rising proficiency counterbalances declines in most other countries.
Forty years after China opened itself to foreign investment and private business, the country’s transformation has been remarkable. Two-thirds of the world’s decline in poverty since 1990 occurred in China. Since 2000, China’s focus has shifted to developing a world-class scientific community and cultivating soft power abroad. Recognizing that English proficiency is key to meeting those objectives, China has expanded English instruction to schools across the country, transitioned from memorization-driven to communication-driven teaching, reformed the national assessment tool, incentivized foreign-educated Chinese talent to return home, and invested in transforming its leading universities into world-class research institutions that publish in top English-language journals. Few political leaders can exercise this kind of long-term planning and control over their countries, but the pillars of China’s strategy offer a replicable model for how policy reform and targeted investment can raise a country’s English proficiency level.
Proficiency: Very high
EF EPI score: 66.82
EF EPI score: 53.44
EF EPI score: 51.51
The populations of some of Asia’s largest countries are aging quickly. In Japan, for example, 28% of people are over 65. This demographic shift has led the Japanese government to encourage older adults to retire later. But if these experienced employees are to remain productive in a rapidly changing workplace, their longer careers need to be supported by expanded adult education provision, including English training. That need is especially pressing in Japan, where English proficiency levels have declined for years, even as the economy stagnates and global trade moves elsewhere in Asia.
Even the wealthiest countries in Asia lag behind Europe in funding for adult education outside the workplace. This funding oversight is unsustainable. With an aging workforce and limited tolerance for immigration, countries like Japan and South Korea need to encourage those already working to upskill. The benefits are not only professional; research suggests that lifelong learning is protective against dementia.
English proficiency in Central Asia is markedly lower than the rest of the region, partly because Russian is the most commonly taught second language in schools. The region, though, is beginning to pivot more toward international trade, including with partners outside the orbit of post-Soviet republics. Kazakhstan in particular has been increasing its involvement with China through such high-visibility projects as the Belt and Road Initiative’s New Eurasian Land Bridge. In 2018, President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced that agreements for 51 Chinese-Kazakh projects had been signed and 1,200 joint enterprises were already in operation. As Central Asia continues to open up to global trade, it will experience a more pressing need for English speakers.
In Cambodia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, a lack of English proficiency hampers access to jobs in the tourism industry, which represents at least 10% of their economies. With comparatively low wages and beautiful scenery, these countries already attract over 38 million visitors per year. These visitors are mainly concentrated in resort areas. In order to spread the wealth more evenly to different regions and open jobs in tourism to more of the people who want them, schools will need to do a better job teaching English to all students.
Education systems in India and Pakistan face structural challenges beyond English education. One in every 13 unschooled children in the world lives in Pakistan. A recent study in India found that only 27% of third-grade students could do double-digit subtraction, and 38% could not read simple words. The fact that so many schools in both countries use English as their language of instruction, even though most students do not speak the language, only makes matters worse. Among other reforms, policymakers in these countries need to offer more students instruction in their native languages – a policy that actually helps English learning in the long run, along with comprehension of core subjects.
Asian economies have experienced extraordinary economic growth over the past several decades, guided by leaders who forged global connections and built robust multinational companies. As Asian countries seek to expand into service and knowledge-based industries, and as the region’s growing middle class clamors for more opportunities, it will be essential to offer high-quality English instruction to a broader segment of the population. In many cases, that will mean improving English instruction in schools. In some contexts, adult instruction is of nearly equal importance.
On average, men and women in Asia speak English at almost exactly the same level. But gender gaps can be wide in individual countries. Half of the territories surveyed this year in Asia had a gender gap of one point or more. In Afghanistan and the Maldives, women outscored men by at least two points. In Malaysia, it was men who outscored women by significant margins.
Other than adults aged 26-30, every age group in Asia posted lower English proficiency scores than last year, and, as in Europe, it is now professionals in their late twenties who have the highest English proficiency overall.