How Japan Compares With The World In English Proficiency

When it came to Japanese Cartography, we found out that Japan lagged behind a bit. So what about other things, like English Language Proficiency? Education First recently released their report on worldwide English language proficiency, showing some interesting results. Instead of talking about the Japanese language today, I thought it would be interesting to talk about the English language in Japan (and the rest of the world). How does Japan compare? Let’s find out.

How They Tested “English Proficiency”

One of the main challenges faced was that there’s not “standard” way across every country to test English Proficiency. They used data from two million adults who took free English tests over a three year period. They think (and generally I agree with them) that over time and with enough data, these tests should give a fairly accurate depiction of a country’s English abilities. If you look at the countries (and read through their study) I think this generally holds true and seems accurate enough (at least when it comes to comparing countries with each other).

One thing to note is that they tested adults. They wanted to see how good the adult population was at English (as in, people who have gone through the standard education programs). This also makes sense to me, because then this way it helps to show how the English education program as a whole works out, rather than testing people who are in middle school vs high school (where the English gap would be a lot bigger).

Where Japan Stands

One thing to take into  consideration is the test itself. I couldn’t see anything that specified what the test actually tested, but I think it’s safe to assume it wasn’t an oral test, meaning depending on what a school system studied, people are going to do better on the test (or worse on the test). The Japanese system, for example, really focuses on reading and text-based things. Speaking, overall, isn’t that important, which is one of the reasons why it’s so hard for Japanese people to speak / understand English, even though their reading / writing is pretty good.

Overall, compared to the other countries tested, Japan was number 14 out of the 44 listed. Not too shabby.

Click for bigger view (or download the study, link at the top of this post)

As you can see, Europe did pretty well on these tests, which makes sense. Most of the top countries, apparently, require English as your first second language, and of course English is pretty widely spoken in Europe. Most of Europe has had English as a part of their education curriculum since the 1980s, as well, meaning there’s been a chance for enough people to get through the entire program, increasing the number of adults who can do English overall.

Japan has also has had an English language program for a long time (definitely since the 80s, probably before that a bit too, but I’m not absolutely sure), though they’re 14 on the chart. South Korea, Hong Kong, and Malaysia are the two Asian places ahead of Japan (and Malaysia is the only Asian country in the top 10, and the only one with a “high proficiency” rating). China has a “Low Proficiency” rating, but this will definitely change as more people get through the English education program. English learning in China has hit a boom in recent years, so all it’ll take is some time for China to get into the Moderate Proficiency, and then maybe into high.

If you changed the test to be an oral test, I think these numbers would change drastically, though. Japan would probably go down to a low proficiency score (along with many other places as well).

Personally, I’ve never been a fan of English education in Japan (not English education in general, but rather how it’s done). Everything feels so mechanical and old school, and so much (if not all of) the focus is on preparing to take tests that for some reason decide your entire future.

So where did you think Japan stood in English proficiency compared to the rest of the world? I would have thought a bit lower, though apparently I’m a bit sarcastic when it comes to Japan and their English education programs. Also, take a look at the entire study if you’re interested. Lots of cool tidbits of information on English being learned throughout the world, what’s worked for certain countries, and why people are learning English. For those things, at least, I thought it was pretty interesting.

  • Jonadab the Unsightly One

    One potential problem with the described methodology, or at least something to be aware of, is that it introduces a bias toward countries whose people tend to wait to take the test until they feel they are very prepared for it, as opposed to going ahead and taking it just to see how you do (and then maybe going back later after you study some more).

    The only way to avoid this bias, really, would be to construct the sample differently. For example, if you were to get people to agree to participate in a study first (without telling them what the study is about) and then give them the test, the results might be somewhat different. Admittedly, such a study would be more difficult to design and more expensive to conduct.

  • Jonadab the Unsightly One

    To the best of my understanding English is a full-fledged official language in India, but they have, like, fifteen or twenty official languages. It’s a little different from, say, Nigeria (where English is _the_ local lingua franca). In India if your first language is Gujarati and you travel way on over across the country and meet someone whose first language is Konkani, you might find that you both also speak Hindi.

    In Africa there is very little chance of that sort of thing: if you travel even fifty miles the only languages you have any significant probability of being able to use to communicate with any of the locals are the various European lingua franca (mainly English and French) or perhaps Arabic. Consequently, virtually everybody (well, everybody who travels very far outside their home village) has to learn at least one of these languages. Which one(s) they learn generally depends on exactly where in Africa they live, but in the Anglophone areas the percentage of people who speak English more or less fluently is high. (Granted, they have a rather pronounced accent in many areas, but it’s just an accent. If you listen to it for half an hour or so you learn to hear right through it.)

  • Jonadab the Unsightly One

    It should be noted too that the playing field is not entirely level.

    English is almost as easy for Mexicans to learn as Spanish is for English-speaking Gringoes. Not _quite_ as easy, because the orthography for English is inherently more complex than for Spanish, so there’s a little more work for them to do there. The amount of vocabulary that must be acquired for basic fluency is probably larger, as well. Still, the extensive similarities in the grammar of the two languages and the vast quantity of cognates works equally well in both directions. Of course, they’d have an even easier time studying any of the other Romance languages, but on the whole English is a fairly easy language to pick up if you’re already fluent in Spanish — much easier than, e.g. Hebrew or Chinese.

    Contrast that with the Japanese, whose first language is so different from English that it’s difficult to believe both languages were both developed by humans. Among other things the phonology is completely different; the grammar is totally alien; and cognates are mostly limited to quite recent loanwords. If the Japanese are anywhere _near_ as good at English as the native Spanish speakers, it’s got to be because they put significantly more effort into it. I can’t see any other explanation.

    I’m not saying this to diminish Mexico’s high rank. Setting Asian countries to one side for a moment, Mexico’s rank is also significantly higher than Italy or Spain or a number of other countries whose denizens also speak Romance languages natively, so apparently Mexicans *are* putting some significant effort into learning English.

    But when you look at where Hong Kong and South Korea and Japan stand, I think this is an interesting factor to keep in mind. I doubt if there are any native-English-speaking countries whose citizens would do so well on a test of Chinese or Korean or Japanese. (Granted, none of those languages has the same degree of global importance as English. Still, that only makes learning the language more _desirable_, not _easier_.)

  • Christopher

    As a Swede, I have to say we get much for free. Since our languages are very similar to English, it’s much easier for us to learn it than it is for a native Japanese speaker.

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  • http://twitter.com/SereneHo99 Serene Ho

    I’m thinking that countries where English is taught as first language may not have a good data set or be included in the list. I was looking through the full report and the ‘tests’ they’re gathering data from are placement tests of sorts to enroll in English classes. Take Singapore for example, English is taught as a first language, we don’t take TOEIC, TOFEL etc and pretty much don’t enroll in English classes…

  • http://twitter.com/SereneHo99 Serene Ho

    Even if we were included in the list….anyway, I think the sample set they have is probably skewed towards people who needed to take some kind of English placement/proficiency test for work or entry to schools etc. Have a look at the full report. I think the test info is listed in the last page.

  • http://twitter.com/SereneHo99 Serene Ho

    Just read your link…surprised Singaporeans even take TOEFL O_O…is that a requirement to enter American universities or something?

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  • http://jeffowick.blogspot.com Jeff

    I’ve actually worked for EF. They operated an international ‘summer camp’ where high school kids came to live in America for about a month. They spent four hours a day learning English M-F and the rest of the time exploring NYC or Boston or smoking on campus. The kids all had to take a placement test (which did not involve speaking) to determine which class/level they would be placed in. I’m pretty sure this is the data they are using for this list.

  • Luminarygal

    what happened to the phillipines and singapore? when it comes to asian countries, these two are supposed to be at the top of the list.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    I think both of them have English as an official language, so they don’t get
    counted

  • Madbeanman

    I think what you’ve said in this post is really spot on. First time poster and I’m loving your blog. I’m training to be a Japanese Language Teacher in Irish secondary (high) schools and we’ve always been told that English is taught in Japan through the Grammar Translation Method. This basically means that the emphasis is like youve said on reading and writing and students can barely speak or understand the aural aspects of the language.

    Keep up the good work koichi san!

  • Andy_Megara

    Oh! My country placed in the very low proficiency range T_T… Though that`s not a surprise really… I hope someday it will change. ^_^!

  • Phudi

    India is in low proficiency and Japan is placed in moderate? I think that isn’t true. India is the the biggest provider of outsourcing services in the world and Philippines as the second. One of this outsourcing services is the call center industry and it requires talking to customers mostly from the US, Australia and Britain. Now, these countries can’t be dominating the outsourcing business if their people isn’t good in English. Many Koreans and Chinese study English in the Philippines because it is cheaper there than going to a “native” English speaking country which many Japanese do but unfortunately learn nothing.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    You’re right that India dominates the telephone support industry, but that’s
    a pretty small portion of the population. When you look at the big picture
    with almost a billion people, such a small percentage are actually
    proficient in English. I think it’s pretty polar where higher educated folk
    have some proficiency but a vast majority of the people hardly / don’t speak
    English at all. That’s what I’ve heard anyways, not sure if it’s 100%
    correct or not since I don’t really know much on India.

  • http://twitter.com/LeafyTangram Leah

    I find this interesting compared to my own experiences. I struggle to communicate with the Japanese people at my university. Professors, adults involved in helping foreign exchange students, and, worst of all, the students themselves. The students seem to be so afraid to mess up that they won’t even try. It’s extremely frustrating. They also show the least improvement during their stays. They make fewer friends because they won’t leave their comfortable circles of fellow Japanese students. The few Japanese friends I’ve gotten close enough to talk to online have grating spelling and grammar.

    That China is so far down will change over time, I believe. Graduating college students must complete some amount of English proficiency to receive a full degree. So whereas the older population (i.e. the tested population) may exhibit low testing results, current college students would yield a much higher score. The Chinese students at my university have excellent English, and they’re a lot more willing to correct their mistakes.

  • Carlos

    you must be joking. did you ever come to Portugal or are you just joking? Portugal obviously sucks compared to Japan in most situations, but we do speak english with high proficiency. japanese do not. 

  • Carlos

     ok, maybe it makes sense Portugal is even compared to Japan in English proficiency. maybe they tested on >40 year old portuguese adults dake. and btw, Japanese are really more proficient when writing, specially if the test is a TOIEC, for each they read the cheat book “how to score 900 in toeic”. but please try to have a simple conversation on the street with a japanese xD

  • Julio César Bedoya

    You HAVE GOT to be kidding me. The regular Japanese girl next door wont understand 4 English words together.  They seem to understand other things really well on the other hand….

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Yeah, they’re more into reading/writing when it comes to their proficiency

  • Abdurahman24

     wow Australia is a light grey(very low proficiency) on the map ,I am guessing we cannot speak English ;p ;p

  • http://nihonburp.com Michael Warren

     Well yep you can tell they didn’t test oral skills. Japan’s school system is good at producing grammar robots but they seem to lack on the practical English skills. 

  • http://captaindm.wordpress.com/ Victor Reeser

    Check this list again in 10 years and South Korea will be smoking by Japan. English is actually a focus in their curriculum as opposed to just playing games with people who speak English.

  • Kate

    Having English as a first language, I wonder what it would be like to take and English class in another country. I think that there are some things that aren’t focused as much on in English classes of native English speakers as much as in the English classes in countries where English is not one of the main languages.  I’m taking a Spanish class (currently a level 1 student) as a high school requirement and I’ve noticed that what I am studying is so simple and it’s common sense, but I still mess it up a lot.

  • Seline

    Well, think of it this way too. Western culture greatly influences the eastern world, so I think the Japanese think English is more important. Yeah, English to Spanish speakers is easier than English to Japanese speakers, but I think it’s the factor of importance that puts Japan higher than Mexico on this chart. Their culture is greatly influenced by the English language. I can’t name one Japanese band that doesn’t use an English word in any of their songs. I guess it’s cool there.

  • themrscribbler

    these countries were measured by using a written exam, not oral.  Personally, oral communication is much more important.

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  • Adam

    This is total BS and clearly the test is ineffective. Any English speak who has lived in Japan can attest to the shocking inability of the average Japanese person to speak English. Grammar scores and reading ability does not equate to English ability.

  • Patty

    HI Koichi

    I am going to make a obvious question for you haha. I want to start to study either Japanese or Chinese . PLEASE DON’T GET ME WRONG. I struggling with serious money issues therefore I want to work in order to get a better job. Next September I will start my Masters in Publishing studies but I also want to challenge myself in other language. I like Japan, well the things I know… I guess Japan is a good country to develop my further publishing skills, I think Japan is very creative country, mentally disciplined, and friendly. As for China I don’t know I hear everywhere is the language “of the future” .

    As you see my environment is quite confusing and I contacting you in order to get a objective point of view.

    Thank in advance Koichi for your time and consideration.

  • sparks

    As an American born Indian, I’m also skeptical at this as well. If this is a test that focuses on writing and reading instead of speaking then India would be placed here.But generally Indians speak English a lot with exception to some older generations.

  • Jhedrick Silayan

    Well.. Isn’t this great to here. I am from the Philippines and I do know quite a few people working in these call center industries. Surprise that Philippines isn’t on the list. I started learning English during my elementary school days but my family moved to Australia. :) I was in Grade 5 and was in a panic for the first week since I was scared to try my English orally afraid of making a mistake. I thought that I would ruin my first impression but I guess I was wrong, I felt really comfortable speaking in English. It’s also true how many Koreans and Chinese study English in the Philippines not just them I see quite a few white people too. Learning a third language is quite hard since you try to keep your first language. I started learning Japanese in school but I don’t think I’m learning enough. Like this article says most of the testing are done by writing and grammar. I found those quite easy and fun but when it came to the oral task I barely understood anything. That’s why I decided to take my studies online but so far no luck.

  • I like USA

    I watched this statistics.
    I strongly doubt this data.
    several reason for this.

    First
    France is too high.
    France is being inept for English.
    My acquaintances insuted by lot of French,because they spoke English.
    French English ability is extremely terrible.
    They shouldn’t deserve to human.
    I really hate France.
    Second
    India is much higher than this list.
    Of course India is English country.
    Moreover My German acquaintance said
    two third Indian can speak English as well as native speaker.
    Third
    Japan and Taiwan are so high.
    I’m Japanese. I know most Japanese can’t speak.
    Neither Japanese nor Taiwanese can speak English.
    These are the main reason why this data is not appropriate.

  • rajeem cariazo

    Where is Philippines?

  • Nelu S

    Too bad Romania wasn’t included in the test. Romanians too are highly proficient in english.