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Minh Tran, Senior Director of Research and Academic Partnerships at EF Education First
Minh Tran

This week, we interview Minh Tran, Senior Director of Research and Academic Partnerships at EF Education First, about the recently released 6th edition of the EF English Proficiency Index (EPI).

Firstly, can you give us an overview of the key findings from the 2016 edition of the EF EPI?


Our research confirms that English is a key component of economic competitiveness at both the individual and national levels. We find that higher English proficiency correlates with higher incomes, better quality of life, more dynamic business environments, greater connectivity, and more innovation.


Second, consistent with previous editions of the EF EPI, English proficiency in Europe remains the strongest in the world by a wide margin. However, Singapore rises to sixth place in the world, the first Asian country to break into the top 10 and the highest proficiency band - Very High Proficiency. Latin America, the Middle East, and North Africa continue to lag behind.


The Netherlands has risen to the top this time. What do you think has fuelled this?


We believe that a strong focus on English in the public education systems as well as ample exposure to English in daily life contributed to the Netherlands' (and other Nordic countries') success.


In terms of education, the Netherlands has included English as a compulsory subject throughout primary and secondary school for over four decades. Its foreign language teaching policies focus on communication rather than on the mastery of grammar.


However, schooling alone cannot explain the consistently strong proficiency levels in Northern Europe. Daily life in the region is characterised by constant exposure to English through non-dubbed English-language media, particularly on television. This level of exposure expands vocabulary and increases comprehension and production abilities, even among young children not yet studying English formally.


Singapore is rising and Malaysia and the Philippines are in the top 15. As we have reported in the magazine, these are increasingly English-medium study destinations as well. What has driven proficiency upwards in these countries, and do you think this kind of recognition assists in the promotion as study destinations?


We believe that historical ties to English have driven Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines to become the English language's strongholds in Asia. Due to their colonial history, English is often used as one of the languages of government, as a language of instruction in schools, and as a means of daily communication in some social spheres. Also, as is the case everywhere else in Asia, these countries also use English for business and tourism. These factors enable them to sustain high levels of English proficiency.


And certainly the fact that Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines have demonstrated strong English proficiency consistently makes them good destinations for studying English for students who would like to study the language in Asia. Of course, learning English in native-speaking countries would be the ideal, but these Asian countries would be possible alternatives as well.


Were there any countries or regions that decreased in proficiency in 2016? Any reasons for this?


Latin America is the only region whose average English proficiency has dropped compared to last year. Adult English proficiency in Latin America is weak, and it has declined in many countries since last year. Of the 14 Latin American countries included in this year's index, all but two - Argentina and the Dominican Republic - fall in the lowest proficiency bands.


One of the possible reasons attributing to its stagnation in terms of English could be the fact that Spanish, instead of English, serves as a regional lingua franca in Latin America. Unlike in Europe and Asia, where English is the language of regional communication, Spanish unites Latin America. This shared regional language dampens incentives to master English and, alongside underperforming public education systems, is a key factor in the region's delayed progress towards higher English proficiency.


 Can you give us a brief background of the methodology used to arrive at these findings?


This sixth edition of the EF EPI ranks 72 countries and territories based on test data from more than 950,000 adults who took our online English tests in 2015.


Two tests are open to any internet user for free. The third is an online placement test used by EF during the enrolment process for English courses. All three tests include reading and listening sections.


In order to calculate a country's EF EPI score, each test score was normalised to obtain the percentage of correct answers for that test. All the scores for a country were then averaged across the three tests, giving equal weight to each test. Regional and global averages were weighted by the populations of each country within each region.


In terms of test-takers, the sample is balanced between male and female respondents and represents adult language learners from a broad range of ages. Female respondents comprised 46.3 per cent of the overall sample, and the median age of adult respondents was 28 years. 98.9 per cent of adult respondents were under the age of 60.


Minh Tran is Senior Director of Research and Academic Partnerships at EF Education First. The recently released 6th edition of the EF English Proficiency Index (EPI) is available online.