Research published by the British Council suggests Germans are the best non-native speakers of English, scoring an impressive 7.4 on average in the IELTS speaking exam. Predictably, former British colonies Singapore, Malaysia, and Nigeria also score highly, with Middle Eastern and North East Asian countries making up five of the bottom six places.
The exam – which is taken in 145 countries worldwide – aims to test students on their ability to answer questions about themselves, talk extensively about a given topic for two minutes, and finally to develop more general, abstract opinions. To put Germany’s linguistic achievements into perspective, the highest score in the exam is referred to as ‘Band 9’, while those who put Australia down as their country of origin score a surprisingly low 7.3 – one decimal point less than the Germans. Although the UK and Ireland top the table (both scoring 8.5), the rest of continental Europe are left in Germany’s wake, with France and Poland sharing the silver medal for European non-native English speakers, with both countries scoring 6.7.
As expected, Asia is a mixed bag, with Singapore and Malaysia – two countries with a history of English secondary education – top scoring there. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are the two lowest nations in the survey, the former being the only country worldwide to score below 5. Students scoring under that figure, “Cannot respond without noticeable pauses and may speak slowly, with frequent repetition and self-correction,” according to the band descriptors used by IELTS examiners. The North East Asian countries of Korea, Japan, and China also struggle, with Thailand the only other nation to average below 6. The scores will be of particular embarrassment to South Korea, where an estimated $16 billion is spent annually on private education, much of it on English education.
Although the scores are a cause for celebration in Germany, observers will note that other Germanic language speakers such as the Dutch and Norwegians are not included in the report, which focuses on the 40 largest countries in terms of the size of candidature. Another point to take into consideration is that (obviously) only IELTS test-takers are included, thus skewing the data in favour of countries with a lower level of English. Most Japanese have almost no knowledge of what to them is a completely alien language, whereas a majority of Koreans know at least a few words. Despite this, Japan comes in above its regional rival. Contrast this with Sweden and Denmark, where working knowledge of English grammar is often above that of native speakers. English fluency is so high in Scandinavia and the Netherlands that many would not even consider taking an exam testing their proficiency, hence their exclusion in this report.
Despite the survey’s limitations, it gives us an interesting insight into the differing English abilities of nations around the world.