English spread its influence as a language of international trade and diplomacy first under the British Empire, and then during the postwar economic expansion of the United States. In many countries, English replaced French as an indicator of the well-educated upper class. Globalization, urbanization, and the Internet have dramatically changed the role of English in the past 20 years.
Today, English proficiency is less associated with the elite, and it is not as closely tied to the United States or the United Kingdom as it once was. Instead, English is becoming a basic skill for the entire global workforce, in the same way that literacy has been transformed in the last two centuries from an elite privilege into a basic requirement for informed citizenship.
It is truer than ever today that English makes it easier to do business around the world. The World Bank and the International Finance Corporation’s Ease of Doing Business Index ranks the regulatory environments of economies around the world by how conducive they are to starting and operating a business. The index has ten sub-indices, including the ease of starting a business, trading across borders, enforcing contracts, and resolving insolvency. In countries where English is not an official language, the ease of doing business closely correlates with the strength of English skills.
An increasing number of companies headquartered in non-English speaking countries (including Honda, Nokia, Rakuten, Renault, and Samsung) have adopted English as their corporate language. Countries and companies that wish to stimulate entrepreneurial growth should take note: English skills are a key component for creating a business-friendly environment. English plays a role in generating opportunities, determining employability, and expanding horizons. As such, English is key to a country’s economic development.
The interaction between English proficiency and Gross National Income per capita seems to be a virtuous cycle – improving English skills drives up salaries, which in turn encourages governments and individuals to invest more in English training. In many countries, higher English proficiency corresponds to fewer young people who are unemployed or not in training.
Indices of quality of life, such as the Human Development Index, also correlate positively with the EF EPI. The Human Development Index measures education attainment, life expectancy, literacy, and standards of living. A few countries have low or moderate English proficiency and high levels of development. However, all High and Very High Proficiency countries are rated “Very High Human Development” on the HDI.
Too often, English communication skills are viewed as a luxury, taught well only in private schools and study abroad programs. The evidence presented in this report shows that English is a core skill today. As such, it has a special status, and can be taught and tested at a level equivalent to native language reading and math skills. Considering the increased importance of English over the last 20 years, a strong working knowledge of the language will be even more important when today's children enter the workforce.