לימוד השפה האנגלית

We thought Israelis could speak English, then we saw the data

Reports vary on Israelis' English proficiency: some show high fluency rates while others suggest they struggle to string together sentences; where do Israelis really stand?

Ophir Sofer|
Here's a true story: I'm standing in line at McDonald's in Plaça de Catalunya, the heart of Barcelona - one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. When my turn arrives, I place my order with the young woman at the counter, and when she finishes typing it into the computer, I ask, in English of course, where the restrooms are. She looks at me with absolute bewilderment and doesn’t respond.
I repeat the question, this time with exaggerated slowness. She shrugs her shoulders, offers an apologetic smile, and mumbles, 'Me no English. English poquito.' The cashier from the adjacent register comes to her aid and looks at me. I ask the question again, but she too stares in confusion and is unable to help.
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ברצלונה
ברצלונה
Barcelona
(Photo: Shutterstock)
They call their boss over. He actually understands the question but answers me in Spanish. Eventually, a customer behind me grows tired of waiting, so he offers his services as a translator. The restrooms are on the upper floor, it turns out.
Two weeks have passed since that scene, but the question still remains: How on earth did this happen? How do I find myself in the heart of a European capital, inside one of the branches of the most recognized fast-food brand in the world, asking something super-basic in what is supposed to be an international language, and no one – absolutely no one - understands me?
And make no mistake, this isn't the first time. Astonishingly similar instances have occurred in many countries, from Thailand to Italy. Conversely, in countries like the Netherlands or Sweden, I had to remind myself that English is not the official language of the country, despite the fact that everyone I encountered spoke fluent and impressive English as if they had just graduated from Oxford a minute ago.
And here’s another question: What are these enormous gaps based on?

Last place: China

English is the most spoken language in the world and the only one referred to as a "lingua franca" - an international language used for communication between people who do not speak it as their mother tongue.
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צילום של אנשים הולכים ברחוב בסין
צילום של אנשים הולכים ברחוב בסין
China: Dead last in English proficiency
(Photo: Shutterstock)
According to estimates, about 400 million people speak English as their native language, and nearly a billion speak English at some level, as a second or third language. There is no exact number of English speakers worldwide, and there never will be because defining an "English speaker" is elusive.
Does a person who can communicate well verbally but can’t write a simple text message count as an English speaker? Is someone who can read and write at a reasonable level but can't manage a basic conversation considered an English speaker? There are no definitive answers to these questions, and therefore all existing tables, statistics, and data are merely estimates and should be treated cautiously.
Having said that, we can discuss the ranking table of English speakers by country. This table presents a mixture of data from various sources, most of which are based on first-person attestations - meaning, these are the number of people who claimed they know English.
The country with the highest proportion of English speakers in the world is... (drumroll!): Iceland. This tiny country is home to only 375,000 people, who enjoy one of the highest living standards in the world and a particularly excellent education system.
Accordingly, 98% of the country's residents speak English. Next up is the Netherlands, where 90.9% of the population are English speakers. Also in the top ten are: Scandinavian countries, as well as Austria, Cyprus and Israel, where 85% of the population define themselves as English speakers.
Where is it really hard to find an English speaker? in first place from the bottom is China, where only 0.9% of the residents identified themselves as English speakers. Considering that China has a population of about 1.4 billion people, there are only 13 million English speakers in the entire country.
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Israelis speak English far worse than we were led to believe
Israelis speak English far worse than we were led to believe
Israelis speak English far worse than we were led to believe
(Photo: Shutterstock)
Also at the bottom of the list: Brazil, Colombia and Argentina, where the proportion of English speakers ranges between 4.2% and 6.5%, and Russia, which has one official language at the national level, Russian of course, and another 26 secondary official languages for specific regions. English is not part of the compulsory curriculum in schools, and in most of them, it is not taught at all. The result: less than 4% of the residents of this power speak English.
For those of you who prefer statistics that are less based on the self-reporting of participants and more on objective tests, there is the EF index - an online survey that ranks countries by English language skills among adults who have taken the EF test.
This is a free English test created by Education First, an international education company, and is comparable in its level to the TOEFL exam, which serves as one of the admission requirements for foreign students' academic studies in the U.S.
The data was first published in 2011, a product of 1.7 million people from various countries around the world. The most recent edition was published in November 2022 and is based on 2.1 million examinees from 111 countries. To be included, each country needed to have at least 400 examinees.
The test is available online to all those interested, and this is also the main criticism of it. Instead of examining the level of English proficiency in the population, the test examines the English level of those who had an extra 50 minutes and a desire to answer it.
Another important criticism is that the exam assesses only receptive skills (reading comprehension and listening) and does not evaluate writing or speaking at all, while the ability to conduct a conversation is the most significant skill in communication.
Someone who can write an impressive letter in polished English but is unable to order food in a restaurant (and surprisingly, there are those who can't. We'll get to that), is not considered an English speaker.
And after the criticism, it's time to talk about the results. The 2022 report includes a breakdown of English proficiency levels by gender, age group, and region within the various countries and an analysis of English skills on each continent.
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לימודי אנגלית
לימודי אנגלית
(Photo: Shutterstock)
The report reveals that European countries maintain the highest level of English proficiency, while countries in the Middle East have the lowest level globally. Additionally, metrics like exports per capita, Gross National Income per capita, and innovation are perfectly aligned with English proficiency, or in short: more money equals better English. Not too surprising, is it?
Another somewhat disappointing discovery is that our English isn't great, to put it mildly. Israel is categorized under "low proficiency" (4 out of 5), alongside countries like Nepal and Ethiopia, and ranks 74th overall.
These disappointing results can be explained in two ways: the first is that it seems in a genuine test, where Israelis are not required to pat themselves on the back but truly assess their abilities, we are not as good as we'd like to think; the second, more forgiving explanation is that Israelis, in general, do not speak English badly. Most of us can articulate what we want to say and understand the counterpart, but our reading comprehension is not promising. The same goes for Hebrew, by the way.
Additional proof of the relatively low level of English proficiency in Israel was provided by data collected between 2018 and 2020 by the National Center for Exams and Evaluation – only 15% of respondents demonstrated high-level proficiency in the language. An additional 18% possess English that enables only basic conversation, and about a third of the graduates from the Israeli education system are unable to communicate in the language independently and fluently.
Note that the data refers only to candidates for academic studies who took one of the English exams to obtain an exemption from studying the language at a university or college, so it's reasonable to assume that the state of English knowledge among the general population is much worse.

The secrets of Scandinavia

No matter which global ranking table you choose to look at and which data you delve into, Scandinavian countries - Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland - will always appear in the top ten of the ranking. The high proficiency of Scandinavians in English is a well-known and accepted fact. So accepted, in fact, that some people are sure that English is at least an official language in some of these countries (it is not), and nobody stops to ask: how the hell do they do it? How do you reach a situation where over 90% of the country's residents speak a second language almost perfectly?
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רייקיאוויק בירת איסלנד
רייקיאוויק בירת איסלנד
Reykjavík, Iceland
(Photo: Shutterstock)
Common language family. The primary reason is that English, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic all belong to the same Germanic language family (Finnish is the exception, belonging to the Uralic language family). Consequently, there are many linguistic similarities between the Scandinavian languages and English, and a large portion of the words are identical or very similar (this is particularly pronounced in Swedish, which shares about 1,600 words with English).
Additionally, Scandinavian countries have adopted many words from English (such as taxi, hacker, or T-shirt), especially those taken from pop culture or the technology world. The gaps between the general grammar and syntax of the languages are also relatively small, certainly compared to languages like French or Hebrew. The implication is that learning the English language and using it is relatively straightforward for the average Scandinavian.
Education. The high proficiency in English also stems from the way the education system teaches the language and the importance attributed to these studies in school. In Scandinavian countries, English is considered a core subject and not an elective, and all students begin learning it at about age seven (this varies between) and continue until the end of high school.
Classroom lessons are flexible and collaborative, and language acquisition is achieved using a variety of aids such as films, songs, and websites. In higher education, a significant portion of the study materials and resources are in English, and there may be lessons and even entire courses in English.
English media consumption. Another factor leading to high proficiency in English is the population's media consumption. While most countries that import television programs or films in a foreign language tend to dub them into their language, Scandinavian TV stations use subtitles and retain the original English audio. The reason for this is primarily economic: for countries with small populations, subtitling is a more cost-effective option.
Constant exposure to English through media gives a noticeable boost to Scandinavians' English language skills. A study conducted in 2011 by the European Commission, examining the use of subtitles in 33 countries, found that "subtitles help improve proficiency in foreign languages" and can "contribute to creating an environment that encourages multilingualism."
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Malmo, Sweden
Malmo, Sweden
Malmo, Sweden
(Photo: Shutterstock)
English as a business language. Scandinavian countries have brought to the world companies like IKEA, H&M, Spotify, Volvo, and others, all of which rely on trade with the global economy. English language skills are seen as critical to the economy, and demonstrating a lack of proficiency is not legitimate.

Reading yes, speaking no

While English proficiency pervades every stratum in Nordic countries, in other nations, most residents struggle to hold a conversation. If you've ever visited Spain, France, or Italy, you’ve likely noticed this. Citizens in these countries are not eager to speak English, and when they do use it, it often isn't especially good.
Nevertheless, a glance at the EF English proficiency rankings reveals that all three are ranked high in the "moderate proficiency" category (positions 32-34), implying their written test performances are not poor and their spoken English should be reasonably good.
So where does this English proficiency disappear when attempting to converse with them? In a table based on self-reporting, only 22% of Spanish people claimed to know English. In other words, four out of five Spaniards report that they don't know English at all. How does this reconcile with the fact that most can read an entire English text and grasp the main ideas?
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לימודי אנגלית
לימודי אנגלית
(Photo: Shutterstock)
It turns out that this gap is not uncommon. Reading, writing, listening, and speaking are all language skills, but they are substantively different from one another. By analogy, there is a significant difference between running a marathon and a 100-meter sprint. True, both are running competitions and have some identical demands for both races, but also some critically different components. Bottom line, a runner specializing in marathons will not achieve a stellar result in sprints.
Most non-native speakers, even the fluent ones, will struggle to pronounce at least some of the words. Why? Because they have not articulated these word sounds several times in the past. Spoken English requires practice with a variety of sounds and expressions. The only way to learn them is to speak again and again and again. English is not a phonetic language (i.e., words are not necessarily pronounced the way they are written), which means pronunciation can be challenging, especially for beginners. For instance, the words "red," "head," and "said" are pronounced the same even though they are spelled differently. Conversely, "cut" and "put" are pronounced differently even though they are spelled the same.
A person's effectiveness as a speaker depends not only on their vocabulary and familiarity with sounds but also on factors such as listening to the other party, understanding messages, and especially - how confident they feel.
Speaking, unlike reading, writing, or listening, is an interactive activity that involves other people, and that matters. Although a person's ability to speak English remains the same, some conversational contexts may provoke anxiety and insecurity, while others provide comfort and calmness. The way a person speaks is influenced by whom they are speaking with.
For example, there is a difference between talking with a close friend and giving a speech on stage in front of a group of strangers. Although our level of English remains constant, and we haven’t suddenly acquired a broader vocabulary, chances are that our English will be better in one-on-one conversations.
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לימודי אנגלית
לימודי אנגלית
(Photo: Shutterstock)
Moreover, during reading and writing, you can pause when you don't understand a particular word or don’t know how to spell it. This option doesn’t exist in speaking. We need to think while we talk. That's a skill in itself, and the only way to learn it is through more speaking. Speaking practice is also the only way to learn the rhythm, intonation, and accent of the language.
The problem is that among all language skills, speaking is the least practiced. If your job doesn't require speaking English and the people surrounding you in your daily life are not English speakers, it means you're not practicing English conversation. What do most of us do instead? We watch English TV shows (with or without subtitles) and read texts in English (from signs to books). Listening comprehension improves, as does reading, but oral skills stay stagnant.
This is also true for the millions of people who have studied in schools where English is the medium of instruction. Research has found that the majority of them graduate barely being able to speak English. During their studies, they mingled in groups where they spoke their mother tongue, and in class, they developed all other skills: reading, writing, and especially listening and understanding spoken language. However, no one required them to speak, certainly not to engage in lengthy and intense conversations. At best, they responded orally with a single sentence to a question.
Moreover, academia often does not cultivate English-speaking skills either. Students are required to read articles in English and sometimes listen to lectures in English, but not to speak. Accordingly, it has been found that high academic grades have a small correlation with proficiency in spoken English.
It's not uncommon to encounter holders of bachelor's, master's, and even doctoral degrees who demonstrate below-average English when required to converse. When English is taught as a subject and not as a life skill, it results in individuals who can read the manual of their new Dyson but struggle to respond when a stranger addresses them in English on the street.
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