News & Reports

Arab Countries Last in Global Test of English Proficiency

CAIRO—While the English skills of people in most countries are improving, that is not the case in the Arab world, where several countries rank among the 20 worst in English proficiency.

This is the main finding of a report released this month called the EF-English Proficiency Index, a yearly rating based on the online test scores of 910,000 adults in 70 countries. Out of the 22 member states of the Arab League, 12 countries were included.

English fluency is too often seen as a luxury, lamented the report, and taught well only in private schools and study-abroad programs. The report also noted that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is the only world region where the English skills of adults are declining: Unlike in other parts of the world, MENA adults over 40 have stronger English skills than their younger counterparts.

There is reason for concern about the gap, the report notes, given the correlation between English proficiency and certain measures of social and economic progress such as Internet connectivity, scientific research, and employment.

The United Arab Emirates ranks at the top among Arab countries surveyed in the report, and 42nd across all countries, but is still classified as “low English proficiency.” The other 11 Arab countries surveyed received rankings of “very low English proficiency,” with Libya coming in last.

Arab rankArab countriesWorld rankEnglish proficiency
1United Arab Emirates42Low proficiency
2Yemen51very low proficiency (VLP)
11Saudi Arabia68VLP

In nearly all countries surveyed, women have stronger English skills than men. One exception is Saudi Arabia, where women and men scored roughly the same.

Syed Md. Golam Faruk, a professor of applied linguistics and English literature at King Khalid University, pointed the finger at the people at the front of the classroom. “In spite of having very good infrastructure, Saudi educational institutions do not have the right kind of teachers,” he said. “In other words, KSA is lagging far behind in English proficiency mainly because of its teachers.”

However, Eric Lawrie, the British Council’s director for English in the MENA region, says it’s hard to pin down a single cause for the poor results. “Ministries of education in the region are nibbling around the edges, spending significant amounts of GDP ranging from 10 to 17 percent on education generally,” he says. “English gets not only a poor share, but what it does get is not going to achieve the step change required.” (See related story: “English Courses a ‘Cash Cow’, Cairo University Students Say.”)

Echoing Lawrie’s views, Alan Weber, associate professor of English at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, notes that “this low English performance on international tests by Arabic speakers is a complex topic. There is not enough empirical evidence available to find a definite cause for this phenomenon. English may be perceived negatively, as the language of a former colonial power or a current power that is exerting negative cultural influences,” he added.

Weber, who has experience teaching English in Qatar, says one way to improve English instruction at Arab educational institutions is to increase “study abroad programs to English-speaking nations for what is called an ‘immersion experience.’”

Institutions could also use Internet-based communication tools such as Skype, Facetime or other video chat software for language exchange programs in which non-native speakers communicate with English speakers.

Weber also suggested that as most scientific journal articles are now written in English, schools could combine English language lessons with science and technology topics, while continuing to use Arabic to teach other subjects, as a way to teach practical English skills in a student’s field of study.

Lawrie expanded on Weber ‘s thoughts for improving English education in the Arab world by saying that students should be taught in a fun way, and assessment should not be a measure of memory, but rather a measure of how a student communicates.

“Learning through memorization will only promulgate the current status quo,” says Lawrie. “If we are to seriously make the required inroads to language learning, then we should be focusing on language as communication and not as a memory exercise.”


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