English Proficiency in ASEAN: Mekong Sub-region Lines Up the Worst Performances

ASEAN level of proficiency varies greatly from one country to another within the region, despite efforts done by governments to improve the level of English knowledge.

Over the past decade, EF Education First (EF) has tested the English skills of millions of adults around the world. Each year, EF publishes the EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI), a worldwide benchmark for measuring and tracking adult English proficiency over time. The EF EPI adds to ongoing discussions about the strategic importance of English in the world today. The 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. Sections are also divided by continent including Asia.

EF EPI latest report for the year 2016 shows that Asia received the highest proficiency index in English at 55.94 far ahead of Europe (53.49), Latin America (50.54) and the Middle-East/North Africa (44.92).

It is a great achievement for the continent but it also hides  huge differences. Asia high score is due to the fact that many countries in the region used to be under British colonial rules (Malaysia, Singapore, India, Burma, Hong Kong just to name a few) while the Philippines were part of the US Commonwealth for some 60 years.

In ASEAN, countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines consequently show the best performances and are largely over the ASEAN index average of 52.09 in English proficiency. ASEAN data exclude however Brunei and Myanmar which are not part of the survey.

In these countries, 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 upper-and middle-class social spheres. Meanwhile, most Asian countries realize that the use of English is essential to deal for business and tourism.

However, the Mekong Sub-Region performs worst among ASEAN members. According to EF, very low proficiency is seen in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, the latter performing worst in Asia with an English proficiency index of only 38.45. Surprisingly is the bad result of Thailand as well where the proficiency index reaches only 47.21 despite the fact that tourism is one of the Kingdom’s largest source of employment for local people. However, they have been deliberate action from the Thai government not to promote to much English as it could exercize influence over the way Thais look at their society, including politics… In Cambodia and Laos, the low level of education is the consequence of past wars and a long period of economic and political isolation.

English development is these days very much influenced by internet penetration. And once more Mekong countries are among the worst performing. EF highlights that only 9% of Cambodians have an access to internet, 14.3% of Laotians and 34.9% of Thais. This is to compare to 82% of Singaporeans being connected, 67.5% of Malaysians and even 48.3% of Vietnamese…