The India/China Language Proficiency Debate

Make the Shift

Henry Foy, in the Reuters blog, asks if India has squandered its English advantage?

But, as Asian rival China surpasses India’s English proficiency rates for the first time, that advantage over other developing economies looks to have been squandered.

China was ranked one place above India in Education First’s 2011 English Proficiency Index, released last month, the first time India has been beaten by its neighbour and fellow BRIC economy in the international rankings of foreign countries English-speaking abilities.

(Via Has India squandered its English advantage? | India: A billion aspirations | Analysis & Opinion |

Mr. Foy uses the EF EPI report (PDF) to ask this question. An interesting question and a topic for debate, given the great English leaps that our eastern neighbour has initiated for the last few years. And an important point for all Indians; except, Henry Foy misses out mentioning a few important factors in his article. However, I do not intend to single out Mr. Foy – other magazines and newspapers have taken the same stand.

For one, while this is an index, there is no attempt at defining proficiency. Here’s what I found on Wikipedia

Language proficiency or linguistic proficiency is the ability of an individual to speak or perform in an acquired language. As theories vary among pedagogues as to what constitutes proficiency, there is little consistency as to how different organizations classify it. Additionally, fluency and language competence are generally recognized as being related, but separate controversial subjects. In predominant frameworks in the United States, proficient speakers demonstrate both accuracy and fluency, and use a variety of discourse strategies. Thus, native speakers of a language can be fluent without being considered proficient. (Via Language proficiency)

But since we do not know the parameter(s) that EF EPI (English Proficiency Index) defined for this test, it anyway doesn’t matter. The report itself seems to be quite unsure of this: “Within the English-teaching community, there is no consensus on the best ways to evaluate English proficiency, or indeed on the ultimate goals of English study. While most English teachers and students agree that communication is the primary objective, more work must be done to define target competencies and how each competency can best be evaluated.“.

The report also mentions the shortcomings of the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference) for Languages):

However, the CEFR is only a first step towards standard-setting in language education. More detailed definitions of finer-grained skill levels and accompanying evaluative tools are needed, particularly those which take into account current thinking on communication as the primary goal of English study. The most widely-adopted English competency tests today are still heavily weighted towards an older notion of proficiency, no longer in sync with the role that English plays in the world today as an international communication tool.

Secondly, in the Asia EF EPI section, these few lines caught my eye – and I wondered if I was reading it right:

Indeed, although it is very difficult to measure the number of people who speak English in each country because of different definitions of proficiency, the British Council estimated in 2010 that India had anywhere between 55 and 350 million English speakers while a report published by Cambridge University Press estimates that China has 250 to 350 million English learners.

You can see that the report sounds apologetic over the inability to define proficiency. But do read the quote again – if you missed it – India has up to 350million speakers while china has up to 350million learners. Now, the GER for primary and secondary in India has increased from 66% in 1999 to 84% in 2008. Also,

Official statistics on the number of children enrolled in recognised English medium schools in the country show that it has more than doubled within just half a decade from over 61 lakh (6.1million) in 2003 to over 1.5 crore (15million) in 2008.


In 2006, English as a medium of instruction was fourth — behind Hindi, Bengali and Marathi — but by 2007, it had climbed to second place and grew even further in 2008, beginning to eat into the Hindi numbers.”

(Via August, English, Nagarajan, Rema. The Times Of India. 27 Mar. 2010. Web. 20 Apr. 2011.)

Finally, Mr. Foy’s article fails to mention that the EF EPI test was an online test:

Only countries with a minimum of 400 test takers were included in the index. Countries with fewer than 100 test takers per test on two or more of the tests were also excluded, regardless of the total number of test takers.

We recognize that the test-taking population represented in this index is self-selected and not guaranteed to be representative of the country as a whole. Only those people either wanting to learn English or curious about their English skills will participate in one of these tests. In addition, since the tests are online, people without internet access or unused to online applications are automatically excluded.

Again, not necessarily a good or an accurate sample size. Most teachers or parents in India will not be aware of or have access to this test.

Coming back to the article, while there may be merit in being concerned about losing advantage in a certain skill, I found the ‘straight-line’ interpretation of this report very short-sighted. It is almost as if everyone has looked only at the list – and moved on to the now-fashionable bashing of India’s education problems. While we may have a real problem on hand, this report is no indicator of the problem or the extent of the problem.


8 thoughts on “The India/China Language Proficiency Debate

  1. The post raises few thoughts in me as a reader:
    1)The credibility of the articles/posts published in a reputed news agency like Reuters.these guys are supposed to give us unadulterated info :)
    2) The kind of perceptions of a country that would be created based on this article
    3) What gives the writer to provide such half baked and incomplete information?
    4) If there are multiple articles of the similar nature, with incomplete data, then it seems more like a planned agenda sponsored by a country with vested interest (read China) to misguide the readers

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  3. A great post – I’m part of the team that created the EF EPI. While the EF EPI is definitely imperfect, we hope that as the first index of English proficiency of its scale, it is useful to others trying to understand global proficiency. We’ll do our best to take your ideas into consideration to improve the EF EPI as we prepare for the next release.

    • Eric, thank you for your comment and such a positive response. I am glad you have responded in a way that is constructive, if I could help in any way – do let me know! :)

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  5. Pingback: EF EPI 2011 (English Proficiency Index) | The eVeltio Education Resource Centre (TEERC)

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