Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

Who’s Better at English? Swedes or 6-Year-Olds?

with 7 comments

Ever go to plan a vacation (somewhere … anywhere but here!) and wonder where your English will be of the most use?

Of course, I’d advocate learning at least some, if not a significant amount, of any local tongue. But let’s face it: learning all of the world’s estimated 6,500 languages is hard. Like, really hard.

So what countries speak English the best?

This blog post from The Economist highlights a new study that examines the fluency of foreign English speakers.

According to the post:

EF Education First, an English-teaching company, compiled the biggest ever internationally comparable sample of English learners: some 2m people took identical tests online in 44 countries. The top five performers were Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Finland. The bottom five were Panama, Colombia, Thailand, Turkey and Kazakhstan. Among regions, Latin America fared worst. (No African country had enough takers to make the lists’s threshold for the minimum number of participants.)

The post, which is fairly short and contains lots of other intriguing tidbits about the whys and hows of foreign fluency.

But one thing in particular caught my eye:

Starting young, while it seems a good idea, may not pay off: children between eight and 12 learn foreign languages faster than younger ones, so each class hour on English is better spent on a 10-year-old than on a six-year-old.


All right. I guess I can buy that, especially from a financial standpoint, but I would like to point something out.

Even though children may be able to learn more quickly at a later age, it still may be a good idea to start a second language younger so that by age 10, they’re already working with a good foundation and can grow from there.

An often-cited study by K.A. Ericsson and A.C. Lehmann shows that expertise in almost any field requires 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

If older children really soak up languages better than their younger brothers and sisters, think how much more and how quickly a ten-year-old would learn if he’d already had four years of instruction.

Written by Nathanael Green

April 6, 2011 at 7:12 pm

7 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Yay, I’m in top five! – Sorry, just had to get that out of the way before saying anything remotely intelligent. ;)
    The countries in the top five all show a lot of American/British television in the original language with subtitles. This helps a lot, especially with pronunciation. From an early age, children are in contact with English, and those languages have a lot of loan words such as “okay”, technical terms such as “talk show”, and less flattering ones as well (“f*ck” is, to my embarrassment, used quite frequently here as a swearword in colloquial speech).
    I don’t quite believe that older children learn faster, but they are able to understand theory better, I’m sure. However, the problem with learning a second language very early, as I see it, is that it confuses children to the extent of not learning their mother tongue properly. I’m told that children here are shockingly bad at reading. I’m not saying it’s because they learn English (fairly) early, but I think that beginning to teach them another language even earlier may take away some focus from their ability to read in any language at all.
    At one point I was taught four foreign languages at the same time. It is definitely possible, but I found it difficult to learn two new ones simultaneously (the others I’d already been learning for years), so I believe in ”one language at the time”. Good idea to learn English early, but not before a couple of years of schooling in the mother tongue. German, French and so on – fine, but not beginning the same year.
    Interesting post! I’m actually planning one about writing in a foreign language for my own blog right now. :)

    M. Howalt

    April 7, 2011 at 4:27 am

    • I’ve read a lot about bilingual children not being as developed in either language as monolingual children are at early ages. But I’ve also seen suggestions that this is more often the case when bilingualism is a result of passive exposure (mom speaks English, dad speaks Spanish) as opposed to active efforts by the parents to encourage language learning.

      Still, I think it’s pretty easy to figure out the formula. If you’re studying languages (or anything, really), an hour spent learning Russian is an hour you’re not speaking Lakota.

      You’re right about English TV – having accessible programs in a target language is a huge leg up, and I think this might help students of many languages learn now that it’s becoming much easier to find music, movies and television from all over the world.

      I’ll definitely be interested to see your post on writing in a foreign language! Feel free to comment and let us know when it’s up.

      Nathanael Green

      April 7, 2011 at 5:17 pm

  2. […] I had already typed up most of this entry when I read Nathanael’s post about English in non-English speaking countries. It’s very interesting … and I learnt […]

  3. I’m very skeptical of the idea that it’s better to wait until the child is between 10-12 years old to start teaching a second language. At the very least, I’d like to see that conclusion come from more evidence than just looking at what age students start studying. The schools and culture of Northern Europe vs Southern Europe are different enough that any number of factors could influence performance much more than just age! I taught ESL in Turkey, and it honestly doesn’t surprise me that it’s so low, and they start kids in primary school! The problem was not starting at that age, however; the problem was that there were no standards, no accountability, and the students would be passed on from level to level with no evidence of the child having learned anything. The kids knew they could spend the year literally sleeping and still pass. I had high school students who had spent 10 years in English classes and all they could say was, “Teacher, I go bathroom, yes?”

    And what are the goals? Do the schools truly want to produce students who are able to be equally proficient in each language? Or do they just want to give them enough to satisfy the idea that everyone should learn at least a little bit of English?

    If you’re interested, I just had ‘Bilingual Week’ over at my blog, where I discussed this very thing in:

    (That’s where M.Howalt commented, which led me to her, which led me here to your very interesting post! :)


    April 29, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    • Interesting to hear from someone who actually taught ESL, and those are certainly good points about accountability and goals in teaching.

      And of course I’m interesting in “Bilingual Week!” Thanks for the link, I’ll definitely check it out.

      Nathanael Green

      May 4, 2011 at 2:52 pm

  4. The countries in the top five all show a lot of American/British television in the original language with subtitles. At the very least, I’d like to see that conclusion come from more evidence than just looking at what age students start studying.
    Interesting post! I’m actually planning one about writing in a foreign language for my own blog right now.


    May 8, 2011 at 4:14 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: