English and Society

Adult English proficiency is a strong proxy for the openness of a society. Where adults have learned to speak English, they are also, on the whole, more internationally mobile, more politically engaged, and more progressive in their outlook on gender roles. That is not to say that there is a neat cause and effect relationship. Instead, it seems likely that the same forces that cause people to adopt English as a global tool for communication also increase openness and reduce inequality.

Balance of power

Adult English proficiency correlates with Hofstede’s Power Distance Index (PDI), which measures the extent to which the less powerful members of an organization accept that power will be distributed unequally. The PDI captures perceptions about inequality in both professional environments and family structures. A higher score on the PDI is typical of rigid, hierarchical systems in which subordinates and the young are expected to obey orders from above. In these societies, high levels of inequality are the norm, as is lower English proficiency. At the opposite extreme, we find countries and regions where flatter corporate organizations thrive, tolerance of inequality is low, and ideas are valued regardless of a person’s age or seniority. In these places, English proficiency tends to be higher.

Looking out instead of in

Although English does not undermine hierarchy directly, it may contribute to broadening a society’s horizons. Demand for English learning has never been higher, and there is no point learning English if one does not intend to communicate and travel across borders. With that movement comes freedom to observe how the rest of the world operates. We find a very strong correlation between a country’s global connectedness and its level of English, as well as robust correlations between English and indices of democracy, civil liberties, and political rights. After contact with the outside world, people often raise questions about their own societies, engage more deeply with global issues, and, in many cases, push for change. There is a very strong correlation between English proficiency and the Good Country Index (Graph E), a composite measure of how much a country currently contributes to humanity as a whole, setting aside its history.

Half the sky

Women form an essential part of a skilled 21st century workforce. In the majority of countries, both rich and developing, women are more educated than men. Yet their job opportunities are limited by wage gaps, structural imbalances, and cultural expectations that they will do more than their share of unpaid work in the home. All countries have much to gain by systematically addressing these imbalances.

In societies with more progressive gender roles, people speak better English. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report measures how well women fare relative to men in terms of economic participation, educational attainment, political empowerment, and health. The EF EPI correlates with this index (Graph F). Again, there is no simple cause and effect relationship here. Speaking English does not directly improve women’s rights. Rather, societies that value gender equality tend to be wealthier, more open, and more internationally minded, and these are also the places where people speak the best English.

Graph E: English and International Engagement

Good Country Index (inverse) EF EPI Score Source: Anholt, 2018

Graph F: English and Gender Equality

Global Gender Gap Index EF EPI Score Source: World Economic Forum, 2018

Talk to the world

People who speak English are able to engage with the world beyond their own borders. There’s a positive correlation between a country’s average English proficiency and its global connectedness.

EF EPI Score Source: Global Connectedness Index, 2018