English proficiency in UAE among best in region, report shows

Regionally, the UAE has benefited from the financial and tourism sectors to improve English skills

RYP3WE Amazing Dubai city center at sunrise, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Alamy
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The UAE is one of the best Arab countries when it comes to proficiency in the English language, a new report has revealed.

Experts said the financial and tourism sectors in Dubai, in particular, helped encourage the speaking and writing of English as a second language.

This was achieved despite the challenge of learning a different alphabet before tackling vocabulary and grammar.

However, when viewed on a global scale, the Emirates and its neighbours lag behind some other regions, including Latin America and East Asia, in English skills.

The English Proficiency Index report, published by international education company Education First, found that Northern Europeans were the best at speaking English as a second language.

The Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and Denmark had the strongest language skills, while other countries assessed as having “very high proficiency” in English included Singapore, South Africa and Finland.

The Philippines was among the Asian countries ranked “highly proficient”, while ­India, China and South Korea were in the “moderate” category.

The study was not scientific – it polled 2.3 million in a voluntary online test – but the report's authors said it gives a snapshot to travellers and businesses, and an indication of progress by governments.

It also used results from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s respected Pisa education results for context.

Dr Richard Kiely, a reader in applied linguistics at the University of Southampton in the UK and specialist in the teaching of English to speakers of other languages, said the global patterns reflected the key drivers of English-language proficiency.

"Where you have tourism and international trade, then you have a really tangible role for English as a workplace skill," said Dr Kiely, who is not connected with the report.

“This is particularly important in areas like South-East Asia and also in places like Latin America where you have a tourism industry.”

Among the 100 nations assessed in the report, the UAE came 70th, making it the ­highest placed of 31 nations described as showing "very poor proficiency", the lowest category.

While lagging on a global scale, the Emirates came third among the 15 Arab nations surveyed, behind only Bahrain (55th) and Tunisia (65th), both of which were described as having “poor proficiency”.

Several Arab states came at or near the bottom of the list, ­including Kuwait (84th), Oman (92nd), Iraq (97th), ­Saudi Arabia (98th), and Libya (100th).

Despite its low ranking, Iraq showed the most improvement on last year’s study regionally, followed by the Emirates.

Dr Kiely said the need to learn English was "not that real, not that tangible" in many parts of the Middle East, which may explain why countries in the region sit further down the rankings.

He said research in the UAE indicated that the learning of English was sometimes seen as a "theoretical" requirement linked to the passing of exams, because students "don't see the requirement of English as real in the workplace".

The report noted, however, that Dubai had “much higher levels of English proficiency” than the UAE as a whole.

The UAE's official language is Arabic, which is used in all government work and in public schools, but the high non-Emirati population means many business transactions are conducted in English.

The report acknowledged that the Gulf states have "transformed" their higher education systems and that the UAE has invited top western universities to set up campuses.

This, the report said, had spurred the reform of public universities and led them to increase the amount of teaching in English. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of students have been sent to universities in the UK and US for their higher education.

However, school teaching is said to have struggled to show improvements and the report highlighted the number of people who must sit foundation English classes in between school and university.

So, despite the Middle East’s diversity and its influx of expatriates, average English-language skills are said to remain poor below average.

Typically, families in the region may lack to funds to pay for additional language tuition, according to Dr Kiely, and he said the Middle East did not have the same network, seen in some other parts of the world, of language schools operating in parallel to mainstream schools. Stuttering economies in part of the Arab world also make it harder to improve English skills.

Developing a cadre of local English-speaking teachers offers a more sustainable way of improving English skills than simply hiring from abroad, the report suggested.

Countries with a language spoken by only its people, or a handful of other nations, such as the Dutch, Croatians and Hungarians, tended to be better at English, but notable exceptions included Italians.

Adults in their late twenties – Millennials – had the best command of English by age group.