parlez - vous anglais?

Top 10 destinations where English is spoken as a second language


Travel around the world expecting everyone to speak English and you will get frustrated or even end up offending your hosts. 

It is always a good idea to learn a few basic words. Just by adding Bonjour, Bitte, or Grazie at the beginning or end of a sentence will make both you and the other person feel more at ease. After all, why do you travel anyway? If you are not willing to make an effort you might just as well stay at home.

That said, there are a number of countries where most people are very fluent in English as a second language. In these places, you need not be afraid or blush every time you open your mouth. In fact, you may encounter people that speak flawless English who will make you feel ashamed because they speak your language better than you do, plus their native tongue and maybe even a third or fourth language.

There is a very serious study out there under the name EF English Proficiency Index which ranks countries according to the average level of English language skills. While the results are interesting, we cannot help but think the result has a strong Western bias. First, students are examined through an online test and a country needed a sample of at least 400 test takers to be included. This automatically puts small and poorer countries at a disadvantage. Second, the test was used by the company for marketing purposes, suggesting that students were encouraged to take the test to help promote the company, i.e. sell more English courses in countries with low scores. Third, there are countries on that list where English already has an official status. Why is India on the list? or Singapore? And if they are on the list, why are Nigeria and Philippines missing?

Thus we have compiled our own top ten list of countries where English is used as a second language, without being official.

1. Nordics

Many English speakers in the Norwegian fjords

Many English speakers in the Norwegian fjords

Ok, we know nordics is not a country. But there are many similarities between them and, to be frank, we just didn't want them to monopolise this list. Indeed, the level of English in Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden (and you could throw in Estonia too) is really impressive. Even grandmothers can speak English with a quasi perfect RP accent!

2. Benelux

Dutch Belgian border. Just speak English.

Dutch Belgian border of Baarle-Nassau. Just speak English.

Not a country either, but a common word used to define the political union of BElgium, the NEtherlands and LUXembourg. The Dutch seem to have a natural talent for speaking foreign languages. Probably resulting from their proud history as a trading nation, it is not uncommon to meet people that can speak three or four languages there. In Belgium, there are several international headquarters (EU, NATO, WCO…) and use of English is now very common. And Luxembourg hosts many tax-dodging businesses where English is the working language.

3. Slovenia

Slovenia: More than just bears

Slovenia: More than just bears

We are not really sure how this former socialist country has acquired such a proficiency. However, they were always the most progressive and liberal country within the Yugoslav block. With a population of just 2M, the country is sandwiched between Italy, Austria, Hungary, Croatia and the Adriatic sea. It is common for kids to be taught German, French, Italian or Spanish, as well as English, at school. While in remote villages you might struggle to get by, in Ljubljana the use of English is widespread.

4. Cyprus

Ancient city of Salamis

Cyprus has been using English for a long time

Cyprus, like other islands in the Mediterranean, has been conquered by different empirtes throughout its history. The country gained its independence from Britain in 1960. The British influence is felt to this day. For example, Cypriots drive on the left side of the road. Although English is not an official language, it is estimated 80% of Cypriots use English as a second language. And many of them study abroad, particularly in the UK.

5. Israel

You can speak English in Jerusalem

Wonder what language they are praying in?

Israel is a small but hugely complex country. There are Jews and Muslims. Then there are secular Jews and Orthodox Jews. And people with Russian, Ethiopian, Argentinian… backgrounds. This results in significant disparities between Israelis when it comes to understanding and speaking English. However, many are exposed to the language from an early age, and quite a few are perfectly bilingual.

6. Malaysia

Malaysia, home of Manglish

Malaysia, home of Manglish

Malaysia was a British colony for about two centuries, until 1957. English is widely used as a business language, and also between different ethinicities of this diverse country. Unlike its more properous southern neighbours of Singapore though, it is no longer an official language, and there is a clear preference towards Bahasa Malaysia in areas such as education. There is also quite a wide gap between urban and rural areas of the country, the educated and the rest for whom Manglish, a form of patois, is very popular. Despite this situation, there can be no doubt that the English language continues to play a major role in Malaysia.

7. UAE

Modernity vs Tradition in UAE

Modernity vs tradition in UAE

The context of the United Arab Emirates is quite unique. In just a couple of decades, the country has gone from being a dusty camel backroad of the Arabian peninsula, to becoming a major global trading hub. With progress came immigration to fill a wide spectrum of jobs, from manual labour to highly skilled positions. Today, less than 20% of the population is Emirati. And the working language is… you guessed it, English.

8. Switzerland

Swiss alphorns

Loud and clear with Swiss alphorns

Switzerland has always been a polyglot nation. Located at the heart of Europe, the country has four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh (a Romance language). In this highly educated nation, many are proficient in English and other languages. The country attracts many migrant workers too, and organisations such as FIFA, WHO and MSF are based there.

9. Portugal

The national team,a Portuguese passion

The national football team, a Portuguese passion

In Portugal, people learn English at school and are consumers of English speaking media, preferring subtitles to dubbing (unlike their Spanish neighbours). Plus the country is a major tourist destination, and the Portuguese have been migrating around the world for centuries. There are Portuguese communities in Australia, Canada, South Africa and many other countries. Many Portuguese are perfectly comfortable navigating between English, Portuguese and Spanish. And they know all the Brazilian gíria (slang) too!

10. Ethiopia

You will hear English spoken in the streets of Addis Ababa

You will hear English spoken often in the streets of Addis Ababa

Ethiopia is remarkably the only country in Africa to have remained sovereign during the European colonisation of the 19th century. However, English is used as a medium of instruction in schools and is commonly spoken around the country. This is most probably simply out of necessity. The country is a myriad of ethnicities, faiths, and languages. So the easiest solution is to use a language that can be used as a lingua franca by all, which also happens to be recognised as an official language by many other countries in the region. Like other developing nations though, the level of English is inevitably linked to socioeconomic class.

So this is, in a nutshell, our top ten. How about where you live? What languages do people speak? Do you learn English at school? And what do you think of "lazy" native English speakers? Let us know.


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