The past decade has seen a surge of foreign investment in infrastructure and business projects in Africa. Better English would strengthen these international collaborations.
While European colonial powers, in particular France, have long maintained close relationships with African countries, it is China that has driven the most recent wave of foreign investment in the continent. Today, Africa is buzzing with large infrastructure projects, trade deals, and new business ventures. More than 320 new embassies and consulates opened in Africa between 2010 and 2016. But past scrambles for the continent’s wealth, marked by violence and colonial oppression, cast a long shadow. Better English proficiency would help foreign investors and their African partners to deliver more transparent contracts and smoother cooperation.
In this year’s Index, there is a yawning proficiency gap between Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa – which all fall in the upper portion of the Index, and which have three of the largest economies in Africa – and the other ten countries surveyed. Unfortunately, we only have enough data to include 13 countries in Africa in this year’s Index. That is more than ever before, but it is still too few to get a clear picture of the continent as a whole. There may, in fact, be a wide gap between high and low proficiency countries, or it may be that there is more of a spectrum of skill levels than this data indicates. We can only encourage more African adults to test their English so that future editions will be more complete.
Inequality is endemic across Africa. In cities, it is common to see skyscrapers surrounded by slums. The gap between urban and rural standards of living is often equally jarring. There are structural and historical reasons for these inequalities, and rapid population growth and urbanization are aggravating the problem. The UN projects that the population of Africa will double in the next 35 years. The continent is home to 21 of the world’s 30 fastest growing urban areas. African education systems are largely unprepared to train so many young people, raising the possibility that vast numbers of poorly educated young adults will struggle to find economic opportunities while migratory pressures on Europe remain high.
Proficiency: Very high
EF EPI score: 65,38
EF EPI score: 60,51
EF EPI score: 58,26
Colonial history has linked European languages with high social status in the minds of many Africans. As a result, local school systems often prioritize teaching in English or French, rather than local languages.
It is time to end that practice. A robust body of research shows that children who are not taught to read and write in their native language are at a permanent disadvantage, yet nearly every sub-Saharan African country uses a colonial language as the language of instruction in its education system, with the exception of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Tanzania. A recent study of 12 schools in Cameroon that switched from teaching in English to teaching in Kom, the children’s native language, found that after five years Kom-medium children performed better in all subjects, including English. Kenya introduced daily Kiswahili lessons in primary schools this year, although the bulk of instruction remains in English.
Because many African countries have diverse linguistic landscapes, switching to native-language instruction requires significant investments in curriculum development, but ensuring that all children are literate in their mother tongue is well worth the money. There are advantages to speaking an international language such as English or French as well, and in regions with several commonly spoken languages, either of these international languages may serve as a bridge between communities as well as a link to the wider world. The challenge of deciding which language to teach in mixed-language communities is significant, but the educational advantages of several years of native-language education for every child make overcoming those challenges worthwhile.
Adults in North Africa speak English at levels similar to their peers in the Middle East. Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia have complex linguistic landscapes, with local dialects of Arabic, Berber, French, and Modern Standard Arabic all serving various roles in private life, the education system, and the public sphere. English is a relative newcomer to the mix, but it is increasingly valued, particularly for its neutrality and business potential. Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia have all experienced modest improvements in English proficiency since last year, although they will need to invest more in English education if they are to prepare their young workforces for entrepreneurship in internationally competitive markets.
More openness and exchange would benefit North Africa considerably, both economically and socially. A quarter of young men in the region are unemployed, and it remains one of the lowest-performing regions in the world in terms of gender equality. Only 26% of women find work outside the home, and those who do are paid 30-50% less than their male counterparts. These gender roles, combined with media-fed fears of terrorism and the lack of English skills, contribute to the “othering” of North Africans, cutting them off from the economic opportunities they so desperately seek.
Women’s average English proficiency is better than men’s in Africa, although the gender gap has shrunk since last year. Women outscored men in every African country except Egypt and South Africa, and in those two countries the gender gaps are extremely narrow.
Young adults in Africa have the best English proficiency, with a significant gap between adults under 30 and older adults. On such a young continent, this is promising news. As in other regions, it is not the youngest adults who speak the best English, but those in their twenties. These young adults have had the opportunity to use English in university or at work. The impact of actually putting one’s English to good use is clear – English improves with practice.