Which Countries Speak the Least English Around the World?

Millions of people around the world communicate in English. Interestingly, over a billion individuals learn the language per year. There’s no denying that it has become the most popular language today. Still, not everyone speaks it. Let’s find out which countries speak English the least.

Is English a Lingua Franca or a World Language?

Before answering that question, we should differentiate the two terms. A lingua franca is the common second language of two or more cultures that do not have the same mother tongue. For example, within the Roman Empire, two lingua francas (or linguae francae) were Latin and a variant of Old Greek. Sure, Romans and Greeks spoke them, but they were also spoken by Goths, Langobards, Etruscans, Macedonians, Moesians, Thracians, Dacians, etc.

A world language, on the other hand, is spoken internationally as a second language by a vast number of people. Throughout modern history, there have been several world languages that still have billions of speakers to this very day.

Which of the two is English, then? Well, strictly speaking, it’s both. There are plenty of African, Asian, and American countries where English is a lingua franca used between people of different ethnic backgrounds. But it’s most definitely a world language, considering there are so many nations where it holds an official status. It’s also the most used language online as well as the language with the most scientific publications in the early 21st century.

Which Countries Speak the Most English?

Even if we don’t count the UK, USA, Australia, Canada and other countries where it’s an official language, English is overwhelmingly present worldwide. For example, nearly every country in Europe, from France and Germany to Moldova and San Marino, has a massive number of proficient English speakers.

In 2017, World Atlas came out with a list of countries most (and least) proficient in English. Among the top ten countries on this list, only one, Singapore, is in Asia. The rest were either Central or West European with the Netherlands being at the very top.

This list is based on the results of the so-called English Proficiency Index survey. This survey is conducted by the Swedish company Education First or EF.

Since it’s just a survey and not proper full-scale research, it has its fair share of problems. For example, the adults who took this survey were mostly urban folk under the age of 50. As such, they do not represent the diverse population of their countries.

In addition, roughly 400 people per country took the survey, which is not a big enough sample for proper research. However, even with these limitations, trends began to emerge. European countries ranked higher, whereas Asian, African, and South American countries ranked lower on the list.

But who ranks the lowest? Well, EF has an updated list of countries from 2018. Let’s take a closer look at what they found.

Countries that Speak the Least English

We won’t move into the list just yet. It should be noted that the EF EPI 2018 wasn’t the only source we used. We did our own digging and took other factors into consideration. For that reason, our list might not fully coincide with that of EF.

With that out of the way, let’s begin.

1.   The Middle East

OK, the Middle East is not really a country. However, we’re only mentioning this region because the vast majority of the countries there are at the very bottom of the EF EPI rankings.

Whether it’s Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iraq (the lowest-ranked), Afghanistan, Jordan, or Syria, we will have extreme difficulty speaking English anywhere outside of their capitals. Even in countries with a huge tourist turnout, like the United Arab Emirates, tend to have this problem. A few exceptions do exist, like Qatar, which used to be an English protectorate at one point in history.

2.   Venezuela

As a country in political and social turmoil, Venezuela is not the best location to visit at the moment. Nevertheless, people who want to visit might want to learn Spanish. According to people who lived and worked in Venezuela, only the upper classes in the capital speak fluent English.

3.   China

China has over 300 million active learners of English right now. However, when it comes to people who speak passable English, that number, compared to the total population, is very low. Only 10 million Chinese citizens speak English fluently. For a country of 1.3 billion people, that’s barely a fraction.

4.   Brazil

Brazil did rank relatively high on the EF EPI survey. Still, according to its own polling, only 5% of people in the country can understand and actively speak English. Since Brazil is such a popular tourist destination, people who want to visit might have to learn Portuguese. Or, alternatively, they could stick to popular cities and places such as Rio or São Paulo.

5.   Japan

Yes, it is strange to see a country as popular and as wealthy as Japan on this list. However, according to local surveys, over 70% of adults between ages 20 and 49 cannot use proper English. Of this percentage, at least two-fifths stated that they didn’t understand a single word of the language.

Since Japan has a massive cultural influence among the young generations today, it’s a shame that only a fifth of the country actually speaks English.

6.   Russia

In 2002, only 7 million people spoke English in Russia. In a country of, at the time, 145 million people, that’s a rather low number. It’s also worth pointing out that the vast majority of these English speakers lived in Moscow or other Europe-based Russian cities.

Can We Visit These Countries Without Knowing Their Language?

If we have no time to learn a new language, but we want to visit a foreign country, we will need a language translator device. These devices are easy to use and even easier to find online. Merely google ‘pocket translator,’ ‘handheld translator,’ ‘one-way translation device,’ ‘two-way translation device,’ and so on.

These gadgets are real-time translation devices that we can take with us anywhere. Once we need to translate something, we press a button, and it translates our words into the target language. The device will do the same for the person we’re speaking to.

Sometimes, gadgets like these will use the Internet, but even if they don’t, we can use them without too many problems. Because of how versatile they are, they are a must-have for any long trip.