Check the English Proficiency Index before going abroad

Saturday, November 24, 2012

An article here in Spanish on how Spain has marginally better English proficiency than France and Italy shows a link to the source behind the map it presents - a site called the English Proficiency Index (pdf link there) that shows the proficiency of a few dozen countries in relation to each other. Unfortunately it is not comprehensive and does not include countries like Hungary, Estonia, Mongolia, etc. But for the countries it does feature it is worth taking a look at.

The index is also useful in planning one's study abroad to learn a language. You can see for example that one is much more likely to run into a fluent English speaker in Malaysia than Indonesia, and for Germanic fans it's worth noting that though Dutch may be closer to English and easier to learn than German, in Germany it's somewhat easier to find people that either are not too proficient in English or prefer not to use it.

A high English proficiency in a country does not mean that it is not worth going to, but you will have to change your strategy. Trying to use Norwegian just in the shops and restaurants will not be so easy, but if you arrange things ahead of time you can make it work. In countries like this it is best to hang out with about three people, because one or two makes it more likely that English is the common language between everyone, four and five and above makes it likely the group of friends will get carried off in their own subjects and inside jokes and leave you in the dust. In countries like this it is also good to become informed about local issues and politics. There is always a lot of specialized vocabulary in any country that is not often translated into other languages and/or without a direct translation into English of the original name, such as Kristelig Folkeparti (actually the Christian Democratic Party, not a literal translation). Celebrity nicknames, scandals, jokes that only work in one language, whatever you can find that both interests you and is much easier to discuss in that language compared to English will serve well.

Of course, the easiest technique is simply this: once in a country, only use the language spoken there even if it's awkward at first. Unless the information you need to get is absolutely crucial, a good rule of thumb is that the person you're talking to most likely is not going to ever see you again, and if he does not approve of your not using English with him and can't handle a less-than-fluent conversation in his own language then you don't need to talk with him anyway. In the end you're doing him a favour: you are probably spending money you earned in your country in his, and strengthening his language at the same time by refusing to use anything besides it. Just make sure you have at least some skill in the language before you leave or the only conversations you will be capable of having will be little different than the first few chapters in a language textbook, and the likelihood of finding someone willing to participate in one will be very small indeed.

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