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Posted by
3588 posts

By the way: "European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker joked that while everyone understood English, no one understood England." (October 2019).

I have found that the Dutch speak English incredibly well, sometimes with barely an accent closely followed by the Nordic countries, so yes, the table tallies with my experience.

But surely the Welsh, Scottish and Irish should be in the table as all have their own dialect in addition to English. Oh, and I know the Cornish can be a bit rebellious but they're still English.

Posted by
747 posts

England, indeed the UK, is part of Europe.
The citizens of England are the best speakers of English.

Posted by
8645 posts

By definition, the English. English is the language spoken by the population of England, so it is a circular question.

Old joke: how can you tell the difference between a Dutch person speaking English, and an English person?
Answer: The Dutch person makes fewer grammatical mistakes.

Posted by
2454 posts

Don't underestimate the younger generation in Poland. Their pronunciation is excellent.
Don't underestimate almost everybody in Slovenia, even the old men at the railway station in Nova Gorica.

Posted by
3588 posts

Does "Cornish" mean Cornwall?

Yes. They have their own language called Kernowek, an old Celtic dialect. Some even make mutterings about independence but I'm not sure they've truly thought it through.

Posted by
1456 posts

Not surprised Spain/Italy are at the bottom...

Posted by
1684 posts

"It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him," George Bernard Shaw.

Posted by
5661 posts

Interesting report, but no one should underestimate the prominent self-selection bias in the study in terms of age, education level, internet access, and motivation to study English in the first place. See Page 44 of report. It's not surprising that, if you want to find someone in any European country to help translate, it's most likely to be a young (educated) person who is also motivated to practice his/her English skills.

Excerpts:
"The test-taking population represented in this Index is self-selected and not guaranteed to be representative. Only those who want to learn English or are curious about their English skills will participate in one of these tests. This could skew scores lower or higher than those of the general population....The EF SET is free and online, so anyone with an Internet connection can participate. Almost all of our test takers are working adults or young adults finishing their studies. People without Internet access would be automatically excluded."

"For the first time, we find that adults aged 26-30 have the strongest English skills. This finding reflects the growing prominence of English instruction in university education around the world."

Posted by
11533 posts

Of the non-English speaking people in Europe, the Dutch are hands-down the best language people. It may be because of their long history as traders? Most people on the street in the Netherlands seem to be able to converse comfortably in any of a handful of languages. I've always been impressed.

In southern Germany, most younger people do well in English. Many older people and many in northern Germany aren't as practiced.

Posted by
5602 posts

I think native Welsh speakers should probably come top of this list being properly fluent in both Welsh and English. But I guess they aren't likely to do an online survey like this and are properly bilingual.

People who speak English fluently as a second language can fall down when it comes to the more "creative" aspects of the language.

I was presenting to an international audience and described a point as "wishy washy". Lots of bemused laughter in the room. No one from around 15 other countries had ever heard it before. It didn't help when I tried to explain it by using the phrase "airy fairy". This led to a total break down in proceedings! Cue lots of senior police officers forcing both phrases into their presentations for the rest of the week, not necessarily accurately.

Posted by
1147 posts

One explanation I've heard for the good and somewhat American-accented English of the Dutch is that the government there requires that foreign language television be subtitled rather than dubbed. So at this point, you have a couple generations of people who spend a good amount of leisure time growing up watching and listening to undubbed Friends, Lan & Order and Beverly Hills 90210 reruns. (Beverly Hills 90210 gets a mention due to the surprising popularity of Dylan as a name for millennial Benelux and French boys and my suspicion of where that came from)

Posted by
426 posts

Emma, that’s hysterical! Reminds me of a conversation my mom and I just had with a friend from Columbia. Trying to explain how she had been up against some difficult challenges lately, she told us “she had been through the washing machine.” We figured out later that she meant to use the phrase “she had been through the wringer”! 🤣 One of the reasons I teach English as a second language is because I love the nuances of language so much! 😀

Posted by
30675 posts

I don't know about all the countries in this survey, but in my travels I've found that the Dutch are absolutely the most proficient in English. I had an interesting conversation with a Dutch family who were travelling in Italy, and I asked them about their language skills. I can't remember all the details of the conversation but I vaguely recall that students in high school are required to learn English and one other language by the time they graduate. There's an interesting Wikipedia page on the subject - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_in_the_Netherlands .

I'm surprised that Italy is at the bottom of the list as I've had few problems communicating with people there, at least those in the tourist industry.

Posted by
2773 posts

So with their Dutch/British history, perhaps South Africans could get the award? In Zermatt, Switzerland one night, and encountered a couple, who spoke English. He mentioned, “we’re South African, of course.” From their accent, word choice, or any other factor, I had no idea. I don’t suspect they were Afrikaners, and they didn’t seem to be from the southern USA, but I wouldn’t have known how to pick them as South African.

So who speaks the best Icelandic? And best Tuareg?

Posted by
3624 posts

I understand that China has required all students to study English for several years. Also, English is one of the official languages in the Philippines and students are taught English starting in elementary school. Also, we visited India and were told that about 1/6 of the population has English as their first language.

Posted by
698 posts

People who speak English fluently as a second language can fall down
when it comes to the more "creative" aspects of the language.

It can be exactly the same for native speakers when they go to another English speaking country. Americans in particular have great difficulty following relative time which Irish people use as a matter of course. When did you start that task? "Friday fortnight" and when will you be finished "Thursday two weeks".... and so on.

Posted by
843 posts

The Dutch for sure, but any individual I've encountered from a Scandinavian country not only speak grammatically beautiful English, but their accents are so subtle. Germans are also impressive with their grasp of the English language.

Posted by
2773 posts

OK, Jim, I’ll bite . . . Is ”Friday fortnight” 2 weeks prior to last Friday? And is “Thursday two weeks” a fortnight from the nearest Thursday? Or maybe Thursday of next week? Since a fortnight is two weeks’ time, it would almost seem as if Friday fortnight would mean two weeks from Friday, and Thursday two weeks would be 2 weeks from Thursday, and so in your example, the job would’ve been finished the day before it was started!

I’ve no Irish or Nederlanders nearby to ask, but I’ll ask someone English in the morning to get their take. And wouldn’t it just be clearer to say, “I started the job 9 days ago, and will be finished in 3 days from now?”

Posted by
540 posts

UK has too many dialects, rendering many incomprehensible to Americans.

The Latin languages try, but they are cursed with accent problems inherent in Romance languages. On the other hand, the

Indo-?? family-- German, English, central EU & some Scandinavian pre-wire an ability to learn English with only a slight, easily understood accent.

WWII taught the Dutch to hate Germans and love Americans. Ergo, really good English which they are delighted to use with Americans.

WWII taught the Austrians to hate Russians, and the cold war made Americans an attractive alternative so, as soon as Soviet occupied Austria got some local control, one of the first things they did was to make English a required course in school. For decades, Radio Blue Danube was state run all English language radio station covering the whole country and much of S Germany. Today, the large immigrant population isn't to conversant in English, but the natives are really good at it.

More Russians speak English than they let on. Many years a go

Posted by
3588 posts

WWII taught the Dutch to hate Germans and love Americans. Ergo, really good English which they are delighted to use with Americans.

I really don't think WWII has anything to do with the Dutch command of the English language!

The Dutch have been an exploring and trading nation for centuries, much of trading meant speaking English.

There's also the fact, as mentioned, that English speaking TV programmes and films are subtitled rather than dubbed therefore exposing children to English from an early age.

Finally, there's the similarity in the roots of both languages which makes it easier to learn. It's fairly easy to understand what "Dat is goed nieuws" translates to.

Posted by
975 posts

I was presenting to an international audience and described a point as
"wishy washy".

I work for a US company and have worked on projects in UK (London and Leicester) plus attended a lot of internal education and taught a few courses myself.

One of my experiences is that some US and some UK people seem to think that since their first language is English they don't have to think about what they say, so they include slang and local idioms which are not widely known internationally. I think a presenter to an international audience has an obligation to speak in a "standard" English and refrain from using local idioms.

I understand "wishy washy", but "Friday fortnight" left me baffled. Is it

  • 2 weeks before last Friday?
  • 2 weeks before next Friday?
  • 2 weeks after next Friday?
Posted by
5602 posts

To me as a native English speaker “wish washy” in the context it was being used was “standard”. I wasn’t using it to be clever or out of laziness, it was relevant to the point I was making. As soon as I realised it wasn’t clear to the audience I clarified my point, as I would do to any audience.
I work internationally a lot and I do try and ensure that what I am saying is clear to none native speakers but it’s not always as easy as you would think. Consciously having to “think” about what you are saying in a language where you don’t normally have to “think” about it can be hard especially when doing it for long periods of time. Also saying use “standard English” doesn’t really help because to a native English speak, excluding obvious slang and dialect terms, everything is “standard”! I didn’t learn the language from textbooks in a classroom so how do I know what is “standard”?

Working with people whose English is very good, such as the Dutch, there is also the concern that if you simplify your language down too much it can come across as a bit patronising as well as really stilting a conversation. Add a range of language abilities into the mix and it becomes even harder.

I don’t think the fact that the Dutch speak good English as much if anything to do with a hatred of the Germans. Maybe 60 years ago? Certainly not today, and it was always more about hating the Nazis than the German population. The history of our two countries has been linked for centuries. More so in the past than today. We had a Dutch king under the reign of William and Mary in the 17th century. The people who sailed on the Mayflower spent a number of years living in Leiden.

I don’t think the U.K. has that many strong dialects any more. Many have almost died out, just leaving the odd regional word or phrase hanging around. What the U.K. does have is a lot of strong regional accents that many visitors struggle with.

You “should” be able to understand Friday fortnight from the context of the rest of the conversation. I say should..... I would interpret it as 2 weeks on from next Friday, but I wouldn’t be 100% sure

Posted by
2773 posts

First trip to England, back in the ‘70’s, I had the telly - T.V., television, or boob tube, depending on whose slang or standardization you’re using - and there was a talk or variety show which featured a man who could duplicate all the regional accents or dialects from around the country. The show indicated there were 27 or 46 or some number of apparently officially recognized varieties. He gave 4 or 5 or 6 examples, to rave applause from the studio audience. Silly me, but I think that with each variety, I recall just thinking, gee, he just sounds English. I realize now there are still some regional varieties, some subtle, but today I really can’t tell whether someone’s from a specific part of England.

I’m in soggy Cheltenham today, and will venture out and ask one or more people about the fortnight and 2 week day references. Maybe that’s an Irish thing, and Jim’s relocated from there to Switzerland. Speaking of the Swiss, and I was in Zurich and Geneva last month, not everybody there seems to be fluent in English. A place as affluent as Zurich doesn’t need to speak English - lol.

Posted by
5602 posts

Cyn, firstly and most importantly a “boob tube” most definitely isn’t a TV in the U.K. Just be careful if you choose to google it! :-)

I’m interested that you say that you can’t really tell the difference between British regional accents because there are some really strong differences, definitely not subtle, especially in the North of the country.
I doubt you will here a strong accent from the population of Cheltenham but go out into the Gloucestershire countryside or towards Bristol you definitely will.

I wonder if people ears just aren’t tuned into accents from other countries. I have never understood how so many Americans can’t tell the difference between a British speaker and an Australian speaker. This might explain the awful attempts at “British” accents you often hear on US television, the sitcom Frasier being a particularly good example!:-) And yes I am sure we are just as bad at US accents

Posted by
1147 posts

Sometimes the differences in regional accents are subtle enough it takes hearing a lot of them in everyday use to pick up on them. I grew up in Michigan and the tv show 'Due South' drove me nuts because the show always kept trying to pass off an Ontario accent (the show was filmed in Toronto) for a Chicago accent.

Posted by
159 posts

The Swedes are close...but the Dutch are the hands down winner in the EU. Their English is so good that moving there as an English only speaker would be really easy.

Posted by
159 posts

I would also like to see the same poll taking out people 30 years old and younger. I think growing up in the Internet age gives them a huge advantage.

Posted by
540 posts

Note to JC of Portsmouth:

Late 20th C globalism is a radical change in international trade. The Dutch and English now trade, but not so much fo0 a millennium before. For most of trading history, UK and Holland were hostile competitors for control of trade with other nations. Historically. there were strong tariffs on Dutch-UK trade (see mercantilism). Smuggling tea was the primary Dutch to UK trade route. The two nations fought wars over trade. They hated each other. In 1774, the Brits blockaded a Dutch port because the Brits thought there was ship there loaded with guns for America. For centuries, it was a cold day in hell before the Dutch would stoop to learning English. French was the international language, not English. 3 historic events made English the lingua franca (Latin for 'French'; lit., 'language of the Franks' ) of the world. 1] the emergence of USA as the world's dominate economy in the 19th C, 2] WWII, & 3] the decision of international air travel to make English the language used by controllers to communicate with pilots. And why was that? Because USA dominated international air travel after UK's BA Comets started exploding.

As for the existence of some common phrases in Dutch & English, so what? That is the case for almost all European languages. I can't remember why I did this, but I once asked a colleague proficient in Italian to write a paragraph in Italian that would be perfectly understandable to an English speaker. He had no trouble doing it, and not just a sentence, a whole paragraph. A paragraph on the role of written constitutions in government.

After the Normandy invasion, the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, assigned the ever incompetent British Field Marshall Montgomery the task of liberating Belgium & Holland. After months of failure by the UK Army, the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, reinforced the incompetent British Army with Canadian and Polish Armies and some Americans. The Canadians led the liberation of Holland. Regardless of exactly who did what,. everybody in the world know that the Red Army and the US Army defeated Hitler. The Dutch knew that too. That's one reason why post WWII Dutch loved Americans and their language. Also, among the Nazi occupied nations, Holland suffered the worst under Hitler, and after the war, it was American aid-- food, food, & food, etc that was critical in saving the Dutch.

No doubt recent Dutch generations do not share the same love of Americans of the survivors of WWII and their kids, but when we first traveled in Holland (about 1974), the love of the Dutch for Americans was embarrassing. Once the natives knew we were American, they went out of their way to befriend us. Did we want wooden shoes (no)? The souvenir seller offered to give us a token pair (still no).

It is also inconsistent that JC has no objection to my pointing out that Austria adopted English because of WW II but Portsmouth objects to the same for Holland. And since JC thinks that a few comprehensible words in another language (Dutch) proves a point, here is some German: bier, auto, bank, wein, bratwurst, butter, tee, steak, gulasch, fondue, sauerkraut.

Posted by
10115 posts

My experience has been the same as that stated in the article/survey linked in the OP's post, that it's "Dutch" speakers. One reason may be that persons born in The Netherlands (and Belgium) often hear American English spoken at a surprisingly early age. BTW, by Dutch, I mean those persons living in the Dutch areas of The Netherlands, and I would also add in Belgium. Especially those locals working in the tourist service industry (who are the only ones with whom I have had experience speaking with).

What I notice the most is that they have a surprisingly good "American" accent. When I asked an Amsterdam waiter about this, he explained that most locals hear American English on TV from a surprisingly early age, maybe about the same time they are acquiring their native language; he explained that, because the media networks in those countries were/are considered too small to make dubbing foreign programs economical, many of the locals, from a very early age (in infancy, hearing it on TV) start hearing American spoken--because American TV programs were/are popular and the American English was not dubbed into the local language, unlike the larger countries like France, Germany, etc.

The waiter's explanation made sense to me because I've read that the brain is wired for maximum language acquisition at a very early age, which is how people learn their own language. I've also read that people who starting hearing or learning a language (I mean not their native language) at an early age (say in infancy from TV) tend to speak that foreign language with less of an "accent", perhaps none at all--whereas people in those countries who start learning a foreign language in school (say maybe after age 7 or so) will tend to speak the foreign language with an accent that is noticeable to native speakers of that language. My experience with virtually every tourist service industry person in the Netherlands and Belgium has been that, if you didn't know it, you would think (say, if you were speaking on the phone) that you're speaking with a native American speaker.

Posted by
5602 posts

Reading Kb1942’s post I really do wonder about what they teach in US schools.....

Posted by
3588 posts

Thank you Kb1942 but I'll take my history lessons from someone more competent.

You've lost me with the Austria/Portsmouth/Holland thing and as for thinking that someone keen to flog a pair of tourist tat clogs to a gullible American is evidence of a profound love of Americans then I'm afraid that comes across as very naive.

Posted by
3588 posts

And since JC thinks that a few comprehensible words in another language (Dutch) proves a point, here is some German: bier, auto, bank, wein, bratwurst, butter, tee, steak, gulasch, fondue, sauerkraut.

The point I was making was in agreement with you??!!!?? Insofar as the Indo-European link, specifically the Germanic branch, which shares similarities between the Celtic, Nordic and Germanic languages and therefore was the reason for posting the brief phrase in Dutch (we were specifically discussing the Dutch) to highlight the similarities in English. What you've posted in German is missing the point, bratwurst is similar to........sausage in English? And sauerkraut is similar to what? Fondue is fondue wherever you go and whatever language you speak. You've simply listed a selection of German words but I'm lost as to the point you're trying to illustrate, other than bank, butter, tee and steak.

Posted by
2570 posts

The Swedes are close...but the Dutch are the hands down winner in the EU.

I wouldn't disagree with that, although I have limited exposure to the Netherlands. But my wife's entire family (except her), were born in Sweden, and everyone in her family that I've met speaks perfect English. Our niece married a Swede a few years ago, and when I first met him, at dinner our house in Maine, about 15 years ago, it seemed that he didn't speak English. But I think it was just that he was a little intimidated by the number of people at dinner. Next time I met him he seemed close to fluent, and now he's as fluent in English as anyone I know.

As to the Netherlands, I either read, or a Dutch person told me, that a major reason that the Dutch speak English so well is that they're such a small country and in no other country do the people speak Dutch, so they have to learn another language, and English is almost universal.

Posted by
2049 posts

Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia. In many of these countries, students begin learning English in 1st grade. We recently skyped with a man in Northern Macedonia at 2:30 in the AM, his time. Our group felt that at 2:30 AM, we wouldn't speak English as well as he did. He even used the term "paradigm shifts".

Posted by
11355 posts

They do not even mention Slovenia, which in my personal experience ranks just after the Scandinavian countries and above Austria in English proficiency.

Posted by
11995 posts

I am basing my answer to this on two factors in Europe: 1. the best and most pervasive English speakers outside of the UK and 2. what I've personally seen , witnessed, observed, etc over the course of 25 trips in 48 years.

My vote goes to the Dutch who speak the best English and most pervasively, plus one gets the feeling , though totally subjective, that they like or at least do mind not speaking English, which cannot be asserted for other European nationalities, not to the same extent.

The other question is, which nationality in Europe, generally speaking, ( it's generalisations, isn't it?) does not like speaking English, even it is taught or required in secondary school for those on the university track.

William of Orange and Queen Mary, both Protestant, and therefore acceptable to Parliament in 1688.

Posted by
1028 posts

The Dutch I've met can easily pass as native, idiomatic speakers of American English.

So the Dutch hands down in my experience.

Posted by
571 posts

My experience is that most of Europe is much more interested in speaking American than English.

Posted by
3588 posts

My experience is that most of Europe is much more interested in speaking American than English.

What do you mean? Are you suggesting that there's an option in school to learn American or English English? English is taught, the fact that many European speakers speak with an American twang is often a result of their own accent but also what they've picked up from film and TV from the US.

I'm pretty sure that most Europeans are happy to be competent enough in English without paying much thought into whether it's American or English.

Posted by
5147 posts

We found The Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries had the most English spoken. They even used colloquialisms, joked with us. One who stood out doing that was a Stockholm bus driver.

Posted by
15444 posts

There was a link to an interesting explanatory article about the situation in Spain in the article Carlos posted:

https://elpais.com/elpais/2018/12/17/inenglish/1545052143_282469.html?rel=mas

It sounds as if a shortage of qualified teachers in Spain is a significant issue. I haven't been to every country in Europe, but I've been to many in the last 4-1/2 years, and Spain stands out as a country where you are likely to encounter some very awkwardly-worded (though admittedly still understandable) permanent English-language signage in places where one would expect near perfection, such as museums. It's clear that there are some not-well-qualified people doing translations.

I wonder whether the existence of at least three widely-used regional languages (Catalan, Basque and Gallego/Galician) is a factor. Many people living in Spain are in a position of benefitting greatly from being fluent in one of those languages as well as Spanish/Castilian. When traveling across northern Spain, I found more restaurants with no English on the menu because (I assume) space is needed for both the local language and Spanish. I haven't been to Belgium, so I don't know whether something similar happens there with French/Flemish.

Posted by
798 posts

The Dutch, even back in the early seventies.

Of those where the official language is English, the Scots by far have the nicest accent, followed by those who live in Mansfield and Bridgnorth..

Posted by
11995 posts

"...even in the early seventies." True, my experience too in 1971 when encountering the Dutch in Holland or in the hostels in Germany .