By Arabia Higher Ed Editorial Staff
The latest Education First English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) has found that most countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are in the lowest proficiency bands even though English is a compulsory school subject in all schools in the region.
The EF EPI study draws its conclusions from data collected via English tests available for free over the Internet. The test was developed by a global language training company. 950,000 adults took the tests in 2015 from 72 countries.
The study suggests that, despite the strong presence of English in the national curricula of MENA countries, and the number of hours and years that students spend in English language classes, levels of English are quite low. English is the first foreign language learned in most countries in the region, and is on the rise in Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia where it is becoming the second foreign language, following French.
The 31-40 year-old age group has the weakest English, which differs from the global trend. This difference is remarkable because adults over 40 most likely picked up their English skills outside schools, either from individual study initiatives or in the workplace.
According to the study, the overall level of proficiency is improving in only a few countries in the region but the average scores across all age groups are significantly below global averages.
The EF EPI study found that the MENA region includes six of the ten lowest-performing countries in the 2016 index, and is by far the world’s weakest region in English proficiency (EF EPI MENA Average: 44.92).
The EF EPI study results are not validated, and may not be reliable due to the lack of data regarding educational outcomes attainment in the MENA region and to the voluntary participation nature of the survey. However, they do agree with those from the 2011 GlobalEnglish Business English Index report which reveal that companies in the Middle East have the lowest-ranking average for Business English Competency (3.45 out of 10) in the contexts covered.
Even in contexts where universities in the region have shifted towards English as a medium of instruction such as Qatar or the UAE, neither the students nor most instructors appear to be ready for the rigors of academic coursework in English.
Arabic is the official language for teaching and learning in most public institutes of higher education in the MENA region while English is the language of choice in most private institutions that are growing in number.
Most universities in the region are increasing the level of competence in English. For example, English is required of all entrants into higher education institutions in Egypt, despite the lack of needs assessment and proficiency standards.
Universities are using English as the medium of instruction in some subjects and departments of English and translation have been expanded. Since the late 1990s, all university students, regardless of specialization, have been required to take courses in English communication skills.