Some of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations are the least proficient in English.
Moving to a new country can be daunting, especially if you don’t speak the language.
With English being the world’s most common second language, it’s often the de facto fallback while you’re still learning the local tongue.
So where in Europe will you be best understood – and in which countries do you need some local language proficiency from the get go?
Each year, global education company Education First (EF) pulls together the top (and bottom) countries when it comes to English speaking in its English Proficiency Index (EPI). Analysing the results of 2.2 million adults who took EF’s Standard English Tests in 2022, it gives each country a ranking out of 800 points.
Here’s how Europe fared in 2023.
Which European countries have the best English language skills?
As in 2022, the Netherlands once again took the top spot with 647 points, having the best second-language English skills both in Europe and of 113 countries globally.
But there are plenty of other places in Europe where you’re likely to be understood if you speak English.
Also among the top countries boasting ‘very high proficiency’ were Austria, which made it to 3rd place globally with 616 points. Nordic countries Denmark, Norway and Sweden dominated the next three spots, followed by Belgium, Portugal, Germany, Croatia and Greece.
European countries with a ‘high proficiency’ in English included Poland (13th globally), Finland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Estonia, Serbia, the Czech Republic and Switzerland (30th place).
France falls behind in English skills
Some of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations, however, only have ‘moderate proficiency’ in English.
France has dropped down the scale since 2021, when it sat in the ‘high proficiency’ category in 31st place globally. In 2022, it dropped to ‘moderate proficiency’ with 541 points, placing it 34th. This year, it has fallen to 43rd place globally and 34th in Europe, with 531 points – the lowest of all Northern European countries included in the study.
With 535 points, Italy and Spain also fell in the ‘moderate proficiency’ category, coming in joint 35th place globally, or 32nd and 33rd in Europe – similar to their 2022 positions.
They were beaten by Georgia and Belarus, in 32nd and 33rd place globally. Other European countries in the ‘moderate proficiency’ category include Moldova (35th), Albania, Russia, Ukraine and Armenia (48th).
Places where you might really struggle to be understood include Türkiye (66th) and Azerbaijan (83rd) – both of which fall in the ‘low proficiency’ category.
Despite Spain, Italy and France ranking lower than many European countries, English proficiency is high in their capital cities.
Europe’s English skills have slumped this year
EF has been monitoring trends since the publication of its first EPI in 2011.
Despite Europe dominating the top of the index, it found that the continent’s English skills have slumped this year, with a number of high and very high proficiency countries reporting slightly lower scores. Generally though, European countries show steady improvement in the longer term.
It also found that English proficiency has plummeted globally among 18-20 year olds since 2020, due to educational disruption during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Native English speakers fall far behind in second language skills
With the rise of AI, EF predicts that we may eventually innovate our way out of linguistic constraints. But for now, it recognises the significance of English as a global language in driving innovation, opportunities and cultural understanding.
This has notoriously led to complacency among native English speakers. According to European Commission data from 2018, only 32 per cent of 15-30 year olds in the UK said they could confidently read and write in two or more languages.
This pales in comparison to the 80 per cent average across EU Member States. In France, 79 per cent of respondents said they could read and write in two or more languages, in Spain 85 per cent and in Italy 90 per cent.
Looking to skill-up? Serbia, Portugal and Romania are some of the easiest countries to learn the language in Europe, according to a study by learning platform Preply.