Beijing talks its way past Hong Kong in English proficiency, but Shanghai tops China rankings for sixth year in a row

Company behind survey of young, English-speaking Chinese professionals credits travel and international trade for Shanghai’s commanding position Growing middle class with aspirations to educate children overseas also plays big part in greater English use

Professionals in Shanghai and Beijing are more proficient in English than their Hong Kong counterparts, according to a global study of listening and reading skills in the language in countries where it is not a mother tongue. Shanghai was the best-performing Chinese city in the study for the sixth year in a row, while Beijing beat Hong Kong to second place for a third time, language training firm EF English First’s 2019 proficiency index showed on Wednesday. Beijing also made second place in 2014 and 2015. Overall English proficiency of young professional city dwellers in mainland China went from “low” to “moderate” for the first time as a result of more overseas travel, increased international trade and a flourishing demand for training, the company said.

The results of the annual study, which began in 2011, were based on the firm’s free online English assessment. In 2019, 2.3 million people at an average age of 23 from 100 countries and regions volunteered for the test, EF English First said. The results did not represent a country’s total population, only its “young, urban professionals who are interested in how their English is ranking”, Erin McClure, general manager of the company’s travel business unit, EF Travel Plus, said. In 2019’s Chinese rankings, Shanghai’s score was 56.64 out of 100, followed by Beijing, which hit 55.68. Hong Kong scored 55.63.

Across mainland China, which ranked 40th out of 100 countries, improvements over the past nine years were mostly reported in eastern coastal regions including Beijing, Tianjin and Shandong province, McClure said. Provinces that made “remarkable” progress included southwestern Sichuan and central Hubei, she said. Their improvement was “mainly driven by increasing international cooperation in information and technology and foreign investment”. Jean Liu, executive vice-president of the company’s China operation, said travel was behind mainlanders’ growing enthusiasm for English.

“As China’s economy grows, the demand for going out, not just to do business, but also to see sights and study, is surging,” she said. “Similarly, the number of foreigners visiting us is increasing, too. And language is such an important bridge.” Shanghai, the most cosmopolitan of mainland China’s cities, has had links to the West in terms of art, fashion, film and other industries for a very long time so its place as China’s leading city for English was no surprise, Liu said. As China’s biggest city, Shanghai had been paying attention to global talent in recent years, she said. In addition, a growing middle class there had invested heavily in English teaching for their children in preparation for overseas study.

China’s English training market is expected to be worth 220 billion yuan (US$32 billion) by 2020, up from 104 billion yuan in 2015, data from Beijing-based research firm Bosi Data Research Centre showed. Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands and its most populous city, scored highest on EF English First’s index with 71.35 out of 100. Stockholm, the Swedish capital, came second on 69.24, while Copenhagen – the capital of Denmark – scored 68.25.

Mandy Zuo, South China Morning Post Published: 7:51pm, 8 Jan, 2020