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July 2014

Discovering the places in the world where English barely exists

The English language is one of the most widely spoken and studied languages in the world. Its predominance can be linked to colonial Britain, back when the British Empire spanned much of the globe, spreading its influence (for better or worse) across the world. Today, English is a universal language, used extensively in trade and politics, and it is taught often in schools within countries where English is not the official language.

While it is not difficult to identify the countries with the most English speakers by population percentage, seldom are mentioned the places where English is relatively unspoken. Today we’ll take a look at five countries where the English language barely exists by percentage of total population.

Countries that speak English the best

A study cited by the Economist concluded that wealthy countries, especially those that speak a language relatively unused worldwide, are the most adept at speaking English. Scandinavians are historically good English speakers (Swedish is seldom used outside of Sweden), while those living in Spain are generally less fluent (Spanish is ubiquitous around the world). Countries that export more are better at English (Malaysia is the best performer in Asia), perhaps because they more often need to deal with foreigners.

The top performers mentioned in the study were Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Finland. At the bottom were Panama, Colombia, Thailand, Turkey and Kazakhstan. Latin America, as a region, did the worst in terms of fluency. The study measured two million people worldwide who took a uniform English exam, however the lack of statistical control only means the results are general.

Countries in which the English language is least spoken by percentage of the population

The following data comes according from Wikipedia and thus may be imprecise or dated. Still, the data gives a good general view of how the English language exists in the following countries as just a small percentage.

Only 0.05% of the total population of Guadeloupe, an island in the Caribbean, speaks English. Of its 408,000 citizens, only 200 are English speakers. Part of France, the official language is French, though many speak a more indigenous language known as Antillean Creole.

Also in the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic hosts 15,000 English speakers of its 9.76 million inhabitants. That’s a mere 0.15% of its population. Spanish is the official language in the Dominican Republic, followed by French. The growth of tourism, a large part of the country’s draw, is a strong factor in the potential increase in English speakers.

Ethiopia's 78.25 million residents collectively speak up to 90 languages, and English is only spoken by 0.22% of them (171,712 people). Top spoken languages are Afro-Asiatic languages like Oromo (33.8% of the population), Amharis (29.3%), Somali (6.25%), Tigrinya (5.86%) and Sidamo (4.04%).

Honduras, in Central America, hosts around 7.10 million people, of which 31,500 are English speakers (0.44%). Spanish is the official language, though English, Garifuna, Miskito and several other indigenous languages are recognized regionally.

Finally, China rounds off this list with its 10 million English speakers. While that number is significantly higher than the number of English speakers in most countries in the world, it’s still a proportionally small number when pitted against the country's population of 1.2 billion residents. English is spoken by 0.73% of those residing within China, a small percentage of a very grand total. And while many of those living in China’s big cities are adept at English, there are plenty living in the countryside who haven’t learned a single word.

Have you been to a country that speaks very little English? Were you able to communicate in your native tongue? Let us know on Facebook and be sure to “like” TELC English for more articles on language learning and culture.