Danes the ‘worst’ English speakers in Scandinavia (but still among world’s best)

Danes are still among the world’s best non-native speakers of English but a new international ranking shows that they’ve been surpassed by their fellow Scandinavians.

Danes the 'worst' English speakers in Scandinavia (but still among world's best)
Photo: Martin Heiberg/Copenhagen Media Center
The newest edition of the annual English Proficiency Index (EPI) from global language training company Education First (EF) ranked Denmark fifth out of 88 countries that don't have English as a national language. 
This year’s index was topped by Sweden, which overtook last year's winner, the Netherlands. Singapore was third, followed by Norway. 
Even though Danes are now seen as the worst English speakers of the three Scandinavian nations, that hardly means their English skills aren’t good. In addition to remaining in the global top five, Denmark is still one of just 12 countries to earn the 'very high' proficiency distinction. Of those, all but two – Singapore and South Africa – are in Europe. 
'Very high' proficiency was defined by EF as the ability to carry out complex, nuanced tasks in English, such as negotiating a contract with a native English-speaker, reading advanced texts with ease, and using nuanced and appropriate language in social situations.
The EF report noted that “Denmark is the only European country to have experienced a significant decline,” while eight other European nations jumped into the “high proficiency” category. 
Denmark has never been ranked outside the top five in the eight years the survey has been published, although this was the first time since 2013 that it ranked fifth.  
Rico Carstensen of EF told broadcaster TV2 that he was surprised to see Danes fall down the list for the second year in a row. 
“We’ve been number one before, back in 2014, and that was something we could be very proud of so I would say it’s a bit of a surprise that we have dropped again this year because we see ourselves as some of the best [non-native English speakers] in the world and we have proven that before,” he said. 
The report is based on a comparison of English skills measured by testing 1.3 million people, who voluntarily applied to take the test, in 88 countries. The full EPI report can be read here


Why mastering English isn’t all good news for Danish workers and their companies

While learning English is clearly an advantage for Danish workers, mastering the language of Shakespeare isn't enough for companies that export to Germany.

Why mastering English isn't all good news for Danish workers and their companies
English language skills don’t cut it for Danish companies hoping to export to Germany. Photo: Maheshkumar Painam / Unsplash

The Danish business community is facing a major language problem – and it’s not with English.

According to Dansk Industri (DI), an organisation representing approximately 18,500 companies across Denmark, Danish companies are experiencing a shortage of employees with good German skills.

As more Danes opt to master English, fewer are mastering the German language than in the past. This is making it more difficult, DI said, to trade with companies in Germany. 

Although Danes are considered to be the best in the world at speaking English as a second language, DI Deputy Director Mette Fjord Sørensen said speaking English when doing business in Germany isn’t always an option.

“Germany is a big country and not everyone speaks English at a high level, so misunderstandings can occur that could have consequences for a business deal,” Sørensen told The Local. “Speaking in someone’s native tongue, in this case German, can have a positive effect.”

DI said that German skills are in “extremely high demand” in a wide range of professions, from trade graduates to engineers and craftsmen. 

“Our companies demand employees with dual competencies – for example the engineer or electrician who also knows German,” Sørensen said, adding that DI is worried as they see fewer and fewer students choose to study German. 

An analysis by SMV Denmark, an organisation representing small and medium-sized companies in Denmark, shows that the number of high school students graduating German at A-level fell from 11 percent in 2005 to less than 6 percent last year. Additionally, the number of students admitted to a higher German education last year was 30 percent lower than in 2010, according to Avisen Danmark

Sørensen thinks the long term solution is to expand German language studies within Denmark’s education system, but there are several solutions available in the meantime.

This includes language courses for working professionals, specific to the work they do. 

“German expats in Denmark could also play a vital role in the need for German language competence,” Sørensen said. “We have to dig into the possibilities expats can contribute.”