What Makes Some Countries “Better At” English?

A foreigner was lost in (non-English speaking city name here) and stopped two policemen for directions. She asked in English but they didn’t speak English. She switched to Spanish, also with no luck. She tried three more languages she knew, but in the end left with directions.

“Maybe it’s time we learned a foreign language,” said the first policeman to the second. “What for?” came the reply, “She spoke five and look how much good it did her!”

I think one factor of the collective “language ability” of a country is the popularity of its own language and the size of its economy. People whose languages are widely spoken don’t really “need” to excel at another language, and people who can relatively easily find lots of job opportunities in their own country may also not feel that pressure. This provides a convincing explanation for the linguistic prowess – or lack of it – of native English speakers. Conversely, people who speak less common languages are often essentially forced to learn another language – or two or three – if they want to get anywhere.

Germans may expect tourists to speak some German, but Czechs expect to hear their own language much less often.

I also think that having television and movies in their original language, which is often of course English, helps a lot too. Viewers still generally see subtitles in their own language, but they get lots of passive listening practice in English compared to people in countries where television and films are dubbed; it isn’t something strange to hear English.

Finally, I think the nature of the native language is important – in part, it is logical that a language that is similar to English will have speakers who find it easier to learn English. I know a native Chinese speaker who is teaching her language, and in over a year of classes, she said she has yet to deal specifically with “grammar” – I don’t know much about Chinese at all, but it’s bits and pieces like this that make me appreciate just how difficult it must be for speakers of such different languages to learn English – they don’t just have to deal with the intricacies of English grammar, but with grammar as a concept
It may also make sense though that speakers of “more difficult” languages – or maybe those who have mastered “more difficult” ones as second languages – will have an easier time learning English.

How do you think the English of the country you teach in fits these points?